the observatory

Blazing Trails, Changing Paths

Lessons from the first year in the life of Investigate West
August 3, 2010

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.”

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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 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.

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 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, 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.

“A lot of groups that have been successful in these regional investigative centers are about our size now. It’s a good working size,” she said. “We have contributing writers and freelancers, but I think that’s really where you have to start—with a small, core group and have other people on contract, and then you grow from there. That’s more realistic.”

Brant Houston, who sits on Investigate West’s board and is the Knight Chair of Investigative Reporting at the University of Illinois, places Investigate West in the “middle of pack” of the Investigative News Network, which he helped create and where he now sits on the Steering Committee. Founded in July 2009, the network now has forty members, but comprises a wide range of organization types, he added—from smaller ones like Investigate West, to older ones like the Center for Investigative Reporting, to those with different business models, like Voice of San Diego.

“There’s no standard for where you should be right now,” Houston said, but surviving the first year is critical for journalism startups, and he is confident that Investigate West will continue to grow.

Hibbard said that she’d like Investigate West to produce six to eight big investigations over the course of the next year, and perhaps add another full-time staff reporter. Smith currently has a grant from the The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships to work on a story that will look at the health of people in a highly polluted urban Seattle neighborhoods, and the team funded an upcoming story about cruise ships’ impact on local waters through Spot.Us. Besides emphasizing those features over its blog work, she and McClure also said that over the last year they have realized a need to focus on the Pacific Northwest, where they have the greatest expertise, rather than on the entire West, as originally planned.

All of the news partners interviewed for this article said they looked forward to working with Investigate West again, and perhaps on a regular basis, although they did offer suggestions for how the team could make itself more valuable. Boardman, for instance, hoped that Investigate West would get in touch with the Times sooner next time and perhaps offer a “menu of story options,” which his newsroom could be more involved in developing. Addy Hatch, the city editor at The Spokesman-Review, said that I-West should consider the length of its stories, which were clearly written for the Web rather than a tight newshole. And Bresnahan, at KCTS 9, suggested that the team add multimedia components to its print stories, although he added that he thinks I-West is “already onto this.”

For their part, Hibbard and McClure both said although they did not expect how time-consuming the logistical aspects of the job—fundraising, marketing, promotions, bookkeeping, etc.—would be, they prefer their new jobs at Investigate West to their old jobs at the Post-Intelligencer. (Hibbard laid out her rationale and tips for launching a nonprofit journalism startup in a pair of interesting YouTube videos.)

“It’s a heck of a lot of work and I think the biggest thing for a journalist to consider [when contemplating launching or joining a startup] is all the non-journalistic things that you have to do,” she said. “But I’d much rather be out there exploring that new territory than be back in the newsroom watching circulation take another 5 or 10 percent dip. It feels better to be out of the cusp of something new.”

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.