The Documenting COVID-19 project, funded by a 2020-21 Magic Grant, has examined decision-making about the virus by state and local officials in the face of incomplete or uncertain information. Through thousands of Freedom of Information requests, the Documenting COVID-19 project has compiled more than 275 documents and datasets from nearly every U.S. state and territory. In the process, we have built a searchable public clearinghouse to share the records with newsrooms and the public and have collaborated with more than 30 newsrooms on 75 different accountability stories in 2020 and 2021. Several of our stories detailing classified outbreak and epidemiological data from Illinois, Kansas and North Carolina have resulted in statewide policy changes regarding the disclosure of public health data. Others have led to smaller, but no less meaningful, local reforms. For its work, the Documenting COVID-19 project has been the recipient of free speech awards from the First Amendment Coalition and the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information and grants and in-kind support from Columbia’s Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism, FRONTLINE PBS, National Geographic, the Los Angeles Press Club, USC Annenberg’s Center for Health Journalism and the Fund for Investigative Journalism. With our Impact Grant, we will build on this experience to explore the long-term financial sustainability and impact of public-records-focused journalism by working with newsroom partners on a broader range of news coverage and developing a new platform — called Documenting — for collaborative projects. By pooling resources and offering public records services to a broad array of partners, the Documentingproject aims to be fully sustainable with a small but full-time staff by the end of 2022.
Derek Kravitz, Adjunct Faculty and Research Scholar, Columbia Journalism School