Against the Odds

In 2006 Project Word’s founding director, Laird Townsend, an Associated Press-trained reporter who was features editor at Orion magazine, noticed that the magazine struggled to develop ‘risky” 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.

So he decided to create the missing organization.

Founded in 2007, Project Word defies conventional thinking with its core idea: that good “legacy” print newspapers and magazines and conventional broadcast outlets are worth supporting, along with their many new media alternatives.

While new media continued to experiment with ways to pay for original reporting to the degree that newsrooms once did, the public continued to suffer the loss of those newsrooms. In the interim we believed that a nonprofit editor-at-large, working gratis with philanthropic support, could help freelance reporters and their editors overcome crucial obstacles, many of them stemming from the rise of online media—which still seeks to monetize the reporting it has displaced.

Progress toward that goal remains elusive. Our 2015 survey on freelance investigative reporting confirmed anecdotal evidence that the current system is depriving the public of important stories by independent reporters. From the beginning, we believed these reporters were inherently valuable because of their independence and diversity. We believe that it’s worthwhile to provide practical hands-on measures to strengthen freelancers from the widest possible diversity of backgrounds, as well as the stories they advance 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, largely under a grant from The Christensen Fund, 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.

To ensure that this work could continue amid the challenges of the current era, we took a step back, raised the money, conducted a survey on freelance investigative reporting, and released it in February, 2015. The survey informs our work to this day.