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How the Pulitzer Center measures impact globally and locally

By Impact Architects & The Pulitzer Center staff

May 26, 2022

“Tracking and measuring impact is critical to knowing if our model for change is working.”

Who We Are

The Pulitzer Center, founded in 2006, supports journalists to fill the gap in international and domestic reporting brought on by the changes to the legacy news business model and the resulting diminution of critical journalism. The goal is to raise awareness of systemic and underreported global issues through accurate, responsible, quality journalism across all media platforms. The Center provides direct support for in-depth reporting, and pairs it with an educational and public outreach program designed to engage all people, across the political spectrum and the divides of class, race, and religion. 

Every year the Pulitzer Center supports over 200 reporting projects worldwide in partnership with more than 300 news organizations, organizes more than 700 educational events in partnership with K-12 schools, universities, and graduate schools, and hosts events for the general public. While the Center is perhaps best known for the high-impact, award-winning reporting it supports, its educational initiatives are a key component of the organization’s work and central to how the Center deepens and extends the impact of its journalism. We describe these initiatives more fully below.  

Pulitzer prize-winning grantee Nadja Drost at the Pulitzer Center’s 15th anniversary dinner in New York, Dec. 9, 2021.

For an organization with a global staff of 46 and an operating revenue of roughly $8 million, the Pulitzer Center invests heavily in its impact strategy, measurement, and resources, with a full-time impact coordinator. The Pulitzer Center is not affiliated with the Pulitzer Prizes. 

While many organizations may not have the same time and capacity for impact measurement, the Pulitzer Center’s approach and mindset when it comes to impact is just as important as the tools and methods it implements.  In that sense, we hope what we describe will be useful to all organizations, regardless of their size.   

Defining Impact

Because the Pulitzer Center supports and runs a variety of initiatives across many intersecting issue areas, there is no one simple way to define and measure its impact. Instead, the Center works to understand how well it is delivering on its core mission to support and create journalism for the public good that can be accessed and engaged with by diverse audiences around the world and within the communities the Center’s grantees report on.

The Pulitzer Center has been working to measure and understand its impact for 15 years, and its approach to impact has changed over time. While it initially attempted to gather quantitative metrics or analytics to understand if someone has accessed and/or interacted with its reporting, the Center has moved toward more qualitative indicators of impact to measure how audiences and grantees themselves interact with content and deepen their engagement with issues reported on. This qualitative data is gathered through a variety of methods, including direct interaction with journalists and surveying and soliciting feedback at public events. 

The Pulitzer Center’s impact largely fits into three categories: 

1. Impact among journalists and journalism organizations supported by the Center.

2. Impact among audiences exposed to this reporting, whether through publications, educational programs, or Pulitzer Center events. 

3. Long-term social and political impact in response to reporting.

The Pulitzer Center also cares about longer-term, often intangible, impact in each category. For example, the Center hopes the journalism it supports generates empathy among audience members for communities that are less understood or whose voices are rarely heard. And beyond individual journalists’ career trajectories, it looks at how its support is building capacity and inspiring new beats in newsrooms, particularly in understaffed outlets that no longer have the capacity to carry out international or domestic enterprise journalism on their own. 

And perhaps most difficult to track or measure, the Center aims to create the conditions for critical reporting on underreported issues to gain attention in the long term.

To the Pulitzer Center, tracking and measuring impact is critical to knowing if its model for change is working. The investment the organization makes in impact measurement helps it answer questions like:

Measuring Impact: How it Works in Practice

So how does an organization with such a variety of projects and types of impact track its impact over time?

The Pulitzer Center tracks a variety of indicators, including the number and quality of engagement in projects it supports, as well as the type, reach, and number of story placements, the representation of journalists from diverse backgrounds, and the level of engagement by audiences and stakeholders with the journalism across online and offline platforms. But beyond these indicators, the organization tailors how it measures impact for  individual projects, particularly if those projects involve non-English-speaking audiences or cross-border reporting. 

One example of the Pulitzer Center’s holistic approach to impact is the Land-Grab Universities project. The Colorado-based High Country News, in partnership with the Pulitzer Center and the Fund for Investigative Journalism, spent two years tracking how almost 11 million acres of land was taken from nearly 250 Indigenous tribes, bands, and communities in order to help fund fledgling land-grant colleges.

A snapshot of the Land-Grab Universities website

In addition to providing funding for the reporting and investigations, the Pulitzer Center focused on supporting the work in ways that could amplify the impact of the project, even prior to publication. The Center gave High Country News the money to compensate its technologists to build the website,  including an  app for in-depth data explorations and visualizations. The organization also worked with the journalists to send the reporting, prior to publication, to Native reporters, education reporters, and academics. This allowed the work to move beyond the mobilization model of publication, triggering action and impact. Response to the work could happen in tandem with its publication, with 11 states running their own localized stories, and a swift academic response, including the publication of a full academic journal analyzing the data further. 

Institutions named in the reporting have made efforts toward making amends for the harms exposed by the project. Cornell University created a faculty advisory board to evaluate and address the issue. The Center for Justice and Community Engagement at the University of California, Berkeley hosted a series of truth and reconciliation-style discussions aimed at addressing the school’s legacy of Indigenous dispossession.  The university subsequently published a report supported by the campus’ Joseph A. Myers Center for Research on Native American Issues and the student-run Native American Student Development at Cal that frequently cited the Land-Grab Universities findings. In April 2022, the University of California followed through on several recommendations made by the report, including an announcement that the school system would ensure that in-state tuition and student service fees for California students from federally recognized Native American tribes would be fully covered by grants and scholarships.  Students across the country have also conducted their own writings and research on their universities’ role in Indigenous land exploitation in the wake of the High Country News investigation. 

In order to achieve this level of impact, the Pulitzer Center works to ensure its culture of tracking impact permeates the entire organization. It has become very clear that to do this properly, impact measurement has to be distributed across all teams and can’t be the responsibility of only one person. Both for ongoing impact and for project-specific impact tracking, the Center holds informal, but intentional meetings across different teams during which teams are asked: 

This way, the Center can build responsive and helpful surveys and other tools to track meaningful change. 

These conversations happened early on in the Land-Grab Universities project, with Pulitzer Center grantees articulating the desire for deeper conversations on land acknowledgments at colleges, and the potential to work with educational and outreach partners to cultivate awareness and understanding among the public. 

In the aftermath of a project, Pulitzer Center staff members administer automated, standardized surveys (using FormAssembly) to grantees every two, six, and 12 months after a project is launched in order to generate qualitative and quantitative metrics. The surveys are supplemented by informal communication between the Center’s editorial staff and the grantees and newsroom partners.   

Information collected might include policy changes at a legislative or institutional level, community responses, and professional development opportunities received by the grantee as a result of the reporting. In addition to information from regular correspondence between grantees and staff, the data is supplemented by manual content monitoring, social media monitoring, as well as audience reach and engagement reporting tools such as BuzzSumo, CoverageBook, and Muck Rack.

CoverageBook has a specialized algorithm that can predict the number of people who will view a particular article in its lifetime.  The prediction goes beyond the basic audience data you might receive from a publication outlet itself. CoverageBook also provides reports on social media shares, which provides a window into whether the Pulitzer Center is driving conversations across online spaces and to what extent. 

BuzzSumo tracks all mentions of the Center and its work. This helps ensure not only that the organization is credited on stories, but also when other stakeholders cite its work. They can record whether prominent public figures (such as politicians, activists, or celebrities) share and cite the Pulitzer Center’s work, which contributes to “attitude shifts,” given its large audiences and reach. 

The impact is then documented in a database the Center has built in Salesforce. In addition to living as entries in the database, impacts are also displayed on the project or event page in Salesforce, for easy reference. In the impact database, the dashboard enables the Center to sort impact by indicator (such as awards won for content, or public figure mentions content) and link directly to the funding source for the project. With these impacts collected in the database, the Pulitzer Center’s impact coordinator can then analyze or quantify the overall impact through Salesforce’s built-in reporting features, or additional analytic tools. 

The system is a process of building by doing.  It  has enabled the Center to record more than 600 instances of impact over the last 12 months, gain an actionable vision of its impact, and modify its work and programs to spur impact in the future. 

Educational Program Impact

The Pulitzer Center’s educational work is a core aspect of how the organization deepens engagement with the journalistic work it supports and is a critical part of its impact in the world. The Center runs programs with K-12 schools, provides tools and lesson plans for teachers to use Pulitzer Center-supported content, and runs a consortium with college campuses to educate the next generation of journalists and spark conversation on global issues.  

The Pulitzer Center knows that the journalists it supports are themselves incredible resources. And, because the Center aims to reshape global perspectives in the long term, it assumes that engaging young audiences can have some of the greatest impact it is seeking. In fact, the Pulitzer Center has found that students really respond to engaging directly with journalists and their reporting, learning how they did the work, understanding what goes into a journalistic project, and facilitating discussions on systemic global challenges. 

To understand the impact of the Pulitzer Center’s educational and outreach programs, it tracks impacts on both journalists and audiences. The Center tracks numbers such as types of public events, attendance at them, and the level and type of both news-literacy and professional development resources for educators developed from the Center’s reporting. 

The Center also closely tracks big-picture impacts such as audience attitude shifts, or educators’ capacity to engage students with journalism. The organization also pays attention to the representation of journalists from diverse backgrounds in classroom and public events as well as grantees’ learning and professional development as a result of speaking engagements and mentorship opportunities.

The approach to assessing impact of the Land-Grab Universities project included looking at how the reporting was received at educational institutions, both those named in the reporting, and others where rich data could spark additional research and conversations. The reporting catalyzed important discussions, such as talks about reparations for land at these universities.  The Center is in the process of turning all of this into a lesson plan crafted by Indigenous educators and adapted for broad use. 

What’s Next? 

The system of surveying, tracking quantitative indicators, and soliciting qualitative feedback has enabled the Pulitzer Center to better understand the breadth and depth of its impact over time and prompted additional questions yet to be answered. For example, the Center has seen that it is easier to track impact when the reporting is published in the local communities in which it was reported. When local outlets have pre-existing relationships with the community, they often see more tangible, visible forms and evidence of impact. But that doesn’t mean the Pulitzer Center doesn’t believe there is value in the journalism it supports being published in major national and international outlets.  It’s just much harder to trace the impact of this work, particularly when it comes to qualitative, intangible outcomes like knowledge shifts. 

“The system of surveying, tracking quantitative indicators, and soliciting qualitative feedback has enabled the Pulitzer Center to better understand the breadth and depth of its impact over time and prompted additional questions yet to be answered.”


As the Pulitzer Center considers its next steps in tracking and measuring impact, it recognizes a core tension in this work.  While impact tracking is extremely valuable and filled with rich data, there is so much that cannot be collected or measured. 

Regardless, the benefits of impact tracking and measurement to organizational strategy, decision-making, and stakeholder engagement far outweigh the challenges the Pulitzer Center is committed to defining and tracking the impact it can, while continuing to build, adapt, and modify its impact measurement systems as it learns and grows. 

This impact case study was written in partnership with Impact Architects. Impact Architects works with journalists, media companies, and philanthropic organizations that support journalism and media to craft and measure high-impact strategies.  IA has collaborated with the Pulitzer Center over the past four years thanks to support from Pulitzer Center funder and IA client Humanity United. Institute for Nonprofit News (INN) is also a client of Impact Architects.

See more case studies on the impact of nonprofit news.

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