Articles about "Business Journalism"

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Why it’s time to stop romanticizing & begin measuring investigative journalism’s impact

Charles Lewis, one of the luminaries of nonprofit investigative journalism, sees a culture clash brewing as the sector continues to grow, covering what shrinking legacy media may miss and, more recently, innovating with powerful reporting techniques.

On the one hand, foundations big and small want metrics that demonstrate results analogous to assessments they apply to arts projects, social service initiatives and advocacy work.

On the other hand, Lewis wrote in a white paper last month, “veteran editors and reporters, particularly of the investigative ilk, have an inherent, almost visceral dislike of audience measurement and engagement strategies.” Instead they see themselves “as intrepid hunter-gatherers of information” who overcome a host of obstacles to produce important, even heroic, journalism.

The conflict might be academic were it not for the current state of play in nonprofit funding. Established nonprofit news sites need second and third rounds of support from foundations, and startups find foundations “feeling a bit overwhelmed and besieged by proliferating prospective grantees,” Lewis wrote.

In an e-mail interview, Lewis added, “Subjectivity is a serious occupational hazard for any grantor attempting to measure impact…Some foundations seem to be somewhat obsessed with these questions and issues, and others, not so much (especially smaller foundations with very few staff)”  But he expects the level of scrutiny to keep rising.

The white paper, which Lewis co-wrote with Hilary Niles, assesses the problems of measuring impact journalism and proposes the starting outlines of best practices. Written for the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University, and underwritten by the McCormick Foundation, the paper is a lengthy but worthwhile read.  Caroline O’Donovan did an excellent job summarizing it in this Nieman Lab piece.

I’m not going to try to cover the entire scope, but here are a few themes:

Difficulties: If impact and outcomes are the true markers of an effective investigation, quantitative indicators of quality are likely to miss the mark. “Targeted reach” to decision makers may be more important than broad readership numbers. Sometimes remedial action on the problem spotlighted takes years rather than months. The investigative reporting process is more time-consuming and open-ended than advocacy work, which often assumes a desired outcome and marshals evidence to make the case.

Proxies: Audience is at least a starting point, with the qualifier that fluff may outdraw substance. Lewis and Niles recommend engagement as a more sophisticated measure of reach. Mentions, links and conversations are particularly susceptible to measurement in the digital space — and can indicate that the work in question didn’t fall with a thud in an empty forest.

Models: The authors point to several pilot projects with titles like “The Center for What Works” and “Spreading the Zing” that tackle the challenge of measuring social outcomes. Perhaps, Lewis and Niles argue, some of the framework and classification of desirable outcomes can be adapted by individual projects trying to make their case rather than reinvented from scratch.

Best practices: Lewis and Niles suggest that the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism is well-along in documenting the “ripple effect” of its best work. As explained by the center’s Lauren Hasler in a 10-minute video, this consists of investing time and a little money into capturing data on the spread of a story and creating a narrative with evidence of what the investigation accomplished.

The authors give passing reference to what I think is a potential ace in the hole for the nonprofits: crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding. Though they yield input rather than outcome measures, both are direct evidence of an engaged audience, willing to contribute money for investigative work or do some of it for free. Crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding fit the digital era and the non-commercial idealism of nonprofit news organizations.

Also, while Lewis and Niles are focused on the nonprofit sector, I am curious whether the assessment challenge should be applied to investigative efforts at newspapers and other legacy media as well.

Some top metro papers like those in Seattle, Milwaukee and Tampa Bay determined several years ago that even as newsroom cuts become a necessity, investigative capacity should be maintained or even expanded. When Gannett was doing research as it introduced paywalls at its 80 community papers last year, it found that investigations were the top of list of “passion topics” readers were willing to pay for.

Impact gets identified and celebrated in the Pulitzers and other contests, but I am not so sure there is a reliable way to assess the volume and quality of the investigative work, if any, that your hometown paper still provides.

Not every published investigation is a gem. We have all been asked to read lengthy pieces that reflect efforts but did not come up with all that much. Also, there is a genre that rides along with law enforcement or government auditing work, creating an impression of impact but a bogus one. And my antennae are up for financial exposes that sometimes ignore basics of risk and fiduciary obligation.

Having done some, directed some and read several Russian novels worth of investigative projects, I think there is a common, sweet-spot design to the best of them. You need to identify and document a problem of some consequence (bigger than the typical TV I-team effort to help a guy get some shoddy construction fixed).

The problem should do more than leave the reader shaking his head and saying that’s unfortunate; it should be actionable. Good investigations mobilize a level of citizen awareness and often indignation. Then something happens as a result. That something can be governmental or non-governmental or both.

For instance, the recent Tampa Bay Times/Center for Investigative Reporting project identifying America’s Worst Charities is likely to result in tougher regulations in a number of states. But it should also motivate prospective donors to do a little due diligence on where the money goes before responding to a heart-tugging appeal.

Lewis said in the e-mail interview that newspapers are 50 years into evaluating the impact of investigative reporting, particularly when it changes “public laws or policies.” His framework might be less interesting to them except for “the intriguing issue” of collaborations between profits and non-profits like his joint creation of an investigative unit for the Washington Post with a Ford Foundation grant.  If those collaborative efforts grow, the for-profits will be pulled into the assessment discussion, he said.

The big impact of spectacular projects like the Boston Globe’s investigation into pedophile priests or The Washington Post’s investigation into shameful conditions at Walter Reed Hospital are self-evident. But a more modest everyday level of holding governments and other powerful institutions accountable is equally essential.

Lewis is a serial entrepreneur in launching investigative units and support organizations and some years ago won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant for his work. I think he is onto something again. Fleshing out the embryonic conversation about what works and why it matters is going to be essential to keep the resources to support investigative reporting flowing. Read more


How to navigate the challenges of sustaining a startup news site

It seemed like an opportunity too good to pass up, a chance for a young online startup to pounce on a news niche that has proven popular across the country but was virtually abandoned by one city’s legacy media.

All across the United States, community newspapers and local websites alike seek readers by covering high school sports. In theory that makes a lot of sense, partly because it’s not just the players who want to read about their games, but parents and friends as well. And in many areas without a professional sports franchise, even people without a connection to the schools avidly follow local teams.

But in San Francisco, three-year-old online startup San Fran Preps recently shut down after finding local sports to be popular but too economically difficult to cover there.

What went wrong? What are other news organizations doing that makes them sustainable when other outfits fail?

The way things were supposed to go

Jeremy Balan/Photo by Tom Prete

Three years ago, Jeremy Balan looked at San Francisco’s prep sports scene and realized it was an open field.

The San Francisco Examiner and the San Francisco Chronicle both once covered local sports, but that was many years ago. The modern-day Examiner’s sports coverage consists largely of wire copy and columns, with maybe a brief freelance piece if a local team made it to the playoffs. The Chronicle has a blog about high school sports, but it covers a broad geographical area and San Francisco stories are few. And there weren’t any blogs or online news outlets of note picking up the slack.

It was during a citywide high-school football semifinal game that Balan first noticed how empty the San Francisco prep sports niche really was. While at the game as an Examiner freelancer, Balan said in an interview with Poynter that he realized he was the only person covering it.

A student wrapping up his journalism degree at San Francisco State University, Balan thought he had hit on a great opportunity. If he could pull it off, he’d be able to put his journalism training to work covering sports he loved, and make a sufficiently decent living that he could afford to stay in San Francisco.

He needed money to do it, but Balan said he knew he was no ad salesman. He wanted to concentrate on the content, not sell ads or go to potential donors asking for money to support a product he hadn’t yet built. So he concentrated on covering games, building a crew of writers and photographers, and going beyond the fields and courts to report on larger issues affecting schools and athletes.

Balan said that in 2011, he began the process of incorporating San Fran Preps as a nonprofit organization and raised about $60,000, primarily from a handful of large donors including some parents of student athletes.

It was enough to pay his freelancers, and to pay himself for running the operation. And San Fran Preps was turning into a popular source for serious local sports news, with stories often generating dozens of comments from readers.

“It never was a blog,” Balan said. “It was like a local daily newspaper covering prep sports.”

Things were looking up.

What went wrong

Balan’s fundraising for the newly incorporated nonprofit San Fran Preps was enough to keep the site operating and growing for a year. His plan was to look for grants from major journalism organizations to supplement that funding, and to guard against a drop in donations.

But his applications to grantmakers didn’t get any traction. Equally as bad, local donations fell. By early 2013, it was clear that there wouldn’t be enough money coming in for Balan to keep operating San Fran Preps, and in February he pulled the plug and now plans to move back to Southern California.

When Balan talks about why things didn’t work out, frustration bubbles up in his voice: frustration with an environment in which people have become used to free content, and even publications that know how much it costs to produce quality news aren’t paying enough to actually do it.

“Everybody likes the ideas,” Balan said. “Everybody wants it for a freelance fee.”

But when Balan acknowledges that the challenge also was bigger than he thought it would be, he sounds more weary than frustrated.

“I could have tried harder. I didn’t hustle for the money (over the past year),” he said. “I did two full years of hustling to keep the website alive. I just wanted to be a reporter.”

What’s working for others

San Fran Preps had a niche with little competition, a passionate founder and official nonprofit status (which can sometimes be difficult to get). Many potential founders of independent online news organizations perceive the nonprofit route as the best path to sustainability. But is it?

Scott Lewis, chief executive officer of the nonprofit Voice of San Diego, has no doubt that it is. The reason comes down to a diversity of funding sources open to nonprofits.

“You need myriad sources of revenue,” Lewis said. “What we call ‘revenue promiscuity’ in our little world.”

The Voice of San Diego’s nonprofit operation is built on a membership model, but Lewis said the Voice also gets funding from foundations, corporate sponsorships, benefit events and a partnership with the local NBC affiliate.

The Tucson Sentinel‘s support comes from a different blend of sources, mostly local business sponsors with a handful of events and virtually no foundation grants. Editor and publisher Dylan Smith, who’s also chairman of the Local Independent Online News Publishers trade group, says the Sentinel’s nonprofit status frees the organization from having to deliver big returns for investors.

That doesn’t mean local online news publishers can’t pay the bills with their publications, though.

“The reason we went as a nonprofit is we figured nobody’s going to get rich running a local website any time soon,” Smith said. “We did think there would be a decent living in it.”

Still, some for-profit online news publishers believe the nonprofit structure brings too many hoops to jump through and requires publishers to focus on a mission that’s just too confining.

“A nonprofit has to have a really narrow mission in most cases,” said Tracy Record, editor and co-publisher of the long-running West Seattle Blog.

Record says that in her view, nonprofit funders like to support work in particular subjects that might not fit with the needs or interests of a local publication’s readers.

“Maybe that’s a great topic area, but that’s maybe not where your goal was,” she told me.

Beyond the matter of methodology is the question of whether some sites start out with the cards stacked against them, regardless of how they’re structured.

In the case of San Fran Preps, both Smith and Record question whether the level of community enthusiasm for local sports found in many smaller towns is present in a city such as San Francisco.

“The first thing I would say to anybody [starting a local news organization] is be sure you’re solving a problem or filling a need,” Record said.

Lessons learned

Record, Smith and Lewis have different views about what makes a sustainable online news organization. Here’s their advice for startups searching for sustainability.


  • Make sure your publication fills a gap that’s important to other people, not just something that interests you.
  • When applying for funding from national grantmaking organizations, don’t just ask them to pay for local news. Show them they’ll be funding work that other publications can draw upon to improve their own coverage or operations.
  • Always operate within your means. Don’t hire people or buy things based on money you expect to raise later.


  • Constantly promote your publication and explain its value to the community it serves.
  • It’s unlikely any publication can get by with only one kind of funding.
  • Be careful of limiting yourself when setting a fee or price for something, including subscriptions. If you ask people for a set amount, that’s all they’re likely to give you.


  • You don’t have to take a vow of poverty, but you probably won’t make a ton of money.
  • Find the structure and blend of funding sources that works for you. Grants and events may work in one place, and events and advertising in another.
  • If you think you’re going to be able to just do the journalism, think again. Solid business skills are vital. “It’s not just about writing the cool stories, it’s about keeping the books straight.”

Do you work for a startup news site? Share your advice/experience with us in the comments section.  Read more


How Bloomberg’s photographers covered a tough year for business

Photographing newsmakers can be a straightforward assignment, but photographers shooting business stories often face far more ambient instructions: Illustrate Facebook’s IPO, for instance, or Apple’s introduction of the iPhone 4s in China, all the while adhering to the tenets of photojournalism. Bloomberg’s year-end collection of its best photos include many attempts by photographers to thread that needle.

Scott Eells shot his photograph of a person under an umbrella passing by the corner of Wall and Broad streets in New York on May 9, when stocks had fallen sharply and Greece’s political troubles were threatening to drag on many country’s economies. Read more


5 things journalists should know about Quartz, Atlantic Media’s business news startup

Agence France-Presse | The Economist | Nieman Lab | Ad Week | News ThingQuartz Tumblr
Atlantic Media is about to launch its much-buzzed-about global business news product called Quartz, as soon as this week or next.

It’s another digital news startup that gets a lot of pre-launch attention for its intention to do things differently — which makes it not only interesting but also a sort of lab experiment whose successes or failures will bear lessons for other news organizations.

Quartz is staffing up with “veterans from top media organizations around the world,” including Editor-in-Chief Kevin Delaney, Senior Editor Zach Seward from The Wall Street Journal and Global News Editor Gideon Lichfield from The Economist. Others come from backgrounds at Gawker, Huffington Post, Foreign Policy, GOOD magazine and France 24. (We wrote earlier about Atlantic Media’s hiring philosophy.)

Altogether Quartz will have a team of about 25 working mostly from the main office in New York City’s SoHo neighborhood (also home to Gawker). It will have some reporters in Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles, and plans to open offices in Europe and Asia.

Here are a handful of things worth knowing and watching as Quartz launches. Read more


How startup sites can take advantage of emerging revenue streams

As journalism entities move beyond ads in pursuit of new revenue streams, events have proven a popular target. People who won’t pay $15 for a digital subscription, the theory goes, may pay $20 instead for wine, cheese and a panel of journalists.

Staging events isn’t a simple endeavor for small organizations structured around news. But for many up-and-coming media organizations like GeekWire, an independent tech news site and online community in Seattle, events are an important part of increasingly diverse streams of revenue.

Rebecca Lovell

During a live chat this week, we’ll discuss events and other emerging revenue streams with Rebecca Lovell, Geekwire’s chief business officer.

Lovell, who oversees the site’s advertising, events, sponsorship and other business initiatives, answered chat participants’ questions and shared thoughts on a variety of topics, including:

  • What separates successful events from those that flop
  • Lessons learned about new revenue streams
  • How to overcome challenges that growing news startups face

You can replay the chat below.

Interested in learning more about generating revenue for startups? Consider applying for Poynter’s Revenue Camp for Entrepreneurial Journalists.

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How journalists can develop business, entrepreneurial skills in the newsroom

Believe it or not, there are ways to make money in journalism. One of them is by crossing from the editorial to the business side of the industry.

While some journalists have launched their own news sites, others have found lucrative business-related opportunities within the newsroom.

Familiarizing yourself with the business side of journalism

When Evan Smith was editor-in-chief of Texas Monthly, he made it a point to learn about circulation, advertising, marketing and other business aspects of the publication. “I found it made me better at my job,” he said by phone. “It gave me a more well-rounded picture of the magazine as an entity.”

That came in handy when he co-founded The Texas Tribune and became both its editor-in-chief and CEO. “I wasn’t just another journalist who thought he could run a business,” he said. “I actually had some experience with the guts of the news business.”

Smith suggests that editors make a point of understanding what motivates colleagues in advertising and circulation, and take an active role in figuring out how to get their content in front of as many people as possible. “It does not make you less of a journalist to be more savvy about the business,” he said.

Smith says journalists interested in the business side of news should look to the Web, noting that it’s “the 21st century springboard to greatness.”

Longtime recruiter Joe Grimm, who now teaches at Michigan State University, often chats with journalists who have developed entrepreneurial skills to launch their own sites. “Journalists have opportunities every day to learn about the business operations of their companies,” he said via email. “It is smart to do this kind of reporting, even if one is not planning a move to the business side.”

Joining task forces within the newsroom

Rebecca Baldwin took advantage of business-related opportunities while working for the Tribune company. She started her journalism career as a copy editor at Florida’s now-defunct Palm Bay Post and eventually moved to the Chicago Tribune, where she edited the Arts & Entertainment and Style sections. She then began her climb to the top of the leadership ladder at Tribune Media Services’ TV news and listings site

While at the Tribune, Baldwin joined a newsroom task force aimed at revamping the legendary publication.

“That opened my eyes to what the other parts of the newspaper did,” she said over coffee in Chicago. The experience introduced her to the marketing, advertising and financial sides of the news business. It also guided her toward positions in product development and eventually to her current position as general manager and vice president of It also helped her shift her professional focus from content creation to product strategy.

Baldwin said joining the Tribune’s task force helped her make her career interests and potential clearer to the people who eventually hired her out of the newsroom. “The fact that I have the editorial background has made me the perfect solution to a lot of problems,” she said. “Being able to get inside an editorial person’s head has paid off for me time and time again.”

Moving from the newsroom to the boardroom has given her more job stability than many of her colleagues at the Tribune have enjoyed in recent years. It also has improved her work/life balance and her bottom line. “My salary and hours are much better than they were in editorial,” she said.

And it helped her get a Tribune-paid five-figure MBA from a top business school, a valuable perk she concedes is far more rare these days.

Taking advantage of opportunities in product development

Earlier this month, Forbes Media Chief Product Officer Lewis DVorkin wrote: “I often say I used to be a journalist.” He now describes himself as “a product guy.”

DVorkin’s first job was as a copy editor for the then combined AP-Dow Jones News Service. Now instead of editing copy, he focuses on shaping the Forbes consumer experiences. It’s a job with a paycheck sure to trump any newsroom copy editor’s, and one that offers DVorkin — who launched and sold the site True/Slat to Forbes — the luxury of straddling the business and editorial sides of the news.

To better understand the intersection of the business and editorial sides, Baldwin suggests journalists interested in the business side of the news look for opportunities in product development.

When she was director of product development for Tribune Interactive, part of her job was to help the Los Angeles Times figure out how to use an events database that had been created for a new online entertainment product, Metromix, to power the paper’s print listings.

“We were dealing with some pretty senior editors at the Times who were very concerned about every aspect of how the listings would appear,” Baldwin said. “Having been in that position at the Chicago Tribune, I knew exactly what their concerns were and was able to make them understand that we were committed to the quality they desired.”

Baldwin also suggests journalists become as intimately acquainted with their products as possible. Skills such being able to understand audience analytics and analyze a cash flow statement can be particularly handy.

“As news organizations come up with new stuff,” she said, “understanding your product better than anyone else can be a real benefit.” Read more


Salmon: Journalists shouldn’t be blamed for failing to expose banks before financial crisis

“There’s a reason why the journalism comes out after, you know, the 2000 stock market crash, after the 2008 financial crisis — because at that point we want someone to blame. If you do the journalism beforehand, nobody cares. … It’s only when you’ve got something meaty, and you have a narrative with the rise and fall of this thing that it suddenly becomes a story.”

Felix Salmon, Reuters business writer


How to take a global approach to any local beat

Whether you’re covering agriculture, education, business or environmental issues, there’s a global component to your beat. Journalists increasingly need to understand the big picture to cover their communities.

“The global context used to be too large and abstract to matter much at the local level. And we didn’t need to consider this angle to be safe, secure and prosperous,” Doug McGill, a journalist who has taken a “glocal” approach to his reporting, said via email. “But today, we absolutely need a global view to ensure our safety, security and prosperity.”

McGill believes there’s “a definite mindset, matched with a certain set of specific reporting skills, that can help journalists discover and illuminate how global trends play out at the local level, and sometimes break international news locally.”

Tuesday at 1 p.m. EST we will chat for an hour with McGill about how to adopt this mindset and apply it to your beat. Among the topics we’ll cover:

  • How to find good global-local stories
  • Where to find good sources
  • How to identify connections between your community and global trends
  • How to use social media to research stories
  • How to report on diaspora communities by thinking like a foreign correspondent

Twitter users can ask questions ahead of time using the hashtag #poynterchats. You can revisit this page at any time to replay the chat after it has ended.

This chat is being held in conjunction with a Specialized Reporting Institute, “Covering Globalization at the Local Level: Beyond the G8/NATO Summits in Chicago,” to be held in Chicago in March. The application deadline for this free training, sponsored by the McCormick Foundation, is Thursday.

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NYT publishes Chinese translation of story about workers who make Apple products

The New York Times
The New York Times has published a Chinese translation of its story about worker conditions inside the Chinese factories that make Apple products. “The goal was twofold: to share the content of the article with readers in China, and to solicit Chinese comments for translation into English that might prove illuminating for readers of the English-language article on” Now the Times has published some of those comments, which were posted to the Chinese website that published the translation and to Weibo, a Chinese version of Twitter. The Times also is hosting a chat on its Facebook page Thursday with Charles Duhigg, one of the reporters on the series. || Related: Apple worshipper travels to China to talk to the workers who make iPhones and iPads (This American Life) Read more

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“The Reuters report highlights a third reason the full truth of [Mitt] Romney’s job record at Bain has been hard for reporters to get at: it’s a political story that requires financial reporting expertise. From a scan of bylines, it appears that most, but not all, outlets that have financial expertise don’t tend to put those reporters on the Bain story — perhaps it might compromise their reporters’ relationships with sources in that world. Reuters did it anyway.”

Keach Hagey on why it's so difficult for journalists to report on Romney's record at Bain

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