Can Investigative Journalism Pay?: InvestigateWest and the Nonprofit Model

ABSTRACT

CSJ-13-0049.0 This case looks at the realities of creating a nonprofit news start-up focused on investigative reporting. Nonprofits often start with substantial financial support from foundations. Is this healthy in the news business? What about when the goal is public service journalism? How can news start-ups achieve a sustainable business model that includes a mix of funding streams? If a journalism organization offers services outside of standard reporting, does that effect its core mission--and reputation? 

InvestigageWest (IW), based in Seattle, WA, celebrated its official launch in July 2009. Over the next three years, it experimented with a series of fundraising strategies, from syndication to cross-platform partnerships to public events. Founders Carol Smith, Robert McClure and Rita Hibbard struggled with burnout, dependency on foundation funding, the challenges of developing collaborative relationships with other news organizations, and unrealistic early goals. But they also could claim real impact on public discourse and the legislative agenda. In early 2012, IW—which called itself a journalism “studio”—adopted a new business plan which called for aggressive editorial, financing and staffing changes. But as it embarked on its first project under the new plan, IW leaders wondered if they had overpromised; could they deliver on all the fronts the plan envisioned?

Use this case to discuss the strengths and weaknesses of various journalism business models from both an ethical and a sustainability standpoint. Raise for class discussion how to manage relationships with foundations or work with partner news organizations, as well as the commercial prospects for investigative reporting, and the ethics of online versus traditional journalism. Students will gain insight into what is required to succeed in the niche of public service journalism and have an opportunity to debate the options.

This case can be used in a course/class on the business of journalism; journalism entrepreneurship; editorial management; ethics; or multimedia journalism production.

This case has an Epilogue and a Teaching Note, visible to faculty after they register.

Credits:

This case was written by Ted Smalley Bowen for the Case Consortium @ Columbia. The faculty sponsor was Adjunct Associate Professor of Business and Journalism Ava Seave. (0213)

 

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