Muckraker - lessons learned post

One year ago, I launched The Muckraker with this post: “How much does it cost to launch a newsroom? £265, please.”

I started it on my own, with savings of £300. What began as a small side project has grown into a real newsroom, with new reporters joining in the New Year (more on that soon).

Through the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN), I’ve noticed an explosion in the number of non-profit investigative newsrooms. With the end of 2012 just a few days away, I thought it would be a good time to share what I’ve learned from running The Muckraker:

1) Investigative journalism costs money. Lots of it. Launching a newsroom is fairly cheap but running it is isn’t, especially when you’re producing investigative journalism. Next month, there is a £350 bill to be paid, the cost of our new website. Then another £100 to cover the cost of trips to Dublin and Derry for interviews. The following month, equipment expenses (a new dictaphone and hard drive) will come to around £200.  Later in 2013, a story will take me on a trip to Canada and possibly Boston. That – plus multiple trips to London to visit the National Archives – will cost around £7,000. This might be small change for a big business but for a tiny charity (The Muckraker is being formally registered as a non-profit in the New Year) supported by one person’s pay check, it’s a lot. If you’re thinking about setting up a non-profit in the style of ProPublica, do not underestimate the costs – in time and money.

2) Building an investigative news-only site is really, really hard.

Let me add a caveat to that statement. Producing investigative journalism on the web is not really hard (or any harder than it normally is) if you’re producing other content too i.e daily items about the latest news and trends. If your focus is purely investigations, you will struggle to build a web operation. The economics of blogging and online news publishing dictate that you must publish stories frequently. The average tech blog, for example, posts 10-20 short form articles a day. It’s how they increase their readership (and consequently, attract advertisers). But investigations can take weeks, months and years to complete. So unless you have a few hundred reporters working for you, you’ll never be able to post as much as TechCrunch. So you’ll struggle to build your audience and advertising base.

I tried to solve this problem by making the investigative reporting process more transparent. I blogged about the stories I was working on, never fearing that another reporter would steal my leads (if they were lazy enough not to develop their own sources, I knew they wouldn’t bother). This allowed me to post at least once a day, telling readers what I’d done and who I’d spoken to (unless I’d promised that person anonymity, in which case I’d just refer to them as a source). This worked well for the first 8 months of The Muckraker’s existence. Readers liked it; numbers were up. Then, I was investigating and publishing stories about low-level corruption and incompetence in NI’s government. When the stories became more serious, it was no longer possible to be as open about what I was working on.

The problem with setting up a web publishing operation in the style of The Atlantic or The New York Times is that it creates a pressure to break stories every day. That’s not how investigative reporting works. The type of stories I work on cannot be uncovered in time for a 5pm deadline. For that reason, I see e-books as a better platform for investigative journalism than the web. Not only does the reporter have more space to tell the story (no newspaper will publish a 30,000 word investigation) but revenue from the book can help fund their next investigation and allow them to keep reporting. No one has really figured out a way to monetize investigative reporting on the web yet (without running ads, that is). 

This doesn’t mean that you should ditch the web and flock to the Kindle store. The web is a great place to talk about and promote your work. Personally, I’m fascinated with the process of investigative journalism so I enjoy blogging here about how I uncover stories. But I can’t compete with the daily news cycle when I’m working on a story that could take years to reveal. So I don’t try to. When I write posts for The Muckraker, my goal is to show people how investigative journalism works. Sometimes, I’ll use stories I’m working on to illustrate that. Otherwise, stories will be published in e-book format and distributed on the Kindle store (more on this in 2013).

3) Don’t go looking for funding. Every time a non-profit newsroom launches, the founders say the same thing: “We’re currently looking for funding.” Their business plan is to woo a wealthy philanthropist into giving them a few million dollars. That’s a bad idea.

A few months ago, I had the opportunity to sit in on a meeting between a representative from a journalism fund and some non-profit news orgs. The message from the fund rep was that they were looking to pull out of funding journalism non-profits within 5 years. They expected them to be sustainable by then.

And most of them are not sustainable – yet. And they may not be by the time their funding runs out. If someone came to me and offered me £3 million to run The Muckraker, I’d obviously take it. Would I spend 12 months trying to raise £3 million? No. I’d rather be digging up stories. That’s my job. I’ve considered launching a Kickstarter campaign and we’re applying for a £7,000 grant to cover the cost of travelling expenses (for the trips to Canada, Boston and London) but The Muckraker’s mission is to expose injustice and write about it. Raising money will just distract me from that. If what we’re doing is valuable, people will buy our books and support us.

4) Do not assume that it will be easy. It is not. Especially if you live in a country like Northern Ireland, Pakistan or India where journalists with hard questions are not appreciated. You will be threatened. People you love will betray you. You’ll work late nights and early mornings. 

A few months ago, someone said to me: “This is the life you chose. You can’t complain about it.” She’s right. I believe what I’m doing is right, so much that I’ll suffer the consequences of it – even if I don’t like them. That is the nature of investigative journalism. If you really want to commit your life to this work, you must be prepared for the road that lies ahead.