Delivering Muckrakers’ Tales Without the Advertisers

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premioipysEstablishing new avenues for digging-in and delivering on the muckraker’s craft is a double-edged sword: freeing investigative journalists from kowtowing to advertisers but requiring that they navigate through some lean times.

“The commercial model has been: make money from advertising. And you rarely go after your own advertisers,” longtime investigative journalist Charles Lewis told a packed room on Saturday in a panel discussion on successful business models at the Global Investigative Journalism Conference (GIJC13). “Most media models function from advertising. You could see their ads. When you noticed the paper wasn’t investigating their biggest advertisers, you at least knew why.”

Lewis has founded several nonprofit investigative news organizations including the Center for Public Integrity, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and most recently the Investigative Lab at American University.

“To understand an organization and what it cares about and who supports them, that’s essential,” he said. Every nonprofit newsroom should develop, make public and adhere to an ethics policy that assures their funding sources are transparent to the public.

Lewis spoke alongside Reg Chua, data and innovation editor at Thomson Reuters and Sheila Coronel, director of the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University. Coronel founded the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism in 1989. When they opened their doors, only one person in her office earned a paycheck – her assistant.

“We started out in a borrowed office with DOS computers,” she said. “We had donated furniture and a lot of free labor.”

They earned money by syndicating their stories although it’s often impossible to recover the costs of an investigation; and they applied for grants from foreign foundations.

“I tried everything – coffee mugs, books, business plans for a café or mailing center,” she said. “The only lesson I learned is that you will make mistakes. But you have to move on. There’s no time to cry.”

Just as funding models have shifted, so have the delivery mechanism for – and even the very definition of  –  “investigative journalism.” Coronel has come to embrace a simple description: the exposure of wrongdoing in the public interest “in whatever form and on whatever platform where it reaches the audience,” she said.

Reg Chua said new models must also consider how they package their content.

“Are you selling investigative journalism or a product that happens to have investigative journalism in it,” Chua encouraged entrepreneurs to ask when they develop a business model. “People come to restaurants because of ambiance, service, location, health ratings, branding. You have to put it in a broader package.”

Purely investigative centers will continue to exist, as well general interest news organizations that do no deep-dives. The question is, what mix will provide sustainability?

“Some of the best work that can be done is the less episodic but really sustained regular coverage of a subject, that in the course of doing helps you develop great stories,” he said. “Watchdog reporting is the classic investigation. You expose it and bring people to justice. Scarecrow reporting is the regular day-to-day reporting, the threat of which keeps wrongdoings at bay.”

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