‘InvestigateWest’ Launch Continues News, Business Experimentation

As American newspapers shrink and close and journalists look for ways to continue their work, you could say that the news business has moved into a phase of “rapid development,” to borrow a term from software developers. Journalists are launching a series of start-ups, some short-lived, with different approaches to coverage, audience and funding.

The process continues today as a group of former Seattle Post-Intelligencer journalists unveils InvestigateWest, a regional, nonprofit investigative news organization.

InvestigateWest will conduct investigative journalism on “issues that resonate across the West,” seeking to fill the “vacuum that has developed with the closure of four western newspapers in the past years and literally thousands of jobs lost,” said Rita Hibbard, the group’s executive director and editor, in a telephone interview. Hibbard supervised the Post-Intelligencer‘s investigative team before the presses stopped in March and most of the staff was laid off.

Today’s announcement comes two days after a group of Denver journalists retooled their vision of a post-newspaper news site: the Rocky Mountain Independent.

After the Rocky Mountain News folded, some of its reporters started publishing their work on I Want My Rocky. They moved to a new site, In Denver Times, after a few businessmen came up with a plan for a local news site based largely on subscriptions for premium content. When that fell far short of its goal of 50,000 subscribers, the businessmen and most of the journalists parted ways.

The Independent is designed to be a central hub affiliated with a group of independent niche sites, which sometimes will share content and hopefully will help attract advertisers, said Steve Foster, one of the journalists behind each of the iterations. (I Want My Rocky, meanwhile, has shifted to journalism news and advocacy.)

For the journalists who have lost their jobs, Foster said, “our choices are really to leave the industry or reinvent the industry.”

“I’ll be honest, I’m skeptical myself. We haven’t stumbled on the great model yet,” he said. “But I don’t know that anyone else has, either. … Not just us, I think everyone right now, we are in this experimental phase.”

This is part of the rapid development mindset: think of an idea, roll something out, see what works and doesn’t, quickly improve upon it in the next version. “Fail fast, fail cheap” is an expression you hear from people who use this method to develop software and Web applications. For instance, Foster said these three sites in four months have taught him that original content, not aggregation, is key, and that a fledgling news operation can’t compete on everything. And as for cheap, well, none of these journalists in Denver or Seattle is getting a paycheck.

“People in this group are making sacrifices to continue doing this kind of work,” Hibbard said of InvestigateWest’s six journalists and one development director (who is married to one of the journalists).

Though InvestigateWest is a new venture, it, too, is an another iteration of the new, new journalism:

  • It will cover a broad geographic area but a narrow topical one: investigative projects that deal with the environment, social justice and health. (OK, those are still broad, but the staff is not trying to duplicate the daily coverage of their former newspaper, everything from features to sports.)
  • Rather than rely on its Web site as the primary outlet, InvestigateWest aims to sell its work to partners — local and national newspapers, television and radio stations and Web sites.
  • The group is looking to collaborate with freelancers and citizen reporters.
  • It has assembled an advisory board made up of journalism leaders from across the country.
  • It will rely on a combination of foundation funding, content sales and public radio-style memberships.

Think of it as a smaller, targeted ProPublica — but without the Sandler Foundation, at least so far.

“We were very aware of wanting to address a need, both for readers and for media clients, that exists out there,” Hibbard wrote in a follow-up e-mail. “We feel if we do that, we will be successful. Some of the organizations that have failed haven’t had a clear idea of filling an unmet need. “
   
How this group will do its journalism is both familiar and uncertain. The stories under way are the kind that require expertise, digging and time. She said the group is working on three stories now: one about misuse of public land, another about health problems related to inadequate job protection and another connected to climate change. The first story will be ready sometime in the late summer or early fall, she said.

But she said the organization won’t adhere to the traditional newspaper model of dumping all its work on readers at once through multi-part series. She said her reporters are ready to tell their stories in whatever medium makes sense. (Three members of the team have gotten or are getting radio experience, and the group has contributors who can do multimedia, she said.) Some portions of a project may be presented on InvestigateWest’s site or a partner’s as the reporting is ongoing. And she said the group wants to team up with other news organizations, freelancers and the public.

Some national news organizations have expressed interest in working with InvestigateWest, she said. The group also wants to offer stories to smaller clients on a secondary basis, as teaching tools — for example, providing a database and suggesting ways that a client can use it to report in its own community.

Hibbard said she’ll measure success “by the impact of our stories. … We’re looking to do stories that set agendas and make change. And empower citizens.”

But as many unemployed journalists can attest, this effort probably won’t sink or swim based on its reporting. “The easy part is doing the good journalism, you know that,” she said. “I guess failure is not getting any amount of funding to launch our first year of operations.”

This is not a cheap venture. The group has scoped out a first-year budget of $1.35 million, 77 percent of which Hibbard said will be “spent directly on producing journalism.” That percentage is comparable with what some other online news operations have said they spend on news, and much more than newspapers. In the first year most revenue, $850,000, would come from foundations, and about $500,000 would come from content sales and memberships (which will cost $60 a year, or $30 for students). By the third year, she said, foundations would not make up the majority of revenue.

“I think foundations are starting to understand that this [type of reporting] is an important part of community service,” Hibbard said. And “maybe this is wishful thinking — but maybe an appreciation in the public will develop for this resource as it becomes scarcer.”

The group has almost none of that in hand. It has gotten a $3,000 grant from the Fund for Investigative Journalism for one of its stories, for which InvestigateWest had to demonstrate interest from a news organization: MSNBC.

“It’s something we are not undertaking lightly. We have put a lot of foundational work into this, thinking about our business plan [and] what the pitfalls are,” Hibbard said. “It’s not a fairy tale. We’re not laboring under the illusion that all we have to do is set up shop, start doing great stories and everything will be all right.”

In the months since the Post-Intelligencer went Web-only, Hibbard said she and her colleagues have been talking with journalism leaders and investigative centers about collaboration, legal issues and the business plan. A Knight Digital Media Center news entrepreneurship bootcamp was “a huge help for honing the business plan and considering new technologies in the mix.” And the organization is part of a new investigative network that came out of a meeting last week.

Vikki Porter, director of the Knight Digital Media Center at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and one of 11 people on InvestigateWest’s advisory board, praised InvestigateWest’s efforts to round up partners. “They have done their homework far better than some efforts (i.e. In Denver Times),” she wrote in an e-mail.

“I believe it has as much chance to survive and prosper as any other attempt to provide watchdog journalism in this fragmented environment,” she continued. “And I hope we see many more efforts to do the same thing, with multiple funding options and new models being invented, discarded and replaced.”

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