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.
“The Seattle Times does and has done investigative journalism as well as any medium sized newspaper in the country,” he said. “It’s true our staff is certainly smaller and we’re able to do a bit less of that than we were before, but there’s not a gaping void of investigative journalism, either from us or from some very strong local television stations and a plethora of online news sites and blogs here. So the notion that they were going to come in on the white horse and give us investigative journalism wasn’t particularly well received by a lot of people, including me. That said, there can never be enough great investigative journalism, and the people working there are smart, experienced, very capable journalists, and we’re very happy to work with them and provide a venue where their work can be seen and have an impact.”
Gary Graham, the editor of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington, echoed Boardman’s comments when discussing a series that I-West’s Smith and Lee Van Der Voo wrote in February about sexual assaults on university campuses in the Pacific Northwest (part of an impressive, larger investigation that involved The Center for Public Integrity, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, the Rocky Mountain News Network, and other nonprofits looking at the same problem in other regions). Graham said he was “very pleased” with the content, and that the story (part one and part two) ran on the front page of The Spokesman-Review on two consecutive days (it also appeared on the Seattlepi.com and as a radio broadcast/podcast on KUOW-FM). But he added that he considered it a supplement, “not a replacement,” for the work his newsroom already does.
Prior to the “secondhand chemo” and campus sexual assault stories, I-West’s first big feature, published in January by MSNBC.com, was an article about toxic runoff from the coal-tar sealant used to coat driveways and parking lots around the country. McClure, who wrote the piece, called it the perfect example of the type of story that the mainstream media is missing these days. “I really should have been hearing footsteps on that one, but never did,” he said.
News partners have to pay I-West for these stories. The price ranges from the low two-figures to the high-four figures, according to McClure. “The Yakima paper can’t afford what The Seattle Times can afford, so all story payments are negotiated individually,” and finding the right scale has been a challenge, he said.
I-West’s current annual budget is about $225,000, according to executive director and editor, Rita Hibbard, who was previously an assistant managing editor and supervised investigations at the Post-Intelligencer. Roughly 80 percent comes from foundations and 20 percent from paid content and individual donors. Among the surprises of the last year was a grant to do white-paper research for the Russell Family Foundation about environmental issues in various local watersheds. I-West’s business plan had anticipated picking up such work during the second or third year of its operations, but the opportunity presented itself earlier than expected.
Asked whether such work presents a conflict of interest, McClure replied, “Yes. We’re getting paid by a foundation that is committed to the preservation of Puget Sound. But we talked about it at length and thought, well, we’re providing them with information that will back up a reporting project we want to do—storm water in Puget Sound—so why not go ahead and do it? It’s their information once we give it to them, but we learned something. You can’t unring a bell.” Moreover, he added, I-West has already turned down other white-paper research offers, because the knowledge gained would not have supported its journalistic work.
Even with such work, however, Investigate West’s current budget is a far cry from the $1.35 million budget that the team projected when it launched a year ago. Hibbard explained that that forecast was based the expectation of hiring a larger staff, which no longer seems practical.