Amid the decimation of local newspapers, something remarkable is happening.
The Seattle Times and some other legacy newspapers are rebuilding and enlarging investigative teams, by supplementing their for-profit business with charitable support.
This is one way that newspapers, after being gutted by economic disruptions, are finding a way to continue their critical role providing public-service and accountability journalism.
It’s too soon to say this is a solution to the journalism crisis. The industry is still contracting as it awaits structural changes, such as antitrust enforcement and reforms, to give local newspapers a fair shot at building digital ad businesses.
But the success of this approach at newspapers, and the growth of stand-alone investigative news nonprofits such as ProPublica, show the wide support and interest in sustaining this work.
Take it from Carolyn Edwards, a retired teacher in Kirkland who twice donated to The Seattle Times Investigative Journalism Fund.
“Journalism is the only way we get any kind of accountability for our government officials — we are losing newspapers right and left,” Edwards told me last week, adding that, “I don’t think people appreciate how much legwork it takes.”
Indeed, and the support of Edwards and others is tremendous.
Since the IJF was announced in September 2019, it raised $1.82 million from nearly 900 donors, mostly individuals plus larger gifts from several charitable foundations. A list and a link to donate are provided at company.seattletimes.com/investigativefund/.
That’s enabled The Times’ investigative team to more than double, with six investigative reporters and editors currently funded by the IJF.
Altogether the team has nine employees, plus a tenth temporarily funded through ProPublica.
Others with similar investigative funds include The Miami Herald and the publisher of The Advocate and The Times Picayune in Louisiana.
Gordon Russell, managing editor for investigations at The Advocate, said its program was inspired by a workshop where The Times shared its new approach with other papers.
The Louisiana Investigative Journalism Fund, announced last December, raised 1.5 million, including a $1 million grant from the Ford Foundation. It recently completed hiring to double its investigative team from four to eight.
“It seems like a model that works and is replicable,” Russell said.
Although the funding isn’t perpetual, and is currently enough for three years, Russell said it provides “a decent runway.” It means the paper will have to keep raising money and looking for ways to fund the work forever.
The real hope is that the papers are building a more sustainable business model “and maybe someday we won’t need to raise the money,” Russell said.
In Seattle, The Times has pursued a hybrid business model, with philanthropic support for special reporting projects, for a decade. That led to “labs” focused on topics like education, transportation, homelessness and mental health, supported by grants.
The IJF took a new approach by seeking support from the community at large. It is also hosted by a nonprofit, the Seattle Foundation, so donations are tax deductible.
That’s enabled the newsroom to recover somewhat from downsizing over the last decade as the traditional advertising business evaporated. Currently 27 of the newsroom’s approximately 170 employees are funded this way. For context, the newsroom is about half the size it was when I was hired in 1998.
Community support has especially helped the investigative team recover. At one point it shrank to just a few employees after cutbacks and attrition.
Every department in the newspaper performs a critical service. Each section builds the audience and gets more people to read and subscribe, so the community is more informed. Stories in all sections may be investigative.
But having a dedicated investigative team enables an outlet to dig deeper and spend more time reporting complex and important stories.
Investigative teams bolster entire newsrooms, by adding team members with specialized skills such as expertise in obtaining public records or analyzing data. They also help a newsroom’s culture.
“It’s easy to recruit here because there’s a sort of foundational interest and skill in doing investigative work in all corners of the newsroom, and from the publisher on down, we have management that wants to see it and supports that reporting,” Jonathan Martin, investigations editor, told me.
Martin said the team is just getting its stride. Right after IJF hiring started, the newsroom went remote in early 2020. Then the investigative team pitched in on coronavirus and police accountability coverage through much of that year and 2021.
Now the IJF hiring is largely done, the office is expected to reopen in February, and the investigative team is staffed up.
“It’s not an exaggeration at all to say this work saves lives,” Michele Matassa Flores, executive editor at The Times, said last week during an IJF progress report.
Investigative stories by The Times have exposed sports coaches abusing children, logging practices that precipitated the deadly Oso landslide and design and oversight flaws that led to deadly Boeing 737 MAX crashes, she noted.
Yet investigative work is also the most time consuming, difficult and expensive work the paper does, she added. Investigations can take months or years of staff time. They may also require legal expenses, such as lawsuits fighting for access to public records.
That’s why substantial investigative teams are rare, especially as newspapers cut to the bone to survive.
It’s also why the success of these new funding models is so encouraging, and why the public’s support is so appreciated.