Investigative Startups

IMG_1392Lisa Williams says she’s a fairy godmother for investigative journalists.

She’s the director of Digital Engagement for the Investigative News Network, headquartered in California.

This is a nonprofit, umbrella organization for news services across the U.S.. It represents groups that produce original, high-impact investigative stories – filling the gaps they say have been left by cuts to traditional media.

I met with Williams at a Cambridge coffee shop, across the street from the innovation space where she works.

Williams was originally a native of the technology industry, but she says she loves how journalism and technology converged. This well respected, journalism innovator was a fellow at the MIT Media Lab’s Center for Civic Media  and founded Placeblogger.com, an index of local weblogs. (Read about Placeblogger in Jay Rosen’s PressThink archives.)

“A lot of my kin are chained up in the basement of insurance companies,” Williams said of her former technology colleagues.  “How lucky am I, I get to work with you people.”

Williams brings her passion and startup sensibility to the nonprofit sector. All 92 Investigative News Network members are nonprofit organizations. The network helps these fledgling investigative forums distribute stories, find efficiencies by pooling resources and develop new revenue streams in the hopes of becoming sustainable operations.

“A lot of these centres are newbie entrepreneurs. They need help with legal and ethical policies and freelance contracts with lawyers,” said Williams.

The list of investigative news sites includes: the Ohio Centre for Investigative Journalism, Hidden City Philadelphia  and the Broward Bulldog in south Florida.

Williams says each news site must apply to become a member. It has to meet certain requirements including: being nonprofit, have donor transparency, be nonpartisan and apply high standards for accuracy, fairness and integrity.

The organization has no Canadian members – yet – but the Investigative News Network hopes to spread across North America and around the globe.

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Click the photo to see video from NECIR

Across the Charles, in the basement of Boston University, is where I find Joe Bergantino. He’s the Executive Director of The New England Centre for Investigative Reporting –an INN member.

The Centre partners with the Boston Globe and WGBH (Public Broadcaster) to produce investigations on issues including: campaign finance, energy and environment and health and safety.

“It’s constantly evolving and we’re looking for new revenue streams,” said Bergantino.

The New England Centre is a good example of what the Investigative News Network is hoping to incubate. This centre started out with generous grants, but it has since developed a unique way to pay for its important investigations: by training a new generation of young reporters.

Every summer, Bergantino’s team invites high school students from across the U.S. to take a two-week investigative reporting workshop at Boston University – earning more than $200,000 for NECIR.

“I see myself as an entrepreneur,” said the long-time reporter. “I started a newspaper when I was 9 years old. It has always been my passion.”

But for Bergantino and his small team, it’s a constant hustle, searching for new revenue streams.

Lisa Williams knows first hand how difficult it is to find ways to monetize investigative news. But the Investigative News Network sees strength in numbers. Williams says INN is attempting to build the health and wealth of each site, through the development of the network and by establishing a sense of community.

“I’m not sure the INN members feel like a “we” yet,” said Williams. “But we’re working on it.”

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