Defying Conventional Thinking
Founded in 2007, Project Word defies conventional thinking with its core idea: that “legacy” newspapers, magazines, and broadcast outlets are worth supporting, along with the freelance reporters who have traditionally produced for them.
While new media alternatives continue to experiment with ways to fund original reporting to the degree that legacy newsrooms once did, the public has continued to suffer the loss of those newsrooms. Project Word is a service-oriented organization, working gratis with philanthropic support, that helps freelance reporters and their editors overcome crucial obstacles.
Project Word had its origins in 2006 when Laird Townsend, an Associated Press-trained reporter and environmental journalist, was working as a features editor at Orion magazine. Townsend noticed that the magazine was struggling to fund and develop journalistic work—especially by ethnically and cultural diverse freelancers writing about overlooked topics in the public interest. He thought an organization might exist to facilitate such writers or stories. None did.
He decided to create the missing organization.
The launch of Project Word happened to coincide with the rise of online media and the deterioration of traditional newsrooms and the traditional freelance economy. Despite intense aspiration and innovation, the new media has struggled to monetize the reporting displaced along the way—and independent, unaffiliated reporters have suffered in the process. By 2015, when Project Word conducted a survey on freelance investigative reporting, it was clear that trends were depriving the public of important stories by independent reporters.
From the beginning, Project Word believed that these reporters had inherent value—that their independence served the public well. We believed it was worthwhile to strengthen freelancers from the widest possible diversity of backgrounds, helping them advance stories on important and overlooked sources, voices, settings, and issues.
Project Word began serving editors and producers by providing hands-on service to freelance reporters—including help with resources, pitches, developmental editing, and entrée to editors. With the loss of some 35,000 journalists and editors in the past several years, discriminating editors were becoming busier than ever, working with ever less time and money, especially at print publications. This meant editors could generally take fewer risks and develop fewer substantial pieces in the public interest—and in many cases had drastically declining freelance budgets.
For the first few years, Project Word focused on cultural and environmental issues, especially the underreported struggles of remote indigenous communities with climate change. Initial articles ran in The Boston Globe, The Nation, Mother Jones, National Geographic News Watch, Atlantic Monthly on-line, Resurgence, and Guernica. Project Word made these articles possible with a broad range of services: from grant-funded reporting, to intensive story development, to outreach to editors, to technical and logistical assistance. We helped writers to do the job, editors to publish pieces they liked, and important diverse voices to reach the reader.
By 2014, to ensure that this work could continue amid the challenges of the current era, we took a step back, became fiscally sponsored by Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), raised a modest amount of money, and used it to quantify and deepen our understanding of the main challenges in the field. We conducted a survey on freelance investigative reporting. We analyzed the responses, including 60 pages of comments. We released the results in a report, “Untold Stories,” in February, 2015. Then we set about crafting the results into a program we founded in collaboration with IRE—Freelance Investigative Reporters and Editors (FIRE), whose pilot project we launched in 2016.