Mission-driven journalism

Rachel Oldroyd

More people than ever are reading content created by journalists, yet, since the birth of the Internet, an industry once used to substantial profits and annual revenue hikes has been hit by declining print sales and disappearing advertising revenue.

The storm has caused such enormous disruption that many fear for the very existence of the news industry. The facts are startling. In the first two decades of the century, the United States lost half its newspaper journalists, and in the 15 years until 2019, one in five papers across the country closed (Abernathy, 2018). It is the same across much of the Western world. In the United Kingdom, for example, there was a net loss of nearly 250 newspapers between 2005 and 2018 (Mayhew, 2019). The coronavirus pandemic hit the print industry hard, with many more newspapers expected to close and cuts across the sector. Meanwhile, smaller news teams are having to feed the ever-rapacious web with more and more stories from across the globe. In this environment, it is not only people that have been cut, it is also the time dedicated to digging and to the slow burn of an investigation. This loss is a major blow to transparency, accountability and democracy.

The problem is well understood in the news sector: an independent, well-resourced press informs, educates, scrutinises and questions. It provides the facts that help citizens better understand their world, and it holds to account those that wield the power. A country without a strong and free press is a much poorer society. Done well and in the public interest, journalism provides a crucial cornerstone of a functioning democracy. The question is: Who pays now that the commercial model that once sustained it is on the point of collapse and new models for sustainability such as paywalls and membership are still not assured?

In early January 2016, one of the United States’ oldest newspapers, a once hugely profitable and highly regarded enterprise, was turned into the American equivalent of a charity. The Philadelphia Inquirer had become so stretched by tumbling revenues that its then-85-year-old billionaire owner Gerry Len-fest decided its best chance of survival, along with that of its sister paper, the

Daily News, was to transfer his ownership into a newly created non-profit organisation.

‘Of all the things I’ve done,’said Lenfest, ‘this is the most important. Because of the journalism’ (Dobrin, 2018).

If the commercial model is no longer working — or if alternative commercial models have still to be proved in the long term — non-profit status perhaps provides a much-needed stepping stone that will save good-quality, important reporting. The Inquirers Lenfest is not the first to think so.

In the ten years before Lenfest’s altruistic act, a number of journalists who had either left commercial newsrooms in frustration at reduced budgets and changed focuses, or found themselves at the sharp edge of the necessary cuts, founded dozens of alternative news organisations across the United States and in parts of the wider world. These newsrooms were set up as not-for-profit mission-driven enterprises, focused on public interest journalism, on delivering investigations or specialist stories that traditional newsrooms were finding increasingly hard to sustain. It is these newsrooms that are helping to keep the Fourth Estate alive.

The purpose of this chapter is to establish that this is a sector anybody coming into this profession should take seriously. It is one of the few growth areas in journalism, and with the rest of the news media shrinking, it could rapidly become the only place that ambitious, hard-hitting investigative journalism happens. The organisations in this space are not “transactional newsrooms” requiring their journalism to ultimately make profits. Instead they are driven by the need for change - “transformational journalism” -and this requires a different approach, a different value system, a different focus.

This chapter is dedicated to this not-for-profit, mission-driven sector. It looks at the structure of the newsrooms operating in the space, the attitude to reporting in these organisations, the value systems and how journalists are rediscovering that they really can pursue careers in the profession of journalism thanks to these new initiatives.

From Philadelphia to the Philippines

The growth of not-for-profit journalism has been impressive. Especially in the United States, it has become a thriving, competing, hard-hitting sector in its own right, and over the past decade, not-for-profit newsrooms have been short-listed for dozens of Pulitzer prizes, the US’s most prestigious journalism award, and several have been won by reporters operating in the sector.

The concept has spread beyond the United States and is rapidly catching on in countries across the world. The Global Investigative Journalism Network is an international grouping of organisations operating in this space and had 182 members at the end of 2019 across 77 countries.1

David Kaplan, who runs the organisation, explains:

Non-profit groups have been pivotal drivers of the global spread of investigative journalism over the past 30 years. These include reporting centres, training institutes, professional associations, grant-making groups, and online networks.

There were less than a dozen of these “investigative nonprofits” in the 1990s. In a 2007 survey we identified 39 groups in 26 countries. We updated that in 2013 and found 106 groups in 47 countries. Today there are more than 200 groups worldwide and the number keeps growing.

GIJN limits its membership to nonprofit organizations committed to investigative journalism not because we don’t think commercial media plays an important role, but because the nonprofits have been essential to the field’s rapid global expansion. They provide the trainers, educators, and long-term commitment to building networks that are behind investigative journalism going global over the past 30 years.

The demise of the advertising-based commercial model to support serious journalism has also given impetus to the nonprofit model. Particularly in this age of disinformation, the need for an independent structure to support public-interest investigations has never been greater.

(2020)

In countries that still have a relatively strong press such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Germany, the not-for-profit sector provides a bolster to public interest journalism. In these countries, organisations like Propublica in the United States, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in the United Kingdom (which I run) or Correctiv in Germany sit alongside the traditional media, often working with reporters from within larger newsrooms. Reporters in these groups have the privilege of time, the resources and the single focus to produce ambitious, often collaborative journalism that many larger cash-strapped and time-poor newsrooms lack. This is not to suggest that traditional newspapers are devoid of investigative journalism. Many in recent years have stepped up the level of public interest journalism for the very reason that this has proved another string to the bow in attracting reader attention and donations or subscriptions. But the days of traditional news desks putting a team of reporters on a subject for an unspecified period of time are rarer than unicorns, and it is this type of reporting that has become the domain of the not-for-profits.

Although it makes up the largest share of the not-for-profit journalism sector, investigative reporting is not the only discipline to turn to philanthropy. In recent years, there has also been a rush of local newsrooms setting up as charities or social enterprises. This again has come out of a reaction to the failure of the commercial sector to find a way to sustain vital local accountability reporting. These might be large enterprises like the Inquirer or smaller new enterprises such as the Bristol Cable, a paper and online news outlet covering important public interest matters in the city of Bristol in southwest England.

In countries where the news is predominately provided by government-backed outlets, mission-driven organisations relying on reader donations have set up as independent challenges to the status quo. In the Philippines, for example, an extremely brave group of journalists launched Rappier, an online newsroom where the reporters’ main role is to hold the human rights abuses of President Duterte to account. In South Africa, the Daily Maverick produced a string of stories highly critical of the established Zuma regime and continues to dig up stories that the established media simply does not get near.

Fortunately, at the same time as reporters started to worry about the sustainability of an industry they loved but also a profession they believed in, so many philanthropic institutions started to worry about the impact a retrenching media would have upon democracy.

As the cracks started to appear in the news industry, large foundations stepped up to help. Grant makers such as the MacArthur Foundation, the Reva and David Logan Foundation and Luminate Group all poured millions of dollars into the sector. In the wider world, Open Society7 Foundations opened up applications for the funding of journalism, not just educating and bolstering — an area it had operated in for years. Other more localised foundations traditionally focused on civic society, such as Adessium Foundation in the Netherlands or the David and Elaine Potter Foundation in the United Kingdom, went in search of institutions that could fill the gap being left by traditional news. This flow of money, which has increased substantially through the first two decades of the twentieth century, provided the fuel that spurred on the growth of the sector.

The philanthropic support has meant that some of the largest not-for-profits have news teams that are starting to equal those of many papers both in scale and numbers. The Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) in California, for example, has a budget of more than $10m and employs nearly 80 people. On the east coast, Propublica, which was set up in 2007 by' Paul Steiger, former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, operates with a budget of over S25m.2

Both Propublica and CIR cover a wide range of subjects — all through investigative reporting. Other non-profits operate in more niche areas, such as the well-respected Marshall Project, which focuses on injustices, and Inside Climate News, which reports on climate change issues. Others such as the Texas Tribune and Voice of San Diego have taken over local patches left by' now-extinct print products. All are powerful, well-resourced newsrooms which pride themselves on providing the accountability and investigative journalism that keeps power in check.

Holding the line between independence and funding

In some cases, campaign groups have become the journalists. Greenpeace, for example, supports a group of investigative reporters working on stories about climate change and environmental impact. The team is run as an independent unit, leaving the reporters largely free to pursue their own stories as long as the core of the substance is aligned to the mission of the NGO? Other groups have embedded investigative journalism methods into their reports: Human Rights Watch and Global Witness regularly use traditional investigative journalism methods and techniques to produce their powerful evidence-based reports.4

Even in many of the independent not-for-profit newsrooms, funding can often come from foundations or individuals with particular interests that they want to see pursued, including climate change, the environment, human rights issues, financial corruption or development reporting. In local areas, the philanthropy has often come from interested local businesspeople. This ‘project funding approach’ has led to questions about influence and independence: a question of he who pays the piper plays the tune. It is a debate that causes as much hand wringing amongst those running and working in the newsrooms as many of those dishing out the dollars. Not-for-profits put in place strong governance; they publish heart-felt promises that they will not be led by their funders, and funders are often careful to stress that grantees must keep their independence. In NGOs in which journalism is practised, the reporters vociferously protect their independence from the campaigning side of the organisation. The debate — and sometimes criticism — has led many in the sector to seek to diversify their funding beyond philanthropy. Some are doing well. Propublica, for example, now gains more than 10 percent of its revenues from the public? Bristol Cable eschewed foundation funding at the outset, instead seeking to sustain itself from local peoples goodwill. It did a great job, attracting more than 2000 paying members.6

The sector has certainly put in the work to ensure the money does not drive the content, but it would be naive to think that it has not had any impact on the sector. Those signing the cheques may not be looking for a commercial return, but they are looking for something: they want to see change, transformation. This is well discussed in Investigative Journalism, A Mechanism of Impact, by Christopher Hird.

This search for ‘impact’ has become embedded in many not-for-profit newsrooms, and it has changed the type and the tone of the output. Success is not measured by clicks and by readers, but it is measured — by law changes, convictions and lives improved.

Making a difference: a new value system

The mantra is ‘public interest’. Only reporting that can be thoroughly tested against this purest of journalistic tests is taken on. This is not to say it is necessarily worthy reporting. Many of the projects that come out of these newsrooms are gritty, hard-hitting stories. The characteristic thread that links them all is the desire, or even the drive, to deliver impact — to get their stories dominating the news agenda and to make a difference. The currency is change. But this does demand a different approach to reporting. It is not a return to the type of campaign journalism that for decades kept many newspapers, particularly those operating in the local space, in business. Many of the not-for-profit newsrooms do not have the weekly or daily platforms that a newspaper provided. Traffic to their websites can actually be quite limited. This new mission-driven reporting has embraced other techniques and methods aimed at making a difference. The stories, for example, can often be produced with a clear message or with a distinct level of engagement that drives readers to make a change.

Infographics and interactives can be used to let people discover for themselves the revelations discovered by the reporters. Propublicas first story to properly engage - and one that for many years defined the organisation — was a database that revealed how much money every doctor across the entire country received from prescribing particular drugs. By building a vast database that allowed readers to find out about their own doctors, the organisations Dollars for Docs series put a marker in the ground that virtually every not-for-profit that has come after has been trying to match — the perfect method of storytelling.8 The Center for Investigative Reporting in California took a similar approach in their reporting on strawberry farms. Through a series of stories, the team revealed how heavy insecticides were being used on strawberry fields across California. The reporting told powerful stories, but the team wanted to let those most affected see the results of their work for themselves. They started from the position of: who does their reporting most affect? The answer was easy - the workers picking the fruit and the people living near the strawberry fields. The team built an interactive that let people enter their zip code to see the level of pesticides in their area.9

At the Bureau of Investigative Journalism in the United Kingdom, a team of reporters built a database listing all the public-owned assets that had been sold off by local authorities who had become desperate to raise funds. Again, the team wanted to let local people see how the policy was affecting facilities in their area so they could better do something about it. Their SoldFromUnderYou investigation included an interactive map that let the public see what properties had been sold in their area. The map was used more than 200,000 times.10 Reporters in these newsrooms use other methods, even further removed from journalism, to make the impact they want. These include sending out press releases, sending briefing documents to members of Parliament or taking their stories to people affected through live events. Driven by the desire to make impact, new roles have also cropped up in the sector, armed with ensuring the journalism lives and breathes after it has been published.

At the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, we introduced the role of impact editor in 2019 in order to embed some of the processes that help the work be influential. Not all journalists would see this as part of their role, but in the not-for-profit sector, it is an approach that those working in these teams have little choice but to embrace.

A co-publishing model

Job functions for reporters can also be different. Many of the newsrooms operating in the space do not produce a string of daily stories, and traffic to their websites or newsletters can be relatively small. Many partner with traditional newspapers or broadcasters, providing their stories for free in exchange for good placement and promotion. Partnerships of any kind are difficult. Reporters may, for example, see their work splashed across the front of a newspaper with no credit. For teams, pushing their work into different places can mean several packages and treatments. And with niche websites with often low profiles at a public level, it can be difficult to get people to tell their stories or attract whistleblowers, the lifeblood of investigative reporting.

Editors in these newsrooms find themselves having to hawk and market their stories around the bigger newsrooms. This task can sometimes fall on reporters. It is often the case, too, that reporters will have to be agile storytellers, capable of switching between making TV packages, writing long print pieces or even producing podcasts. The more inventive newsrooms have even turned to theatrical productions, comic books and speaking events as they find alternative ways to get their findings out into the world.

A space for digging

For all the issues and concerns about the influence of funding and the focus on impact, the ability to spend proper time focused on the journalism, rather than clickbait (the latest obsession in news rooms desperately chasing allusive digital advertisers), has proved a huge draw. This has led some of the media’s brightest young and some of the most senior journalists to this new model. Go into their newsrooms and there is a buzz, an enthusiasm that has long evaporated from many of the traditional print establishments. And this is leading not only to gap plugging but to unexpected stories and powerful journalism, as highly regarded New Yorker writer Nicholas Lemann noted in an article: “Their work is always good, and sometimes spectacular”. Propublica, it is worth noting, has already received three Pulitzer prizes — the highest honour in American journalism — in its 12 years of existence.”

Time, focus, collaboration, innovation are words used often by editors or journalists working in these newsrooms, and it is these luxuries that are leading to the award-winning, high-impact stories. Investigative journalists have always operated away from the daily news desk. The investigative team buried in the basement, digging up important revelations over months in secret and only answerable to the editor, has long been the news industry’s star turn to be cherished, rewarded and protected. Sir Harry Evans’s Insight team at the UK’s Sunday Times was his beloved creation. A similar example is Spotlight at the Boston Globe. It became the centrepiece of a cinema film.

The difference between these teams of the past and the new ones cropping up is that in the not-for-profit sector, these investigative teams are not isolated, rare, glorified beasts, they are the only journalists in town. The daily gossip, the daily agenda that comes with a busy, functioning newsroom is lost. Journalists operating in these spaces do not do the ‘investigative’ work on the side, slotted in between the demands of the daily news, but are instead focused solely on pursuing a hard, difficult story.

These not-for-profit newsrooms rarely have regular publishing cycles. They do not have newspapers or websites that require a constant flow of stories. Their focus is not getting something as ready as they can by a set date but instead gathering all the evidence they can to properly stand up the story. This evidence-based approach makes the reporting ambitious. But it also makes it time consuming and painstaking. Reporters can literally spend months building and analysing datasets, developing whistleblowers, collecting realms of testimony in order to hold the feet of the powerful to the fire or filing freedom of information requests by the hundreds. Stories tend to develop slowly and, without the divergence of a breaking news story, require immense fortitude, persistence and patience. This is not a sector that ego-focused, byline-driven reporters find comfortable.

A chance to do journalisna out of the reach of any lone wolf

Journalists in these newsrooms often work in teams, realising that to report on many of the complex stories of the world requires multiple skillsets rarely possessed by a single reporter. Again, this ability to put a team of reporters on a subject is largely a privilege of a newsroom whose function it is to provide evidence-based reporting rather than pinning down a top line of a story that might drive up social shares and clicks. The multi-disciplined teams often bring data specialists together with deep internet research and follow-the-money specialists as well as traditional shoe leather-type investigative reporters.

The team approach to reporting has brought a new need to develop communication techniques and software. Many of these newsrooms do not have physical space - this is a cost they chose not to take on, at least in the early days of launch. It means reporters have to develop communications methods that are safe and secure, even when they may be operating hundreds of miles apart. Encrypted email systems, communication channels and shared document folders have all become the norm. These systems become embedded in the culture of the organisation and are supported by the top team - again, this is something not found in traditional newsrooms where investigative reporters may find it hard to persuade their IT department that they need to install and support the latest encrypted messaging system.

Collaboration usually extends well beyond employed staff. Perhaps out of the necessity of small resources, but more likely out of a desire to get the big story, not-for-profit newsrooms are open collaborative spaces that reach out to reporters working in other outlets in order to build their teams and resources. Investigations in a global world often stretch across borders, but with stretched budgets and little money to pay freelancers, the solution has been to co-operate and share. This is anathema to those in commercial newsrooms, where the desire to be the first to the news still governs culture. But collaboration has proved an enormous string to the bow of the not-for-profit sector. The biggest global investigation of all time, the Panama Papers, for example, was co-ordinated by a small Washington-based not-for-profit organisation, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. The Panama Papers collaboration gathered journalists together from around the world to dig into millions of leaked financial documents. The result was the revelation of the inner workings of the off-shore system and those who used it to launder money. The work had enormous impact not only on the world’s financial systems but also on the world of journalism. The Panama Papers showed the sector the value of collaboration on scale. Yet it remains the not-for-profit sector that has really embraced the power of collaborative reporting.

In 2017, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism applied the ambition of the Panama Papers collaboration to local journalism. In the second half of the twentieth century, local papers across the United Kingdom were decimated. Many were closed, staff were cut and reporters that were left were expected to cover ever larger beats, with very little time to dig into the stories in their local communities that took time. In answer to this problem, TBIJ launched the Bureau Local — a collaborative effort to bring dozens of local reporters together to work on a particular investigation. The premise was simple: reporters across the country would collaborate to build databases that reveal systemic problems about the country they live in and provide specific local stories that allow people to relate to the problem. The promise of the project was simple, too: by using the collaborative ambitions of the Panama Papers, local reporters could have more impact than even national papers if they worked together on projects. It took a not-for-profit organisation to bring reporters from different groups into the same investigation.

These collaborative environments mean there is no room for the lone wolf investigative reporter of old. Egos and territorial attitudes to by-lines have been suppressed. These newsrooms are places of sharing, of co-operation, of team effort and an alien environment still to many journalists coming from traditional environments. Working on such collaborative projects does also mean that journalists in these environments have had to become exceptionally good at organisation and project management. Figuring out how to run a right-to-reply process on an investigation involving dozens of journalists reporting slightly different stories requires an immense feat of organisation that might take as much effort as standing up the top line. Reporters involved in the hubs of these investigations, those often working in the not-for-profits, talk about ‘herding cats’. It is a skill that those seeking to enter these environments must be open to building.

Experiment and innovate

The experimental, ambitious approach of these newsrooms has also produced environments open to innovation. Over the past decade, many of the noteworthy innovations of the industry have come out of tiny not-for-profits. Perhaps the most extraordinary of these innovations has been Bellingcat, the citizen journalism community that uses the power of the Internet to search images and video to get at stories that even the best investigative journalists felt were out of reach. Bellingcat was the organisation that provided evidence proving Malaysian Airline Flight 17 (MH 17) had been brought down by Russian missiles. It was also the organisation that coordinated the identification of the Russian spies that had attempted an assassination of a Russian double agent in Salisbury in England. The organisation uses methods that its founder Eliot Higgins developed. Calling it Open Source Intelligence, Higgins has built a community of journalists all trained in the techniques, many of whom use their spare time to track down information online and reveal stories that seem impossible to other reporters. It is the pursuit of the truth, not the commercial value of the findings, that drives the hundreds of volunteers that operate in the community.

This can be a risky business. Eliot Higgins is not a stranger to threat. But risk is something that the not-for-profit space has embraced. The organisations working in the space may be small, but it is through revealing wrongdoing and big-scale wrongdoing that attracts the funds. Traditional newspapers which have to balance the financial return (will it bring in readers?) with the financial risk (will it upset advertisers? can the potential cost of a lawsuit be balanced out by reader interest?) often find the calculations do not stack up in favour of investigative reporting. But in the not-for-profit newsrooms, these are not questions that need to be asked. This is not to suggest that they take unnecessary risks, or that they are not ultra-careful to ensure their work is thoroughly sourced, fact-checked and legalled. The level of fact checking and legal scrutiny undertaken in some of the better not-for-profits is second to none. It is the basis upon which the decision is made that differs, and this can affect the decision process right from the beginning. Not-for-profits are often much more open to trying what might seem an impossible investigation, because the reveal really would be important, global and impactful. It also means they are often more prepared to focus on potential litigious targets. The Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project in Bosnia, for example, has built a successful, well-funded organisation on the back of the mission to bring the corrupt to justice. Story after story take on some of the richest, most powerful individuals in the world. And they are proud of the level of risk they take. It is this sense of braver}', of taking on the world from often a small team, that makes these fun places to work.12

These approaches do not necessarily make the not-for-profit sector an easy place to work. These newsrooms are demanding. Burn-out is very real. Long hours a norm. Juggling usual. And few are known for their high salary cheques. There is also the question of sustainability. Even with the millions of philanthropic dollars pouring into the sector, it is still one searching for sustainability. But with these smaller newsrooms increasingly producing the great investigative scoops and taking the lead on proper accountability reporting — it is a sector that is finding its feet, getting recognised and attracting talent. Its successes also mean that the models, the methods and the value systems employed are starting to stick and seep into traditional newsrooms. As a result, many of the changes in investigative reporting are being inspired outside the traditional places known for their commitment to the practice, and are instead coming out of not-for-profit, small, new start-ups.

Notes

  • 1 https://gijn.org
  • 2 www.revealnews.org/financialdocuments and www.propublica.org/about/documents
  • 3 https://unearthed.greenpeace.org/
  • 4 www.hrw.org/ and www.globalwitness.org/en/
  • 5 https://assets-c3.propublica.org/pdf/reports/propublica-2019-annual-report.pdf, p26
  • 6 https://thebristolcable.org/about/
  • 7 www.documentcloud.org/documents/4638466-Impactreport-AUG-18.html
  • 8 https://projects.propublica.org/docdollars/
  • 9 http://apps.cironline.org/pesticides/
  • 10 https://council-sell-off.thebureauinvestigates.com/
  • 11 www.propublica.org/awards/
  • 12 www.occrp.org/en

References

Abernathy, P. M. (2018). The Expanding News Desert, www.usnewsdeserts.com/reports/ expanding-news-desert/loss-of-local-news/

Dobrin, P. (2018). Obituaries, HF ‘Gerry’ Lenfest. The Philadelphia Inquirer. 5 August 2018.

Kaplan, D. (2020). Communication with author. 7 February 2020.

Mayhew, F. (2019). UK local newspaper closures: Net loss of 245 titles since 2005. Press

Gazette. 11 February 2019.

 
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