New Plan

Instead of tackling the entire to-do list, McClure, Smith and Alcorn spent the better part of the next two months working on a business plan for 2012-2014. With his business background, Alcorn took the lead. Meanwhile, McClure and Smith took off the last two weeks of December to recuperate from the strains of the autumn. On return, they decided to put other activities on the back burner. Alcorn recalls: “We continued to put out some stories, but we very much stepped back and did less fundraising, less prospects, less pushing forward stories that were in the works.”

Over December and January, the group commissioned market research and solicited outside expert feedback. In mid-January, the journalists brought a draft of the business plan to the board. Alcorn reviewed it with each board member individually and fielded input from outside experts, including Kevin Davis from INN, former KPBS (San Diego) News Director Michael Marcotte, and Sherry Brainerd and Ann Krumboltz of the Brainerd Foundation. By mid-February 2012, they had a final version for board consideration. It was ambitious.

Staff . Rather than continue as a three-person outfit with several freelancers and some interns, the plan called for expansion. As Alcorn explains: “The decision to expand was a survival strategy as much as a growth strategy. If something sudden were to happen to any one of us and we had to leave or take a leave of absence, it would be a challenge to pick up the slack and still meet our commitments. Staffing up allows us to expand geographically and editorially where we see strategic opportunities.” Another hope in enlarging the staff was to bring some clarity to the role of each employee, adds Alcorn:

In a three-person organization, there’s a trade-off between journalism and fundraising, organizational strength, capacity more broadly. We made a large investment in organizational capacity, but we [hadn’t] found that sweet spot where we are capably doing the journalism at the same time that we’re capably doing the things that will make us a long run sustainable organization. We swing back and forth.

They would begin by adding a senior reporter in the fourth quarter of 2012.The next year would see a dramatic increase—hire a director of events and development plus a digital news editor during the second quarter, to be joined in the third quarter by a second senior reporter and two journalism “fellows” who would work as junior reporters. [24] With the expanded staff, InvestigateWest could add government and institutional accountability to the existing environment and public health beats. By defining the junior reporter positions as fellowships, a suggestion Alcorn made, they would be in line for a new category of foundation grants. Notes Smith:

The education of the next generation of journalists is a huge issue. But it also opens up a group of funders that haven’t been available to us before, and so it was a really smart way of addressing something that was already in our mission while diversifying our funding base.

Marketing . Alcorn also proposed a new approach to marketing: emphasize IW’s role as a “journalism studio.” That moniker could attract individual members as well as institutional donors. He explains: “Our brand would be as a journalism studio with a set of supporters and members to support us because of what we were doing in developing stories and putting them in front of a broad audience across the Northwest.”

As part of that effort, InvestigateWest would beef up its website. Its goal was to reach anyone involved with its work, from readers and viewers to partners, potential members and donors, foundations, and IW’s board. It would post its major projects, and include funding credits. The result, says Alcorn, would be “something that looks professional, that is a repository and archive of the collective work that we’ve done.” He adds:

We think of ourselves as being in the business of news and information products. The people who finance our work—whether through earned revenue, memberships, foundation grants, etc.—should do so because we put out a good product that's compelling and has an impact. We want users, not just benefactors.

Revenue. Finally, with all its editorial success, IW had earned only $20,000 from reporting in 2011; clearly it was crucial to develop other revenue sources. In the business plan, the group proposed to revive an earlier effort to recruit members, on the model of public radio. If all went well, 1,000 $5-a-month members could yield $60,000 in 2014. With Alcorn as fundraiser, they also envisioned an increase in individual donations from roughly $5,000 in 2011 to a projected $50,000 in 2012. This was projected to more than double in 2013 with the hiring of an events/development director, and increase to $187,500 in 2014.The projections were based on a combination of industry data and personal experience and were vetted by outside reviewers. [25]

Although foundation support would remain indispensable for the foreseeable future, the plan called for IW simultaneously to pursue corporate sponsorships and individual donations, and look for revenue from non-reporting activities, whether consulting, training, events, or custom research. Alcorn, McClure and Smith made lists of potential prospects: individuals and foundations that supported organizations similar to InvestigateWest . This included the M.J. Murdock Charitable Trust and Social Venture Partners, and individuals like Seattle entrepreneur Jillian Avey and Judy Pigott, a trustee of the Satterberg Foundation (which backed social justice and environmental causes). They also researched potential corporate sponsors in the Seattle area.

If successful, the team anticipated steep revenue gains. From actual income of about $200,000 in 2011, the plan projected $324,000 in 2012, $551,500 in 2013 and $677,000 in 2014. Moreover, if individual donations and membership dues went up as hoped, foundation grants would represent less than half of total income in 2013 and 2014. The board approved the new business plan on February 27.

[24] Investigate West Business Plan, February 27, 2012.

[25] The February 2012 business plan cites the October 2011 Knight Foundation report, Getting Local: How Nonprofit News Ventures Seek Sustainability as one of several sources for revenue information on comparable organizations.