When Investigate West, an investigative journalism site, sprung up last summer after the virtual collapse of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, we called its founders—former P-I staffers committed to finding a fresh models for the news business—the “new pioneers of the west.”
Now, a little more than a year later, those pioneers have established a respectable and relatively stable homestead, and earned the esteem of the news partners to whom they have farmed content so far. Life on the frontier hasn’t gotten any easier, though. Members of Investigate West’s small staff worked on “sweat equity” until June, when they finally began paying themselves, and they have had to adapt in order to survive.
“Everything is going to take a lot longer than you think it will. That’s the first you need to know,” said co-founder Robert McClure, who covered environmental issues for the P-I for ten years. “The second thing is that you need to think creatively and not cling to old ways of thinking, even if those were new ways of thinking when you started.”
For example, McClure pointed to I-West’s decision to de-emphasize work on its blogs, to which it devoted significant attention during the first two to three months of its existence. In that early stage, the blogs (including the environmentally-oriented Dateline Earth, which McClure carried over from the P-I) helped the staff keep tabs on happenings in the West and figure out what it needed to cover. It also gave visitors, especially potential donors and partners, an idea of what I-West was up to.
With time, however, the team has became “more selective” with its posts. Citing the California-based Center for Investigative Reporting (a nonprofit investigative news organization established in 1977) as a model, McClure explained that I-West now strives for fewer blogs posts that are more meaningful (for examples, see McClure’s recap of coverage of last December’s climate-change negotiations in Copenhagen; I-West edited and featured the work of a group of self-funded student freelancers who traveled to the summit).
“As much as I love Dateline Earth, you have to let go of something at some point,” he said. “I’ve done just a handful of posts in the last two months because we’ve realized that we really need to bear down on the big pieces.”
So far, I-West has produced three of those “big pieces.” The most recent was an exposé about healthcare workers’ exposure to chemotherapy agents and the potentially fatal consequences. It was a well-reported and well-told story by I-West staffer Carol Smith, which highlighted the fact that “the federal Occupational Safety and Health Association (OSHA) does not regulate exposure to these [chemotherapy] toxins in the workplace, despite multiple studies documenting ongoing contamination and exposure.” It ran in early July (one week before I-West’s first anniversary) in The Seattle Times and on MSNBC.com. The story was also the subject of a thirteen-minute video adaptation produced by I-West and KCTS 9, the PBS affiliate in Seattle (a shorter version will air on the PBS NewsHour on Thursday).
The partnership with I-West was a major boon for KCTS, according to the station’s president and CEO, Maurice “Moss” Bresnahan. Smith and KCTS senior producer Ethan Morris worked closely on the TV adaptation, sharing research and contacts, collaborating on interviews, and reviewing the final script together (I-West photographer Mike Kane also contributed some video). Bresnahan said KCTS built on Investigate West’s “outstanding reporting” with some extra material (including a numbers of online extras featured on its Web site), but that the project never would have materialized without help.
“Public television is a home for in-depth reporting, but as much as we’d like, KCTS 9 doesn’t have the time to devote to investigations,” Bresnahan wrote in an e-mail. “KCTS did an analysis last year to measure the impact that cuts to professional journalism had on our region and found there’s been a significant decrease in coverage of public affairs, with the potential to have a real impact on the civic life of our region … to have an organization like Investigate West in Seattle, devoting the time to investigative reports, provides new, vitally-needed coverage.”
David Boardman, the executive editor of The Seattle Times, agrees that Investigate West—which launched with the express mission of finding new business models for journalism—is a worthwhile project, although he characterized the value of its work as more supplemental than sustaining.