Months after breaking the Panama Papers, ICIJ is going independent

Shortly after breaking the Panama Papers, an international exclusive that shed light on illegal offshore banking around the globe, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists should have been riding high.

Instead, the scrappy cross-border investigative team was facing the dreary prospect of laying staffers off due to a financial squeeze at its parent organization, the Center for Public Integrity.

"I did feel a little deflated," said Gerard Ryle, ICIJ's director. "Our team had achieved what had never been achieved before. And here I was, facing the prospect of having to lay off journalists that were the heroes of this story."

Now, 10 months after breaking the Panama Papers story with hundreds of journalists around the world, ICIJ is taking its financial future into its own hands. Earlier today, Ryle announced the consortium is splitting off from the Center for Public Integrity in a move intended to give his team more room for financial growth.

In doing so, ICIJ is severing an institutional tie that's been in place for nearly two decades. The consortium, which was founded by the American investigative journalist Chuck Lewis in 1997, has published stories on subjects such as corpse trafficking, chicanery at the World Bank and secret tax deals worked out by major accounting firms.

But as the Panama Papers became a global success, Ryle and his team realized that the profile of ICIJ had risen significantly, and its work had gotten so specialized, that it was time for a change.

"We feel our mission and the methods of our work have changed dramatically," Ryle said. "So, we wanted to become independent."

There are encouraging signs on the horizon. Ryle says the consortium is in talks to land a grant from a major foundation funder, and individual donations to ICIJ saw a huge bump after the Panama Papers. They received about $200,000 in "mom and pop" donations after the investigation published, the same kind of boost that other nonprofit news organizations have received in the wake of Trump's election.

ICIJ is also looking to expand its staff over the course of the year. Two of the three journalists that were laid off after the Panama Papers investigation have been hired back on, making a current full-time staff of 15. By the end of the year, ICIJ hopes to have 20 employees on the payroll, including a business-side staffer to handle financial matters.

Ultimately, the goal will be to develop enough revenue streams so that the ICIJ doesn't rely entirely on deep-pocketed donors.

"The biggest struggle in nonprofit journalism has always been, can you break away from this reliance on foundation funding?" Ryle said.

ICIJ works differently from many different investigative nonprofits. Many approach for-profit news organizations after reporting a big story and ask them to publish their work. ICIJ, by contrast, traditionally comes up with a story idea and seeks partner organizations to help report it out at the beginning of the process. This way, each news organization can be convinced of the quality of the reporting because they've done it themselves.

This collaborative approach could be a promising frontier for journalism as the world becomes increasingly globalized and technology removes many barriers for international cooperation. ICIJ, for example, has a virtual newsroom that allows partner news organizations to pool data and other information.

After the Panama Papers investigation published, nearly every major American news organization approached the ICIJ and expressed interest in partnering with the organization.

"Journalism’s changing," Ryle said. "You can’t afford to ignore these big information leaks."

They're currently in the process of consolidating all their offshore leaks and turning it into a knowledge center for other journalists.

With the additional hires, the prospect of increased grant funding and the freedom to dictate their own financial future, ICIJ is hoping to tackle big and ambitious stories going forward, Ryle said.

"It’s looking much brighter than it was before," he said. "And we’re confident that we can do that."

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    Benjamin Mullin

    Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism innovation, business practices and ethics.

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