Plan into Action

Meanwhile, IW continued to produce high quality work. In December 2011, it released Where There’s Smoke, There’s Sickness,a story on the air pollution and sickness caused by wood smoke. The piece was produced as part of a collaborative series on regional air pollution with EarthFix, a public broadcasting environmental news project, and Northwest News Network, a consortium of public radio stations.

In early 2012, Smith’s six-month investigation into prescription drug abuse ran as a half-hour documentary on KCTS, as the A1 story in the Sunday edition of theSpokane Spokesman-Review and on the Crosscut website. The story played well on the individual media and was successfully staged across platforms. The Crosscut articles, which were published before the documentary aired, promoted it. The stories on Crosscut spent several days at the top of the site’s most viewed list, prolonging the free advertising for KCTS. Smith also talked about the coverage on KUOW. In keeping with their new plan, IW posted ancillary material from the prescription drug abuse reporting to its website. Explains Alcorn:

We try to keep something exclusively on our site, in most cases. Not necessarily original, unique reporting, but the artifacts of reporting: interviews, photographs, data, public records.

Trial run. Meanwhile, an occasion arose to test the new strategic plan more fully. McClure had been covering the Clean Water Act since the late 1980s, when he reported on the Everglades. Not a fan of anniversary hooks, he nonetheless had had the idea several years earlier to produce a package linked to the Act’s 40th anniversary, which fell on October 18, 2012. He recalls: “It struck me as an important opportunity to critique a bedrock environmental statute.”

IW had started to pursue funding for the project as early as June 2011 when, together with the New England Center for Investigative Reporting and CPI, it applied for a six-figure grant from a large foundation. But they failed to secure the money. Then in January 2012, INN brokered a conversation between IW, Oregon Public Broadcasting (OPB) and EarthFix, with whom IW had already worked on the December 2011 wood smoke story. As it turned out, OPB had recent polling data showing that clean water was Northwest residents' top environmental concern. In February 2012, InvestigateWest signed a deal with EarthFix for six months’ coverage of the Clean Water Act anniversary.

In negotiating with EarthFix, Alcorn operated from the new playbook. He committed IW to a package of five major stories, for which it would earn $20,000. McClure would act as lead reporter, coordinate the coverage with EarthFix reporters and would be on call to provide support. Alcorn would handle the story design, its rollout, marketing and audience building, while Smith handled some of the editing. EarthFix’s public-broadcaster members would carry the content on their half dozen websites while IW retained rights to use the material on its website. But Alcorn also stressed training and consulting. He explains:

The reason that they’re paying us to do this is not just to write the stories for them, but for Robert [McClure] and myself to work with their staff—phenomenal broadcast journalists, but not all of them have done investigative reporting. Not all of them have done public record searches. Not all of them can look at an EPA database and parse it and say, based on the data, here’s the polluter that we need to go talk to… And there’s training, mentoring, consulting aspects to it that will help EarthFix strengthen its ability to do investigative reporting.

The contract with EarthFix played to InvestigateWest’s strengths. It built on earlier experience, and reached into new territory as the business plan envisioned. But no sooner was the ink dry on the deal than the IW team began to wonder whether it had made a good call. Would they be able to supply a steady stream of in-depth reporting to EarthFix while also providing training, help with design and presentation, and marketing? How would they handle the logistics of working with reporters and editors spread out across the Northwest?

What about the other IW strategic goals—to pursue other reporting projects and foundation grants, revive the membership campaign, make donor appeals, explore opportunities for events and speaking engagements, upgrade the publishing platform, and supply its expanded capacity for content? They wanted to do a first-rate job for EarthFix—and still move forward on those other plans. How would they find the capacity to pursue all of them simultaneously? Perhaps they should scale back and focus on one at a time.