CIR began pitching investigative stories to newspapers. It’s working on Hollywood now, too.

July 27, 2018
Category: Newsletters

Pioneering news nonprofit, with Oscar nomination under its belt, works with talent agency to get stories filmed

“If you’re living with someone and then you get married, nothing has changed but everything has changed.” — Christa Scharfenberg

For 10 months, Christa Scharfenberg was acting CEO of The Center for Investigative Reporting. Now she’s got the job for good, with the responsibility to chart a path forward for a nonprofit with text, digital, radio, podcasting and video documentary branches.

To use her metaphor, she’s moving from her honeymoon to the realities of raising impact (and money) for a nearly $11 million operation that has been both a Pulitzer and an Academy Award finalist in the past year.

To do so, Scharfenberg has to explain, succinctly, how:

  1. The nonprofit journalism pioneer has maintained the support of foundations and big donors (about 90 percent of annual revenue).
  2. It's growing its small donors, starting a membership program and building “earned” income from its successful Reveal radio and podcast ventures.
  3. It's creating revenue and licensing of its stories, intensely pursued with the talent agency WME (William Morris Endeavor).

Scharfenberg, a Boston native who's had various roles at the California-based CIR over the past 15 years, then has to pivot to how she envisions this working in the future. 

“There’s such a hunger for the type of reporting we do,” Scharfenberg said. “If we can get the documentary strategy off the ground,” it has the possibility to underwrite the core operation.

One of its documentaries, “Heroin(e),” was released on Netflix and in theaters as part of the Oscar Shorts series after it was nominated for an Oscar earlier this year.

CIR is in the process of getting funding for “eight or nine” documentary projects now. Its partnerships with The Associated Press and PBS's "Frontline" — plus the support of the weekly Reveal show on public radio stations — amplify its efforts.

At the same time, its StoryWorks program is taking journalism and producing stage plays to reach new audiences, such as a current drama on Islamophobia playing in Kansas City, partnering with The Huffington Post.

“We are moving now toward exactly what we want to be — producing accountability reporting that is relevant, that people care about,” Scharfenberg said. It’s already working in podcasting and radio. “I want to see us flourish in television and documentaries in the same way. And in digital.”

Quick hits

Emilio Gutiérrez Soto
Emilio Gutiérrez Soto after his release Thursday evening. (Photo: Julian Aguilar/Texas Tribune)

FREED: A journalist detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) since December was released last night after high-level efforts to gain his freedom. Emilio Gutiérrez Soto, who came to the United States legally a decade ago after death threats against him for his reporting in his native Mexico, walked out of an El Paso detainee center last night with his son, Oscar, who also had been detained. The award-winning journalist has won a prestigious journalism fellowship at the University of Michigan this fall. Here's Thursday night's story from the National Press Club, which lobbied for his release, and my backgrounder in May

SHARING THE WEALTH: Reveal’s investigation into a rehab work program that looked like modern slavery prompted so many tips that the news organization opened up its database of responses to fellow journalists who want to follow up or localize the story. Reveal’s Amy Julia Harris, Shoshana Walter and Byard Duncan built guides to help reporters zero in on suspicious programs and give tips on how best to approach and interview former rehab members. Ninety-five journalists from other organizations signed up in the first eight hours after the collaboration launched on Thursday, Duncan said.

WHY SHARE WITH ‘COMPETITORS’?: "We decided to do this because we didn't want to see these tips die," Reveal's Walter said. Duncan said he spoke with ProPublica’s Documenting Hate program, which shares its database of suspected hate crimes with partner news organizations that help with the investigating. Here’s more on that reporter-sharing effort, from my conversation in May with ProPublica’s Rachel Glickhouse.

ADVICE FOR CHANCE THE RAPPER: How the new owner of Chicagoist can make a difference in the Windy City’s news ecosystem. First tip: You’ve got to do more than aggregate, Chicago Magazine advises.

CARTOONIST FIRED: The Jerusalem Post cut ties with Avi Katz after he chose a George Orwell “Animal Farm” theme to describe right-wing Israeli lawmakers' celebration of a controversial law that downgrades Arabic language use. Katz mocked a selfie of Israel’s prime minister and lawmakers, showing them as pigs with the caption: “All Animals Are Equal, But Some Are More Equal Than Others.”

I THINK THE WORD IS ‘IMPARTIAL’: In the Philippines, a presidential spokesperson criticized Facebook for choosing two top news sites as partners in determining factual stories. “There should be a more partial arbiter of the truth,” Harry Roque said. Supporters of the president have threatened to leave Facebook for the Russian social media network VK. (h/t Alexios Mantzarlis)

HIRED: Marin Cogan, whose work has appeared in New York Magazine, ESPN and GQ, has joined Pop-Up Magazine as a senior producer on the special projects team. She joins another new addition, Aaron Edwards, a founding editor of The Outline who helped build the BuzzFeed News App.

R.I.P.: As a young reporter at The Washington Post, Warren Brown could have handled almost any beat. But he chose automobiles. Cars, Brown explained, represented freedom for a generation of blacks forced to sit in the back of buses — and auto plants became a backbone of the black middle class. Brown died Thursday at age 70, reports Adam Bernstein. 

What we’re reading

WHERE ARE THE CHILDREN?: Here are 103 facilities and program centers across America holding kids separated from their parents or taken as part of U.S. immigration authority's unaccompanied minors program, via The Associated Press and Reveal’s Aura Bogado. Also, here’s how ordinary Americans are helping newly reunited families, by Vox’s Dara Lind.

ROUNDUP: Monsanto is being sued over its "cancer-causing" weedkiller by a terminally ill man, a former school groundskeeper. By Sam Levin for The Guardian.

WILL ‘SHARK WEEK’ BE ‘SHARK DAY’ SOON?: How overfishing is decimating shark populations, by Vox’s Radhika Viswanathan.

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