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Operating models for investigative media: 4 paths to success

It’s on the complex end of the journalism spectrum. Investigative journalism is expensive, turns out few stories, is wildly unpredictable and often targets a niche audience. It’s fiendishly tricky to monetize.

Editor’s note: this article is based on the report “A study of European investigative media operating models” by Media Development Foundation. You can read the whole report here.

It’s on the complex end of the journalism spectrum. Investigative journalism is expensive, turns out few stories, is wildly unpredictable (any investigation might be a dud), and often targets a niche audience. It’s fiendishly tricky to monetize. Oh, and it comes with a ton of security risks and confidentiality requirements that can easily become a nightmare if not properly handled.

Making investigative journalism work in the digital age is thorny nut to crack. The red sharpie of cost cutting killed off many “expensive investigative units” at big media players, while a crop of independent players that appeared over the last decade struggles to make ends meet.

That struggle appears to finally be bearing fruit, albeit slowly. A report for the Media Development Foundation (disclaimer: I was a co-author), takes a look at investigative journalism as a value chain that goes from digging up stories to delivering actual change, identifying nine key activities along the way. Leaning on methodology used in other industries (see separate article for a more detailed discussion) the report is based on the hypothesis that when each step is effectively delivered the value of the investigative journalism is maximized. 

Not all steps are or should be done by media themselves. Many journalists balk at the idea of being involved in activism, as it may harm both actual and perceived objectivity. Nonetheless, if authorities fail to somehow stop the frauds and crooks exposed, the overall social value of the media that exposed them drops significantly. So, if journalists themselves do not run a given step in the value chain, someone else should – be it a commercial or a civic organization (see model below).

Much like in the old marketing story that says there is no perfect pasta sauce, but there are perfect sauces (specifically plain, chunky and spicy, if one believes the Malcolm Gladwell TED talk) – there is no perfect model for investigative journalism. But there may be “perfect models”.

The report finds that investigative media tend to structure themselves according to one of four models: 

– Fully integrated: media that do everything from generating ideas to writing open-letters or filing formal complaints to ensure their stories lead to change

– Content-producers: focused on reporting and editing stories, content producers typically partner with larger media to produce and distribute materials, steering clear of any activism 

– Local model: the new kid on the block, pioneered by the Bureau Local team in London, it notably involves the use of volunteers in structured data gathering and mobilization

– Competency-based: based on the idea that each step should be led by those with the strongest capabilities, competency-based media typically retain some activity across the various steps but depend heavily on partners to maximize overall impact 

Each of the models has its pros and cons. The fully integrated model is great if you have a lot of resources, can fill all the needed positions, and have strong management skills to coordinate (and in some cases keep separate) the different pieces of the organization. Importantly, this model is well-positioned to sustainably generate revenues via crowdfunding and membership, as the public perceives them as a direct driver of change – hence increasing the perceived value. 

On the other end of the spectrum is the content-producer model, which basically argues that journalists should not be involved in activism at all. Given that investigative journalism produces a narrow and uneven flow of content, it does not make much sense to invest in own distribution resources and production, but rather to partner with larger organizations to carry produced content. 

This means the organization becomes a “Center of Investigative Excellence,” able to train, support and guide journalists from larger media in their investigations. Given that readers see few or no ties between the investigative journalists and the content (let alone the follow-up policy actions), membership or crowdfunding drives are unlikely to generate much income – though it creates opportunities to sell content to networks or larger media (e.g., Investigace in Czechia provides content to Dennik N, a digital native paywall-based outlet operating in Czechia and Slovakia)

As the newcomer on the scene the “Local” model is still in some ways finding its place. Given that it uses a network of collaborators across the country to build the databases that are later used for the stories, it has a natural ability to then “localize” the output – which both provides unique relevance and creates a possibility for collaborators to push for local change. To be successful, though, this model requires exceptional data management skills – it takes a lot of structure and rigour to create a useable database. Moreover, in the words the Bureau Local director Megan Lucero, “stories need to meet three conditions: be systemic, be local, and be addressable by a network.” 

Finally, the competency-based model seeks a balanced, almost goldilocks kind of approach. Having an own platform for distribution, such media will still rely on other outlets to amplify their voice and have republications and resonance as a goal in itself. Similarly, they may be involved in some mobilization – making audiences to link them with championing causes – but rely on others to drive the process. 

Media that can effectively strike this balance and navigate a series of partnerships may reap the rewards – a prime example of the competency-based model, Hungary’s Atlatszo, manages to generate close to 60% of their budget from membership fees and donations.  

Importantly, each of the models is dependent on a different set of success factors. While data and project management are pivotal for the “local” model, the make or break for content producers is the ability to build and maintain partnerships with distributing media. In turn the integrated model is entirely reliant on strong overall managerial capabilities of leadership, as well as the ability to grow and retain talent. 

Independently of the model, most investigative media organizations are sub-scale. Content producers typically have a handful of full-time staff (typically 3-7), with contracted freelancers reporting stories. Yet even fully integrated players rarely pass the 30 people mark (albeit not counting various freelancers, which may add another dozen). 

While the upper bounds might seem high, it is barely enough to cover the full range of functions needed for a successful digital media. The Texas Tribune, a frequently used success case, has close to 80 staff members, while the Slovak edition of Dennik N has over 60. Newsroom now require a growing number of specialists, from engagement managers to analytics gurus or various product specialists. 

Investigative media, which rarely have the content flow to justify full time specialists, simply don’t have the scale to cover all these pieces. Irrespective of the model, this is a problem that still needs to be resolved. Options exist – investigative media organizations can expand partnerships with distributors, integrate into larger organizations, or pool resources at a network level (most importantly on the technical side) – and each are slowly being implemented.

What this means for the future of independent media organizations is still unclear. Some may end up taking the place of hollowed out investigative departments, become more closely linked up or find completely new ways of making investigative journalism work. Either way, roadmaps for success are slowly making an appearance, giving hope this tricky yet essential piece of the media world may yet see better days.

Source of the cover photo: https://unsplash.com/

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