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New models for news: I-News, the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network

by: Sandy Rowe |

June 07, 2011

New models for news: I-News, the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network

Can partnerships of key community institutions, news organizations and journalists support the watchdog journalism that has declined with traditional news sources? Sandy Rowe, former editor of The Oregonian, looks at emergent partnerships as a Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard University. One potential model is developing in Colorado, where Laura Frank founded the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network.

By Sandy Rowe

It’s not economical for commercial media to devote resources for labor intensive investigations or even beat reporting. At the same time, the work of many of the nonprofit news organizations is not widely distributed.
That was exactly what Laura Frank assumed when she started Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network (I-News) after her employer The Rocky Mountain News was shuttered with 24 hours notice by the E.W. Scripps Company in February 2009.

Even before the presses shut down, Frank was already imagining how she might help sustain in-depth reporting in Colorado if she lost her job.
Laura Frank is not easily ruffled or deterred. She looks the part of the attractive, super-organized suburban mom that she also is.  She conceived the creation of I-News expansively as an in-depth news service for all of Colorado, yet executes her plan methodically with a strong sense of service.  One senses she doesn’t often stumble and can recover and adapt quickly.  Her approach may give I-News the advantage it will need to be one of the local investigative sites that will survive.

This is the first in a series of excerpts from “Partners of Necessity: The Case for Collaboration in Local Investigative Reporting,” written by Sandy Rowe, former editor of The Oregonian, as Knight Fellow this year at the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University.

John Temple, former editor and publisher of the Rocky Mountain News and now founding editor of Peer News, an online local news site in Honolulu, agreed to serve on the board of directors of I-News because of his confidence in Frank.  “Laura has real credibility as an investigative reporter and as a teacher.  She had a real reputation for integrity and being a hard worker and accomplishing different tasks as a journalist.  She is a doer and that’s really important because she had to go out and convince people to give her money.”
“Free content.”  That’s the lure Frank offered on a sign in a makeshift display at the Colorado Press Association meeting in early in 2010.  Her bait was a multi-media series on campus sexual assault she had coordinated with the Center for Public Integrity.  She was offering it to Colorado news outlets and pitching her ideas for more free content coming their way.  She promised considerable time invested in each story, a rarity in most newsrooms, and the skills and expert use of data she had developed over a 20-year career.
That same weekend she got word that her proposal had won a $100,000 start-up grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.  With that in hand, she set out to visit every newsroom in Colorado, promising them eight multi-media projects over the coming year, figuring that’s how much journalism $100,000 would buy if she worked relentlessly and used freelancers judiciously.  The benefit to the news outlets of free regional in-depth content was clear.  She was candid with the editors that if I-News proved its worth in the first year she expected they would financially commit to help keep it going.
She had already made some crucial decisions:  I-News would be a subscription service rather than selling its stories one by one, so the time and paperwork required to pitch and bill stories individually wouldn’t dilute her efforts; she would not try to make I-News a destination site, instead relying on the successful distribution of her 20 Colorado partners, and she would tailor stories for each market’s needs; she would build the trust of partners through the quality of journalism she provided and a commitment to expand investigative reporting capacity in Colorado by offering training in database research and other skills to journalists and other nonprofits that might have a need for their own data base tools and skills.
Frank started with partnership at the core of what she was doing and has stayed focused on that; she doesn’t see herself as competing with legacy media but rather telling stories that aren’t being told because of time demands or skills slippage.  She has an entrepreneur’s spirit and is nothing if not flexible, seeming to have a plan for every contingency
I-News reports have shown how Colorado’s medical marijuana laws inadvertently have helped feed the supply of illegal street sales of the drug.  Most recently, I-News analyzed ten years of airline safely reports in Colorado and found more concerns reported in the last year than in the previous five years combined.
The work produced by the site in its first months spurred the editor of The Gazette in Colorado Springs to put $10,000 in his 2011 budget for I-News.  That promise, in turn, encouraged Frank to advance her timeline to moving to a pay model.  Now she is making the newsroom rounds again and expects to build to an annual partner revenue stream of $200,000 over the next several years.  Her partner subscriptions come in three flavors (and pricing levels): stories only, stories plus training for partner newsrooms, stories plus training plus commitment to work directly with a newsroom on its own project.
She also plans on future revenue from corporate sponsorships as well as a journalism boot camp for high school students I-News will begin offering this year and expanded training and sales of data services.
Still, she knows she only has so much runway to get I-News aloft before the foundation funding runs out.  She’s one year into a three-year funding cycle, with the largest support from the Knight Foundation.  She pays herself the same as the two full-time reporters she has hired—$50,000—a fraction of what they made previously, and gets office space and administrative support from Rocky Mountain PBS, one of her partners..
Greg Moore, the editor of The Denver Post, was taken aback last month when he first realized that Frank was expecting financial support from the Post for I-News.  But then she pointed out to him (and his investigative reporting editor confirmed) how much I-News reporters have worked with Post reporters on a complex data analysis of agricultural tax breaks and the eight I-News stories or collaborative stories done by I-News and Post reporters that had been published on his front page in the last year. Now he has agreed to pay I-News $40,000 a year.
Most important to Moore is that his investigative team, formed last year with six reporters and one editor, sees great value in working with Frank and her crew.  It adds expertise they don’t have and Frank’s willingness to work side-by-side provides advanced training for Post reporters.
That partnership approach is what made Jeff Thomas, The Gazette editor, willing to be the first editor to commit to financial support of I-News.  He can discuss story possibilities with her that interest him and get help in defining them.  He feels like he contributes something and I-News contributes something, increasing the value for both.  He would not have been as interested in a less-engaged pay-for-freelance investigative reporting model, in which he purchased one story at a time with a more distant relationship.  It is the nature of the partnership and the value from it that appeals to him.

Next week: Oklahoma Watch

(Note: Laura Frank was a fellow at Knight Digital Media Center’s 2010 News Entrepreneur Boot Camp and at the 2010 Knight Community Information Challenge Boot Camp.)

The News Leadership 3.0 blog is made possible by a grant to USC Annenberg from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Knight, in partnership with the Community Foundation Serving Boulder County, also funded I-News through its Community Information Challenge.

By Michele McLellan, 06/07/11 at 4:37 am