SEATTLE, WASHINGTON — Seattle’s InvestigateWest may have a small budget and a tiny newsroom–but the organization’s impact consistently belies its size. Founded in 2009, the small investigative nonprofit led by former Seattle Post-Intelligencer staffer Rita Hibbard has emerged as a major player in regional journalism, reporting on everything from chronic homelessness to the widespread poisoning of children by rat poison.
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In 2010, the site produced a massive expose on the risk of what Hibbard calls “second-hand chemotherapy,” the potentially fatal health problems that plague hospital workers who are consistently exposed to the toxic drugs used for treating cancer. The piece took over a year to report, and was the basis for a documentary for PBS and for articles in multiple publications, including The Seattle Times and MSNBC.com. For Hibbard, the project represented the best of InvestigateWest: high-quality investigative reporting on multiple platforms with multiple media partners. The story brought the issue to the attention of the state legislature, which is now considering the possibility of regulatory reform.
This complex reporting is supported by a fairly straightforward business model.
“It’s based on a three-legged stool: we have foundation funding, we have memberships, and we also get paid for our content,” Hibbard says.
These major funders include the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, the Brainerd Foundation, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Yet Hibbard also understands that foundations won’t want to underwrite the organization forever, so she’s looking into creative ways of diversifying their revenue stream, like shaping each story so that it can be told properly in every medium. For instance, those quick to watch a video often represent an entirely different audience than habitual text readers, Hibbard says, so it’s important to tell the story properly in each medium so it reaches as many people as possible. And the more pieces to emerge from a single story, the more they can sell.
In addition to her editing and fundraising duties, Hibbard also acts as a mentor and teacher. InvestigateWest’s three core staff members, with decades of journalism experience between them, work with a group of four student interns whom they help train. Hibbard says that the program is more important than ever, as the conventional methods of learning those skills are quickly disappearing.
“Traditionally, investigative reporting was something you learned in the newsroom,” Hibbard says. “Those kinds of in-house resources are fewer and farther between, so we hope to help and try and train the next generation of journalists.”