For two years now, ProPublica has been presenting an open call for story ideas, editing them, and transforming them into a full-blown project that can be published in two weeks.
The call is called Spec, and since April 2016, we’ve published over 50 of them in the form of features on their site. At times, these have had as much importance as all the investigative features we have published in the past three years. This week we’re celebrating Spec’s success by releasing our very first spec, which explores one of our founding principles.
It’s funny because Spec started out so different. One of its creators, Juan Enriquez, was hoping to create a program that would allow people with formal journalism training to develop ideas for feature stories. He immediately understood how similar Spec’s approach is to what the best investigative projects are: an open-ended call for information, informed by common journalistic rules.
He knew there would be a steep learning curve in taking a spec and turning it into a project, because when you’re the only firm that has read the final product, you may not be able to get what you need to know.
So Enriquez collaborated with Michael Holman, a certified design specialist at AECOM, a design firm.
“We wanted to build the feature that we’d expect to read from a story, with a plot and character. We wanted the reader to feel part of the story.”
They also wanted a feature that would have a hook: “A story about the rules of journalism.”
After three months of work, they created Spec’s first feature, an investigation into the value of New York City Police Department protection for Muslim communities.
Here’s how the story evolves: