DENVER, COLORADO — On December 16, 2010, Laura Frank, the executive director of I-News (formerly known as the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network), delivered her commencement speech for the University of Colorado’s soon-to-be-defunct journalism school. Frank was optimistic about the future of the industry: “I now recognize you actually are embarking on this adventure at one of the most exciting times – perhaps the most exciting time – in the history of journalism and mass communication,” she said. “Never have we had the ability to both gather information as quickly, precisely and reliably – or disseminate it as rapidly or widely – as we do today.”
[Profile updated April 2, 2012]
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Frank continued: “Some of you – perhaps especially some of your parents – might be saying: Well yes, Laura, but the business models for journalism and advertising are collapsing. True. But at the same time, they are rebuilding. Many different models are evolving. We are witnessing creative destruction and we are witnessing the re-structuring, too.”
For proof of this, she needed to look no further than her own news organization: I-News, a modest, Denver-based investigative non-profit with a three person full-time staff and an annual budget of $200,000. Frank created the organization in 2009 after the newspaper at which she worked for years, the Rocky Mountain News, closed. “There were so many stories still to write, and no Rocky left to publish them,” Frank told CJR at the time. With I-News, she hoped to fill the void left by the Rocky, as well as other papers’ similarly dismantled investigative reporting teams.
I-News’s reporting has appeared everywhere from The Denver Post to Rocky Mountain PBS. It has broken stories about medical marijuana, sexual assault, and toxic electronic waste. One of its more recent investigations looked into how nursing home patients could be treated more cheaply if they were to receive home care instead. “We were on all platforms with this report: radio, print, online and television,” Frank says. Smaller, more community-oriented papers gave the story a more local feel, while NPR helped put the story in a national context.
“What we’re really trying to do is to look at issues that have statewide–or in some cases broader–import, but have very local impact,” Frank says. In its short existence, I-News has done just that. They’ve also managed to stay afloat: no small feat for any news publication in this economy.
“Our business plan is like a four legged stool,” Frank says. “The first leg is grants and donations, and it’s essential in the startup period, but becomes less so as we progress.”
The second leg, she explains, is their media partner relationships; the third is membership and underwriting; and the fourth is training, of both professional and citizen journalists.
The I-News team also launched the Investigative Journalism Institute for High School Students and Advisers, a one-week program during the summer that teaches students how to uncover information and analyze information using critical thinking. The program costs $1,000 in tuition. Frank and her team also train promising students from surrounding universities who go beyond the typical intern role and really help with the reporting.
“They’re really not your average, run-of-the-mill interns,” Frank says. “They are all very smart and enthusiastic.” That’s perhaps one more reason Frank remains so optimistic.