Introduction

In the three years since its founding in 2009, Seattle news nonprofit InvestigateWest had racked up an enviable record. The three-person operation, bolstered by interns and freelancers, had spurred the passage of three public safety laws, prompted a college to reform its handling of sexual assault cases, and led the federal government to fund a study of the health impact of a Superfund site. By 2011, InvestigateWest had honed an approach to working collaboratively on stories with broadcasters, both public and commercial, and was adept at coordinating and staging coverage across print, online and broadcast platforms. The outfit had come to describe itself as a journalism studio, fielding ideas and deciding on their best treatment, packaging and distribution.

Financial support, however, came disproportionately from foundations, which provided some 90 percent of InvestigateWest’s 2011 budget of $250,000. InvestigateWest realized it had to develop a more sustainable business plan. Matters came to a head after Executive Director Rita Hibbard resigned in August 2011 and the board of directors—experienced journalists, managers and executives—assumed a much more active role. 

In late 2011, Board Chairman Brian Reich brought in as a consultant Jason Alcorn, a business acquaintance with experience in Internet marketing for nonprofits. At the December board meeting, the board gave Alcorn and co-founders Robert McClure and Carol Smith a lengthy to-do list: complete reporting projects already underway; increase fundraising; line up 90-day contingency funding; and write a formal business plan.

The trio decided to focus on the business plan, and by February 2012 had the board’s approval. Covering 2012-2014, the aggressive strategy called for collaboration as before but, when possible, also training and mentoring, consulting, speaking, hosting community events, and other roles not traditionally associated with investigative journalism. A first opportunity to test it came in April, when McClure embarked on a major project keyed to the 40th anniversary of the Clean Water Act. InvestigateWest’s partner on the multi-platform reporting enterprise would be EarthFix, a Northwest public broadcasting environmental news consortium based at Oregon Public Broadcasting.

EarthFix wanted IW not only to help report and edit the stories, but also to help with design, rollout and marketing. InvestigateWest would bring considerable heft to the project through investigative techniques, including database analysis and public record searches. But as McClure, Alcorn and Smith looked at the arrangement with EarthFix, they wondered if they would be able to live up to the terms of their own strategic plan. Had they over-promised? Was this a plausible growth strategy?