This project matches investigative editors to the local newsrooms that desperately need them

January 29, 2020

Like many people, Rose Ciotta has watched national news thrive while local news suffered. But Ciotta turned her worries into something that might help.

Investigative Editing Corps is a project that pairs seasoned investigative editors with local newsrooms. The editors get stipends for their work through foundation funding that supports the project. The newsrooms pay nothing.

IEC officially launched last week, almost three years after Ciotta first imagined how investigative editors who’d left the business (either willingly or not) might help the local newsrooms that need them.

“The whole idea here is to try to empower them, to bolster them at a time when it is really so difficult to do the work,” said Ciotta, an associate editor at EdSource, a non-profit that covers education in California and nationally.

“This will help fill a tremendous need on the editorial side, on the project management side,” said Doug Haddix, executive director of Investigative Editors and Reporters and an IEC advisory board member. IRE is also IEC’s fiscal sponsor. “A lot of those positions have been eliminated or combined with others over the years, and a lot of reporters don’t have as much guidance as they could use to do this kind of work, particularly in small and mid-sized newsrooms.”

Ciotta knows what that guidance takes — she co-edited a Pulitzer-winning piece for The Philadelphia Inquirer, where she was an investigative reporter and editor. Her career also includes work as an investigative producer at WIVB in Buffalo, New York, and as an investigative reporter and editor at The Buffalo News.

Ciotta piloted IEC with two newsrooms in 2017 through the Jim Bettinger News Innovation Fund from the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships at Stanford University. Poynter wrote about IEC in 2018, and Ciotta asked editors and newsrooms to reach out to her if they were interested.

What she’s discovered since, she said, is that the need is as deep as she thought it was.

“I got like 35 editors from around the country, some of them Pulitzer-winners, saying ‘I’m in. This is really important.’”

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She launched in late January thanks to seed funding from the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation. In a press release, Logan called on other funders to help IEC grow.

The project plans to work with newsrooms across mediums and platforms, including public radio, broadcast, print and online.

Here’s how it will work (and check out IEC’s FAQs for editors and newsrooms for more):

  • A local newsroom sends in a detailed pitch.
  • After being chosen, IEC will send the investigative editor for a newsroom visit, then they’ll meet weekly online to guide the story to publication or air for about a six-month period.
  • Editors get up to a $10,000 stipend plus travel to compensate them for their time and expertise.
  • IEC is accepting proposals now. In the future, if a newsroom has already been chosen and worked with an IEC editor, it might be asked to pay half or more of the editor’s stipend, according to the FAQ.

Ciotta said IEC will be looking for investigations with a great opportunity for impact and the newsrooms that are positioned to make them happen.

Also important: “The newsroom is in charge of the project,” Ciotta said. “It is their project. The newsroom’s leader decides what will be involved and has the last word on what gets published and when. We don’t pretend at all that anybody’s gonna go in and take over.”

She expects a regular part of the experience will be mentoring reporters who’ve never worked on an investigation or with an investigative editor. That mentorship will make a difference, Haddix said, “in producing more stories that would not otherwise happen.”

Related training: Becoming a more effective writer – Build the reporting and writing habits you need to organize your information better and write more clearly. 

IEC is one of several projects working to rebuild investigative and watchdog reporting at the local level. Others include ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network, Center for Investigative Reporting’s Reveal Local Labs, and Report For America.

For shrinking newsrooms with shrinking budgets, staffs and audiences; for stable newsrooms stuck on the content hamster wheel; and for start-up newsrooms with few resources, all offer opportunities to collaborate and do better work.

That’s something Ciotta thinks journalism is ready for. She knows there are great editors at the local level who just don’t have the time to shepherd investigations through to publication, and she hopes this project can help.

“Things are so bad in the industry that nobody’s worried anymore about competition … All those barriers are down,” she said. “So why not lend a helping hand to a struggling newsroom? And why not create a way to let the people who want to help share their expertise with reporters and editors in a local newsroom?”

You can find out more about Investigative Editing Corps and how to work with it here.

Kristen Hare covers the transformation of local news for Poynter.org. She can be reached at khare@poynter.org or on Twitter at @kristenhare