MuckRock City

By CHRIS FARAONE  |  November 17, 2010

A sweet tooth for the truth
Though he's only now getting name recognition, Morisy secured Pulitzer props while still in college. In a 2006 internship at the New York Daily News, he contributed, without a byline, to an award-winning series of editorials on public-service workers who were inadvertently poisoned in the post-9-11 clean-up efforts at Ground Zero. "There were a lot of claims out there," says Morisy. "You had the lawyers, who were saying that everyone who worked down there was dying as a result, and then you had the government, which was saying that nothing actually happened. So we looked at the data — we looked at the evidence and managed to get a really good story."

Morisy is the reporter of the duo; his old friend Kotler is the programming wiz. At Cornell, Morisy completed his English degree while Kotler majored in electrical engineering. Kotler sometimes chided Morisy for his dogged determination as an editor of Cornell's student paper. But by the time they reunited in Boston last year, Kotler saw that his friend's sweet tooth for the truth was sharp, and both thought to combine their expertise and interests for the greater good. With no seed money, Kotler got coding, and Morisy hit the local journalism circuit to find allies who could help fire up a FOIA revolution.

A consummate schmoozer, Morisy can be found at seemingly every lecture, groupthink, and panel where the future of journalism is at issue. By day, he writes for the Newton-based innovation news hub TechTarget. In his spare time, he volunteers for the homeless advocacy paper Spare Change News, building its online presence in association with the MIT Media Lab. Morisy also helps maintain the Web site for the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit, independent operation based at Boston University.

Morisy doesn't deny that he wants to be a player in the next wave of new media. "All the networking has been helpful for us to gain credibility," he says. "I thought we had a politically relevant data set [in the food-stamp documents], and we could barely get anyone to look at it. Hopefully now that people have reported about us they'll be more willing to report with us."

Rock stars
It's the night after the food-stamp story broke, and with MuckRock in the headlines, its architects are chatting, as aspiring Web gurus do, over craft beers at a Cambridge tavern. This two-man meeting is no more formal than the powwow, in July, when Morisy and Kotler decided to file their now-infamous food-stamp FOIA request. They'd been discussing a Salon article about unemployed hipsters who buy organic salmon at Whole Foods with government assistance: "We wanted to know if there was really something there," says Morisy, "or if it was just a few jerks." (MuckRock analysis revealed more than $800,000 in federal reimbursements to Massachusetts Whole Foods stores in 2009.)

Investigations have been launched on much more arcane questions. To date, MuckRock users have filed 173 inquiries and received 18 completed responses totaling in excess of 4000 pages. In one federal request that has yet to be answered, one MuckRock user asked for Department of the Treasury e-mails written by Secretary Tim Geithner that contain the keywords "big trouble," "too late," "stupid," or "true disaster." Closer to home, Morisy requested documents to see whether MBTA complaints that are submitted online vanish into a virtual sinkhole.

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