Is good journalism enough to sustain an investigative nonprofit?

July 14, 2015
Category: Uncategorized

(Editor’s note: Corrections have been made to the original version of this story.) 

This is the second of four profiles of journalists at nonprofit news startups.

Beth Daley

Beth Daley

Beth Daley, a former reporter for the Boston Globe, joined the New England Center for Investigative Journalism (NECIR), in November 2013. After 20 years at the Globe, she says, she was looking for a change. After considering going freelance, she realized she would end up scrambling for money or having to find other means to support herself with a living wage.

She signed on with the non-profit investigative journalism organization, a partnership with WGBH and Boston University launched by veteran investigative journalists Joe Bergantino, Maggie Mulvihill and Tom Fiedler in 2009 at BU. More than 100 nonprofit journalism sites have since been established, like NECIR, “all racing and experimenting with sustainability,” Daley says. “NECIR is off to a good start trying to get diverse forms of funding, but it’s still very much in its early stages. What the media landscape will look like in 20 years is still being created.”

Nonprofit journalism is a work in progress financially, but Daley says NECIR is well along working its way to sustainability and success. The organization is one of scores that are part of the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN, which started out as the Investigative News Network), and is supported in part by the Knight Foundation, both of which want to find ways to make such endeavors sustainable and stand on their own.

Daley continues to be an investigative journalist, following stories about which she is passionate, but has worn other hats too, doing training and at one point finding publishing partners.

“We pay freelancers $1 a word here for journalism but that is high – you can probably pay really good journalists 50 cents or less a word, or $500 a story and be considered fair,” she told me. Daley agrees the going rate is not enough, even though it’s fair by current market standards. She comments, “Investigative journalism takes a long time, so it’s why we pay $1 a word.”

She is one of four full-time, salaried journalists on the staff.

Foundation funding is key, as Daley and others have learned, and often for specific projects, or conditional on building an audience or finding more funders.

She thinks that developing a niche is necessary to attracting funding – as well as a core audience. She looks to Inside Climate News as a successful example of membership support.

Screenshot of NECIR.org

Screenshot of NECIR.org

NECIR has experimented with exclusive first looks, where subscribers have to register. Even if readers don’t have to pay in advance, their email addresses are valuable for future campaigns for funding and audience eyeballs.

Other eyeballs could be important for investigative journalists as well: last October, Daley was in negotiations with the Washington Post to publish a series of NECIR’s stories. The paper was unwilling to pay for them; Daley was asking for a branding button to advertise NECIR and lead readers directly to the organization’s own website. The tradeoff for her was clear: placing an important journalistic story in front of the eyes of politicians and decision makers in Washington, in what is still the newspaper of choice and record within the Beltway. Since then, NECIR decided to publish the story instead in the Boston Globe.

NECIR has reported on a variety of investigative stories including Lyme disease (and delayed cancer diagnoses hidden by the disease) and “super donors” exceeding federal campaign spending caps. The organization’s annual budget is approximately $1.2 million, with almost half that revenue from training activities. Content sales and foundation grants each contribute roughly 20 percent. Individual donations have been a smaller slice but are growing and now up to about 10 percent.

The group still ends up giving away some stories for free after they have appeared in another publication as an exclusive.

Daley offered two pieces of advice: first, anchor an organization within a larger body (such as a university or public broadcasting newsroom). Second, find another product to sell in addition to investigative journalism.

These concepts are not obvious at first glance and seemingly have little to do with each other or sustainable journalism. However, at NECIR they have allowed the program to get through the three-to-five-year plateau that has plagued some such efforts and continue growing.

NECIR partners with Boston University and WGBH, which brings readily established branding and office space, as well as liability insurance for indemnification. For reporters digging into controversial topics, where sources might decide to sue, indemnification is a small expense but essential.

WGBH also supplies $100,000 in direct funding, picks up the salary and fringe benefits of one of the reporters, and provides promotion and hosting for four live events a year.

Boston University contributes about $70,000 in direct funding and other goods and services. Plus, other outside funds come more readily with these relationships, as they are a signal of stability and legitimacy.

NECIR offers student journalism programs, similar to summer camps, in partnership with Boston University. Fees to attend, plus supporting donations from large organizations and individuals, help fund the reporting.

This has grown to a $560,000 a year enterprise with global reach. Besides the student workshops, NEICR does media training (as much as $1,000 a day, but often less), honoraria and fee-paying talks about the work it has produced.

The organization is currently looking for other sponsors – in the same model of WGBH and other organizations funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, where sponsorship amounts to a soft form of advertising.

Daley is quite blunt about this: nonprofit investigative journalism does not pay for itself. While she receives a salary to support her months’ long research and investigative projects, NECIR is unable to sell its final products for what they are truly worth in reporters’ time to the newspapers and other outlets to which they offer their final products. Good journalism is not cost-free — hence the necessity of ancillary income.

(Corrections: An earlier version of this story misstated NECIR’s annual budget and the contributions of WGBH and Boston University and it failed to credit co-founders Maggie Mulvihill and Tom Fiedler. The text has also been edited to reflect additional information provided by NECIR executive director Joe Bergantino).