Reassessment

After Hibbard announced her resignation, the staff conferred intensely with individual board members and held several conference calls with the entire board. McClure and Smith outlined a plan to divide management responsibilities by naming McClure executive director and Smith executive editor. They also discussed bringing in a third person to assume many of Hibbard’s responsibilities.

Board meeting. The December 5-6, 2011 board meeting, held in InvestigateWest’s new offices, was a tense affair. Not only was there Hibbard’s replacement to agree on, but a key funder—the Brainerd Foundation—was demanding evidence that the organization was still on track before renewing its support. With Hibbard’s exit, the foundation was hesitant to renew its support in the absence of a clear business plan. Among other issues, 2011 revenues were down. Not by much—$200,000 compared to $235,000 in 2010—but not rising.

On the first day of the summit, as the board dubbed its meeting, the staff and board wrestled with fundamental questions of InvestigateWest’s core journalistic mission, the group’s strengths and what the next steps should be. The second day, they brought in community members and supporters, including Brainerd Executive Director Ann Krumboltz, to solicit their input. Recalls McClure:

I [reiterated] to the board that what we really are is a journalism studio. Like the movie studios, lots of ideas come in, lots of screenplays. We get a lot of ideas. And then we figure out which ones to actually go do and why, and who it would go to.

The board observed that, on the plus side, IW staff members had learned on the job, with occasional training on how to manage the operation and how to work online, in radio or on television. Through its embrace of multiple media platforms and relationships with regional media outlets, IW had managed to create civic engagement and an independent journalistic voice. It could even claim to have become an influential community resource.

But IW was not paying its way. The board pressed the journalists to work toward sustainability by aggressively cultivating new partners and funders, and by monetizing their skills in non-traditional ways. These points were hardly new. As McClure recalls, “staff and board were focused from very early on toward what we could do in terms of non-traditional income.” But Hibbard’s departure had lent new urgency to the task. Suggestions included writing more custom reports, selling research services, marketing their expertise in database search and data presentation, offering training, and booking speaking engagements.

This Swiss Army knife approach to selling journalists’ services met some skepticism. Smith wondered if there was much demand on the speaking circuit, for example, for a reporter who had just wrapped up a series on homelessness. She also worried about the time commitment: “That [type of engagement] takes me away from reporting. All of these things are good things in principle, but not necessarily do-able with a small staff.”

Alcorn thought it might be appropriate for reporters to speak at or moderate debates at civic venues like Town Hall Seattle and City Club Seattle, or appear on television programs like KCTS’ Science Café with an expert they’d written about. This dovetailed with IW’s emphasis on sparking public discussion and eliciting feedback from policymakers and the community at large. (For example, McClure had organized a panel discussion after reporting on storm-water and Smith had briefed a state senator on the health risks to chemotherapy workers.)

Finally, the board revisited the earlier decision to focus primarily on Washington state and Oregon. It saw an opportunity to build additional partnerships with broadcasters in Idaho and Montana, possibly British Columbia. At the end of the meeting, the board presented McClure, Smith and Alcorn with a lengthy to-do list, equal parts editorial calendar and business rescue, heavy on grant proposals and donor appeals. There was an air of urgency. Alcorn recalls:

The board voiced their support for the organization, but when you’re a three-year-old organization and a founder leaves and your cash in the bank is running out and the foundations are saying we need to see something different, even given the accomplishments of the journalism, I think there was a clear sense in the room that we weren’t yet on a path to sustainability. We had less than six months of cash on hand.

Alcorn explains the challenges facing the board.