One of the most crucial documents in modern political history— special counsel Robert Mueller’s report on the 2016 presidential election — was published by the Department of Justice last Thursday morning.
As reporters and editors in newsrooms around world frenzied over the lengthy document, analyzing and hot taking in near-real time, things got equally hectic for Philly-based nonprofit DocumentCloud, the makers of an open-source digital tool that helps journos upload and process documents.
Ahead of the document’s imminent release, it preemptively scaled up its servers five-fold, expecting an uptick in usage, but it was barely enough.
“[We] were still completely slammed with over 100 reporters uploading the 448-page [report] at the same time,” said the nonprofit’s lead developer, Dylan Freedman. “It’s amazing to see how much people desire just getting at the facts with the raw source documents, even when they’re incredibly dense.”
Born from a Knight Foundation News Challenge in 2009, DocumentCloud was cofounded by Scott Klein, Eric Umansky and New York Times alum Aron Pilhofer, who now holds the James B. Steele Chair in Journalism Innovation at Temple University.
Over a thousand news organizations have uploaded millions of documents to DocumentCloud, both for use in breaking news like the release of the Mueller Report, and longer collaborative investigations like the Panama Papers.
“I think it’s pretty incredible and highlights the need for something like DocumentCloud,” said Pilhofer. “When Scott, Eric and I decided to launch DocumentCloud a decade ago, we never in our wildest dreams imagined it would turn into the default platform for publishing documents. Heck, we weren’t even sure journalists would want to publish documents in this way given how competitive we can be.”
— DocumentCloud (@documentcloud) April 18, 2019
Despite the tool’s popularity, the nonprofit has historically battled to find sustainability. Last year, as part of its quest toward long-term permanence, DocumentCloud merged with Cambridge, Mass.-based MuckRock, makers of another journo helper tool that helps file and track public records requests.
The move, Pilhofer said, would put the two orgs in an ideal place to keep offering newsrooms efficiency tools.
How does it feel to see DocumentCloud embedded in more and more news sites? The former editor said it remains a pleasant surprise.
“It’s a little I guess how a parent might feel seeing their kid’s name in the paper,” Pilhofer said.-30-