This week marks a journalistic first for Montana as the Great Falls Tribune and investigative reporter John S. Adams unveil a new journalism software application named DocumentCloud. Using this software, Adams was able to put 383 pages of federal documents into a single file with the ability to find people, places and things wherever they appear and connect the dots between them. While it won't put a screeching halt to nefarious backroom deal-cutting, it should put all politicians, bureaucrats and lobbyists on notice that the days of hiding behind thick volumes of individual, unsearchable documents are over.
Adams, a former staff writer with the Independent who is now the capitol bureau chief for the Great Falls Tribune, learned about DocumentCloud at a recent Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Las Vegas, where he got to spend hours discussing its capabilities with investigative reporters from across the nation as well as the people who developed and continue to refine the software.
Once back in Montana, the opportunity to put his newfound knowledge to work appeared in the form of 229 documents comprising 383 pages from the Department of Interior discussing the potential for new national monument designation in the state. Such actions remain a hot-button political issue since, with just three days left in office, the Clinton administration used the Antiquities Act to designate some 377,000 acres of the Missouri Breaks as a national monument as well as other highly contentious areas across the West, including the Grand Staircase-Escalante in Utah.
To make a long story short, Montana's lone Congressman, Denny Rehberg, got wind of the issue when seven pages of documents were leaked to Republican Congressman Rob Bishop of Utah. The so-called "Monument Memo" concerned the Obama administration's "Treasured Landscapes Initiative," which details specifics on various areas of the West that may be particularly suited to preservation through designation as national monuments.
The initial leak led to a request from Republican House members to release all the documentation on the issue and Rehberg wasted no time in assailing the Obama administration for trying to pull a secret deal without consulting Montanans. Montana's junior senator, Jon Tester, immediately began to take heat over the issue and shot off a request to Interior Secretary Salazar to put what they called "the rumors" to rest. While Salazar pledged no national monuments would be designated while he was secretary without full public involvement, the "rumors" turned out to be considerably more than that.
Once Adams ran the unsearchable hard copies of the e-mails through a scanner and incorporated them into DocumentCloud, he used the correlation and search capabilities of the newly released software and found plenty of reasons to believe the "rumors" had substance. Maps, communications with the World Wildlife Fund, and even multi-million dollar appropriations for suggested land purchases in Montana and other Western states popped up, putting Salazar's denials in question and bringing forth calls for the release of all documents and e-mails related to the Treasured Landscapes Initiative.
Whether or not you think it would be a good idea to put some of Montana's high plains into national monument status has now been subsumed by political intrigue fired by Washington's highly charged partisan warfare in this mid-term election year. As charges and counter-charges continue to fly, thanks to DocumentCloud's online capabilities, readers can see for themselves just who wrote or said what to whom and when they did it.
As Adams put it on his Tribune blog this week: "Once the hundreds of pages of e-mails were uploaded to Document- Cloud...documents that were nothing more than a series of images [could be] translated into recognizable and searchable text. DocumentCloud also allows users to make annotations right in the document. In the past I would print an entire .pdf document just so I could highlight passages and make notes in the margins. DocumentCloud lets me do that digitally. I can search, highlight and annotate documents all in one easy-to-use online program. The best part is that when I'm ready to publish my story, I can share that document, including my annotations, with the reading public."
While there will undoubtedly be those who say this is no big deal, there are many others who will appreciate the ability to draw their own conclusions from source documents that previously were incredibly difficult to offer the public—especially as an adjunct to an investigative story.
There are probably thousands of commercial uses for the program, but it is currently only being offered in a beta format to select journalists and their publications. Luckily, a significant grant from the Knight News Challenge allowed the New York Times and ProPublica, a non-profit investigative journalism group, to work together and allow reporters free access to the software online, which will allow big and little media outlets equal footing (documentcloud.org).
In addition to its versatility as a tool, the program also lets reporters post their source documents for other reporters to access, search and use for their own research and writing. So far, more than 70 reporters and news organizations are involved in the initial testing of the software, with many more to come. In the end, it may well evolve into a national database of source documents that may not only change the way investigative journalists research, document and present their stories, but the way in which the public interacts with the media, giving readers a previously unavailable opportunity to go deep into the stories that pique their interest.
We've come a long way since the days when citizens and reporters had no choice but to wade through interminable piles of reports and papers. DocumentCloud gives us a powerful tool to circumvent creative politicos and bureaucrats who try to bury information in clunky, unsearchable formats—such as hard copies of e-mails. It's not often independent papers give kudos to the mainstream media, but in this case, Adams and the Trib deserve it for ushering in a new and exciting step for investigative reporting.
Helena's George Ochenski rattles the cage of the political establishment as a political analyst for the Independent. Contact Ochenski at firstname.lastname@example.org.