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A new partnership and revenue stream: 8 good questions with Robert Rosenthal of the Center for Investigative Reporting

This is part two of a two-part series on a partnership between the Alabama Media Group and the Center for Investigative Reporting. Part one focuses on the Alabama Media Group’s innovation in investigative journalism lab and part two is about CIR experimenting with new revenue streams as a nonprofit news organization. Read part one here.

Robert Rosenthal is the executive director of The Center for Investigative Reporting. He was brought in as a senior advisor and the inaugural collaborator for Alabama Media Group’s Investigative Journalism Lab.

Rosenthal

The Lab is an opportunity for CIR to share their best practices and lessons about investigative reporting and storytelling across platforms, while also experimenting with a new revenue stream.

While CIR’s revenue is still roughly 90% philanthropic  — from individual donors and foundations, they’re trying to generate more earned revenue, Rosenthal said.

Another nonprofit investigative news organization, ProPublica, began experimenting with new revenue streams as well and selling their “premium” cleaned-up data sets for a one-time fee. A Knight Foundation report last year “Finding a Foothold: How Nonprofit News Venture Seek Sustainability” looked at 18 nonprofit news organizations, including CIR, and their progress toward sustainability and the challenges they still face.

How did the partnership with Alabama Media Group come about and what is CIR’s role in the Lab?

The Alabama Media Group is trying to do innovative things and change the culture and show that they can do ambitious work.

One of the things we’re doing at CIR is sharing the things we’ve learned with other media, nonprofits and for profits. We do a lot with engagement and impact and showing news organizations our best practices, at least ours, in terms of getting your community, your listeners, whoever your readers are, getting involved.

So what I did, when I went out there last week, I had a story meeting for a day and met with a lot of their staff. They brought together a team of reporters and editors to brainstorm, talk about leads, collaboration, with the goal of doing the best stories possible.

Another key element is that a lot of the work that we do, we do across platforms. We think about the story — that’s the center of the wheel. Coming off the content, the different ways of telling the stories are the spokes. They represent different platforms.

When I came to CIR, that was the core vision, trans-platform, high quality investigative journalism. So you have the core of the information but you may end up having a long form text story, video, animation, use of data, even — we’re doing things with spoken word poetry with young people. I really came in to talk about our model and how it might work in Alabama.

Another key thing that we’ve done, which is very important for everybody today in media, is collaboration and partnerships. Since I came to CIR six years ago, one of the first things we did was have a direct partnership with KQED, a big PBS station in the Bay Area. I went to them and asked, “Would you share a producer? We need radio.” That’s been hugely successful and we’ve had an expanding relationship with KQED.

But partnering with for profit and nonprofit public media is crucial for organizations like ours to expand our reach and the impact of our stories.

Partnering with for profit and nonprofit public media is crucial for organizations like ours to expand our reach and the impact of our stories.

I met with people from WBHM in Birmingham. I explained how we worked with public media, and public radio and public television. As a result of that, public radio is working with the Alabama Media Group on the story.

CIR staffers will help explain how we work together when you bring in print reporters to work radio producers to enhance each other’s reporting and to get the story done for not only a news website or a newspaper, but also radio stories, which are told in a very different and powerful way.

The core reason we’re doing this is to help and I’ll be giving advice and not editing their stories, but we’ve been trading emails and talking to their editors about some ideas how to pursue a big investigative story.

We pulled reporters and editors in a room — the kind of thing you should be doing, I think, when you have a big story and it was important for them because it was literally the first some of their people had been in the same room together because they’re in three separate locations around the state.

When they were together, they had a lot more knowledge than they realized on the issue. They really came at it with a plan, stories assigned, a team leader, stuff like that. And they’re also launching this collaboration and partnership with the public radio station there.

So that’s why this happened. I think that’s a positive outcome so far. It’ll be up to them on the ground to report on a very important story.

That’s sort of the big idea. We’re the first collaborators of the Lab. We’re doing this and they’re also paying us. It’s up to them if they want to tell you how much.

The reason why I was willing to do this is because they have a really good and important story and I’m hoping that I can help them do an even better job on it and really make a difference.

Has CIR done something like consulting and training before? Is there a potential to do more?

The answer is yes. We do it a lot but we never charged anybody. We literally have people come from all around the world. Journalists who come and spend time with us. We coach, we train, we share what we do.

This year, we just said, ok let’s see if we can charge for it. Also last year, the Gates Foundation came to us and asked us to do some advisory consulting and coaching for some of their media grantees so they funded us, so we suddenly thought geez, people will pay us for this! So that’s what we did. We’re always trying to be creative and we pivot quickly and look for opportunities.

And this is something, as I said, either working with students or professionals, there are people who will pay for this. There are some people who understand what we’re doing who think we can make, almost fund our entire operation by doing this.  I don’t believe that. But I think there’s potentially a lot more revenue.

What I don’t want to do is to have this whole organization distracted by this. We’re doing it in a way that fits. There’s clearly interest and clearly also revenue in the consulting, managing, coaching around journalism and engagement and really talking about creating new forms of content, repurposing and taking the same piece of information and repurposing in really different ways and experimenting.

A really good opportunity for us also was around coaching and training news organizations to really think about impact. Not only after the story comes out but also during the process and really thinking about why you’re doing what you’re doing. That’s something else we’ve been doing.

What are some specific challenges CIR faces as a nonprofit?

From our point of view as a nonprofit, this ongoing challenge of sustaining the work we’ve done. Since I came to CIR a little more than 6 years ago, there were 7 people, now we have 70. and the budget’s grown 10x. We’ve won a Peabody award, an Emmy, we’ve shared a DuPont with Frontline, Univision and the Investigative Reporting Program at UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, and we won our own DuPont for broadcast. We won the Edward R. Murrow award for investigative reporting on radio, we’ve won a Polk award. We were also a finalist for the gold medal Pulitzer for public service. We really create content across these various platforms and that was the goal I had and our niche is deep investigative reporting.

 

Figuring out how to sustain high quality journalism is something we’re all struggling to figure out.

Even with that so-called validation, the struggle for sustainability is a challenge for all nonprofits, especially with journalism. This was also an attempt for us to generate some revenue. We have a social scientist on staff whose job is to track impact. She goes out and advises other news organizations or they come to see us. And through all of our consulting, we are generating revenue, not a huge amount, but we hope to earn as much $200,000 in this way this year.

I was in newspapers for a very long time. For me, it’s about how the technology has created an opportunity to tell stories in different ways than I grew up doing, which was writing and putting it in a newspaper and editing a newspaper.

Figuring out how to sustain high quality journalism is something we’re all struggling to figure out. Our goal, or our niche, is what we would call public service journalism. We’re in that struggle. We’re in the moment.

What kinds of stories do you think local media are missing — where perhaps CIR and other nonprofits can fill the gap?

We’re doing a lot with some local media. We can lend expertise. One of the things we do is big national data sets. One of our goals is to not only doing a macro level national story, but allow others to take the data to find the people who humanize the story. We make the data available to local news orgs and they take the data to create stories relevant to their community.

Did you grow up in San Jose?

[I did.]

When I was editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer, the newsroom had 600+ people. The San Jose Mercury News, when I was editor of the Inquirer, had over 400+ journalists. They had around 40 people covering business, the valley, and technology. The newsroom at the Mercury News today has well less than half that staff.

There’s so much that’s not being covered. Huge amounts. I don’t think anyone can fill that void the way a big metro paper did even 15 years ago when the staff were in some cases three, four or five times as big as they are now.

The big challenge is getting local foundations, community foundations to understand that funding media for their communities can be very beneficial for everybody, in terms of public service journalism.

So there’s a big void in local, county, and state coverage. There’s absolutely no doubt about that.

Some of the work that we do, and other nonprofit journalism organizations, especially investigative work, help. There’s no dearth of stories to do. There’s a huge need.  But I think for us and others, when we can, we really try to do stories that create data to make it available and bring in other partners to create that multiplier effect.

The local need is huge and I think from the nonprofit POV, the big challenge is getting local foundations, community foundations to understand that funding media for their communities can be very beneficial for everybody, in terms of public service journalism.

I think it’s a big void and no one’s figured out how to fill it.

What are 2-3 goals CIR has with this specific initiative?

Our goals may be different than theirs. We’re not editing the stories. But I think our goals are to share best practices. If we can inspire and help other news orgs, public media, for profit news orgs, help them do better do public service journalism or more consistent, it really makes a difference to the communities they serve. That’s very important for us and we use a phrase here, the “teaching hospital,” concept.

We’re very open and transparent about what we’re doing and if we can help other media see really how you can adapt to the changing technology and not give up hope and inspire people to do really good work.

And the last thing, if we can generate revenue from this to support our work, that’s a huge plus.

What’s the long-term goal here? In an ideal world, what will this lead to?

In an ideal world, more investigative, credible journalism that makes a difference.

Long term, I hope as a journalist that more investigative, public service journalism is done and that we and others help sustain that but also be a catalyst for it.

At a time when many newsrooms are still suffering from the collapse of the business model, we want to show that you can still do this kind of work. We’re at a moment where new news organizations are being created. I would hope that in those environments, big thinking, risk, and ambition are part of their culture.

When we do a story and we can share it, as we’re now doing with our radio show Reveal, with 100-150 public media orgs around the country in big cities and small communities, it’s really leveraging quality information. We’re not partisan, we’re not agenda driven. I really believe high quality, credible information is very important at this time for society and in time, it will be more valuable financially. My hope that the value will help sustain the kind of work we and others do.

We’re in a time of complete upheaval and change and these kind of new ideas need to be tested in a model where content, technology, and the business strategy have to be aligned.

Long term, we’re in a time of complete upheaval and change and these kind of new ideas need to be tested in a model where content, technology, and the business strategy have to be aligned. We’re a small news organization, but our attitude is that we can reach people and communities and help other news organizations around the country and the world.

I was involved in the Chauncey Bailey project. He was an Oakland African-American journalist who was assassinated in August 2007. I helped managed reporters from news organizations in the Bay Area. The goal of the project was to make sure that his killers would be brought to justice and that was accomplished. That was an example of people working together as journalists in a unique collaboration that really make a difference. That collaboration really informed my thinking when I came to CIR.

When you ask long term, when I became the editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1998, I never thought I would have a ringside seat to watch the collapse of the business model for newspapers. I learned a lot from that and one of the things I learned was that you have to be willing to think differently when you run a news organization today.

It’s time for innovation, risk taking, and experimentation around quality information. If we can share best practices and things we’ve learned because we’ve had to pivot and change consistently in six years — I think it’s a good thing.

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