Word Has It
Project Word’s national survey on freelance investigative reporting gave voice to significant distress over the current economic landscape.
One freelancer had a slightly more hopeful story to tell. Like others, she believed philanthropy was an important component of freelance reporting. But she also preached the tonic of self-help—including smart business sense, disciplined story management, and a bit of cooperation.
The respondent, Lee van der Voo, collaborates with a half-dozen other savvy reporters in a central office in Portland, OR, called “Base Camp,” Like several other members, she operates her freelance outfit as an “S” corporation for tax purposes, follows her own strict rules about time-management and investment, and generally learns the other side of the editorial equation as she goes.
“I didn't have the greatest business sense when I started freelancing,” said van der Voo, noting that she had spent her newspaper career behind a firewall separating editorial and revenue personnel. “I took the Koolaid about noble calling, upholding democracy, I was divorced from business realities. The minute they shove you out the door, you realize the decades of biz fundamentals that you haven't learned.”
Along with her would-be competitors, van der Voo shares the resources and expenses of Base Camp, trading notes on the business of freelancing, including who pays what. Beyond Base Camp, the group also operates within a larger regional network called Pitch Club—a meeting of about 10 regulars who workshop pitches and share publication news, including leads about changing editors and startups. A third group, called Portland Newsies, meets monthly to share industry tips, talk about new models, and just generally connect—“it’s more of a social gathering,” she emailed after a post-survey interview, “but something smart always comes of it.”
Project Word director Laird Townsend went for a solo byline with his investigative report on crops and climate for Mother Jones magazine, which highlighted the US’ “fiscal exposure” to climate change. Published on the day Congress began reconciling a Farm Bill, October 30, 2013, the piece profiled a community of West Texas cotton farmers struggling with drought. As a profile, the piece breathed new life into a topic. The farmers spoke candidly about the underappreciated risks and challenges they manage each year, especially in a drought. They also shed light on the potential ecological and fiscal vulnerability of a key component of the Farm Bill—crop insurance. The piece registered scores of comments, hundreds of Tweets, a thousand-plus Likes, pickups on websites like Grist, and praise on Michael Pollan’s Facebook page. We are grateful to the Fund for Investigative Journalism and the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting for supporting Townsend’s reporting, which included two trips to the windswept southern plains.
Project Word Story Releases
Dallas Morning News
Free Speech Radio News
The story on John Doe v. ExxonMobil for the Dallas Morning News, which published on September 30, 2012, after almost a year in development, is just one version of collaborative nonprofit journalism at work. A day later, Monday, October 1, our companion radio piece went out to more than 80 US stations in the US, from KSUA in Fairbanks AK to WMNF in Tampa FL, and to other stations throughout North America, Southeast Asia, and Australia. Next came our October 5 release of an expanded magazine piece in Mother Jones.
This reporting would not have been possible without Project Word. Project Word serves the public with rigorous, independent, nonprofit journalism, helping editors and producers develop important stories and writers. We focus on the most difficult stories. We help diverse reporters write those stories for outlets like the Dallas Morning News. That in turn helps the outlets inform deserving audiences. You can play a part by donating to Project Word.
In this case, Project Word stepped in because a complex, underreported story raised a fundamental public-interest question: Are corporations liable for aiding and abetting atrocities worldwide? On Monday, October 1st, the US Supreme Court heard oral arguments on a case, Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Petroleum. Like ExxonMobil, Shell has argued that only individuals—and not corporations—are liable for human rights violations.
As it deliberates in the coming months, the US Supreme Court will be at a crossroads. Its 2010 Citizen United ruling affirmed that corporations are persons for the purpose of their rights; will it now rule that corporations are not persons for the purpose of liabilities?
A ruling, expected as early as December, could in turn determine whether lawsuits like the one against ExxonMobil, brought by Acehnese villagers in Indonesia, can continue in US federal court. That is why Project Word chose to carefully report the ExxonMobil case and the stakes involved—for the company, the U.S. judiciary, and plaintiffs worldwide.
We could not have done this without dedicated supporters. Special thanks go to the Fund for Investigative Journalism for a grant to reporter Ian T. Shearn, to the Mailman Foundation for a grant to Project Word, and to Project Word's array of dedicated individual donors—all of whom rallied to make this reporting possible.
In addition to supplying newspaper, magazine, and radio versions of the story, we have updated our own website with Emily Johnson's visually rich multimedia piece from Aceh. Project Word will be following up in coming weeks with sidebars, related reporting, and links related to the ExxonMobil and Supreme Court cases. With additional support we can continue covering the beat of corporate accountability.
Nonprofit journalism can ensure that the media still produces the kind of reporting that is vital for a democracy. The newsroom of the future is supported by foundation grants and individual donations. Please consider donating to Project Word and follow us on Twitter below.
In a December 2010 story for National Geographic Daily News, Project Word writer Ruxandra Guidi, pictured here, reported an irony of the climate-change era: rising Caribbean seas and intense storms have threatened island-dwelling Kuna peoples, below, but a World Bank-supported climate mitigation plan has jeopardized their plans to relocate. Photos by Roberto (“Bear”) Guerra.
How can Project Word and its allies maintain and strengthen original reporting and media diversity in these economically challenging times? This was the central question of a recent Project Word benefit event at the Pulitzer Word room at the Columbia University School of Journalism.
We didn’t ask, “How will the media survive economically”? Instead we asked “how will the public interest survive economically?” They’re not the same thing. We put it this way: “In a world where aggregated content and new devices lure audiences and advertisers, how will substantial, diverse, expensive public-interest reporting survive?”
Attention spans are shortening and advertisers can use precise page-hit metrics to direct content (“we’ll fund any story as long as it profiles celebrities”). At the same time, savvy “aggregators”—entitites that post other people’s work—can lure audiences away from the very outlets whose original reporting they rely on. Those original sources are losing revenue, and their editorial resources are collapsing. That spells disaster—at least for public general-interest reporting.
Of course, economic opportunities abound. The Huffington Post just sold for $300 million. Sophisticated Internet companies like Yahoo and Google can reposition themselves as profitable media companies. And the use of technology and social media can help conventional or “legacy” news outlets become profitable once again. But it’s not clear that these developments necessarily assure the survival of public-interest journalism.
Indeed, new media companies like Gawker, Huffington Post, and Newsreel can profit exactly because they tend to aggregate other people’s work, rely on cheap opinion instead of expensive reporting, and do not really fund investigative reporting—all the while diverting audiences from legacy media that do (or did).
For its part, the conventional well-known “legacy” media are trying to catch up. They are integrating for-pay web content, negotiating digital devices, and enlisting bloggers and social media. But even if those routes succeed, the success would not necessarily translate to replenished newsrooms, bureaus, investigative budgets, or incentives to pursue the difficult stories. If Gawker’s sophisticated story rankings are taken as the Holy Grail, advertisers would pressure a publication like the New York Times simply to follow the page-hits, shares, and references—to stories like “Condoms with teeth” and “Mad men: out of focus groups.”
Of course, the Times would not so easily abandon its role as a public-trust institution. But it’s not a question of whether the “media” will thrive as an industry. It’s a question of whether independent reporting will thrive as a public good. A democracy will always need well-trained, -supported, and -edited reporters whose distinct backgrounds impel them to take on a special mission: seek what others won’t even think to look for; have the tenacity, skills, and independence to find it and report it well.
In the strictest sense, such work is not usually cost-effective, marketable, or popular. Nor does it necessarily carry the utopian glamour of high-tech multi-nodal communications technology. Its tasks are simple: to look beyond conventional corridors of power, pursue the highest-yielding questions or hunches or leads, find the most important sources or documents, convey the most revealing voices, and tell the untold stories in the public interest. This is plain old journalism— but the formula for maintaining it is disappearing with every newsroom layoff, and nothing has yet taken its place. Not even the hippest, smartest Silicon Valley start-up has managed to adequately answer the question—what will happen to complex investigative and narrative reporting?
The principle challenges
At the recent Project Word benefit event, a seasoned panel took up the question. Political humorist Bill Shein did a marvelous job illustrating the principal challenges. And the panel responded with substantial, thoughtful, and effective ways that practitioners are meeting them—as a special highlight, Alfredo Corchado talked about his work at the Mexico City bureau of the Dallas Morning News, braving the border wars as the sole remaining staffer. Because staffers like Corchado are fewer and farther between, freelancers have had to take up the slack, although they too are fighting for editors, space, and funding.
This is largely where Project Word has come in. Two Project Word reporters, Teo Ballvé and Maureen Nandini Mitra, described how the Project has facilitated their work. By leveraging philanthropy, Project Word allows auxiliary editors (like Project director Laird Townsend) the time and resources to help break stories like Ballvé’s—in this case, exposing USAID’s connection to palm oil production on land stolen from Colombia campesinos. Without Project Word’s editorial support, Ballvé’s story could not have made the Nation’s pages. And editors at publications like the Boston Globe could not have run a range of other pieces, including several well-regarded reports on a controversial World Bank climate-mitigation program. If all goes as planned, Mitra’s piece on Borneo will be the next in that series.
Along with Pulitzer-winning investigative reporter Ian Shearn, Texas Monthly correspondent Cecilia Balli described the challenges of independent freelancing, and the benefit that philanthropic support brings—especially in the story-proposal phase where Project Word focuses. Balli also described the subtle cultural and journalistic obstacles she’s fought to overcome, obstacles that Project Word has helped writers like Ballvé negotiate successfully. At the event, Project Word vowed to help Balli succeed next at The New Yorker, Atlantic, or another magazine of her choice—all to the public’s benefit.
For their part, panelists Brant Houston of the Investigative News Network and Ricardo Sandoval of the Center for Public Integrity described the recent successes of their own grant-supported journalism, with its unprecedented twist—collaboration. In response to shrinking newsrooms, their nonprofits have practiced enhanced communication and cooperation to yield a range of investigative coups on crucial topics, from illegal catches of bluefin tuna to sexual assaults on campuses. All these stories, including Project Word’s pieces, would not have reached mainstream media audiences without strong editorial managers like Townsend, Sandoval, Houston, firmly supported by grants and donations. This support only partially compensates for gutted budgets and empty newsrooms, but it keeps the scrappy spirit of investigative reporting alive.
In pushing into this terrain, the panelists were on the frontlines of a pronounced shift: commercial newsgathering operations are increasingly strengthened by nonprofit media centers. The panelists also pointed out the challenges of this terrain—from organizing collaborations of independent journalists across cultures and borders, to navigating potential funding conflicts of grant-funded reporting, and defending independence and credibility.
But perhaps the liveliest dialogue of the night concerned the role of legacy media. How do we relate to these newspapers, magazines, and broadcast outlets that have long served as arbiters of journalism? Will they survive? A terrific new documentary, “Front Page: Inside the New York Times,” poses the same question from behind the veil. But on May 24th, the panelists asked it from the outside—what’s the most helpful role of independent grant-supported reporters and editors like those on the panel?
Does Project Word continue to serve the Boston Globe and its ilk, while the new Web 2.0 models sort themselves out? Or do we dismiss the legacy media as dinosaurs—or “dying dogs,” as one panelist put it. Do we steer their disappearing audiences to our own media websites, as the aggregators do to theirs?
The principal goal of Project Word is to promote gutsy, honest, first-rate reporting in the public interest, a goal that any number of outlets can help us accomplish. Even as the new landscape promises other sources of good journalism, the Boston Globe has a track record. Its editors still want to go beyond empty opinion and digested press releases. They still want to publish writers whose instincts, skills, knowledge, and diverse backgrounds—ethnic, linguistic, geographic—help them uncover stories others couldn’t. They still uphold standards of fairness, accuracy, and impartiality. By supplying legacy media with good stories, Project Word helps those outlets move toward the fullest media diversity, retaining audiences and revenue. But to what extent and in what circumstances will support of these legacy media serve public-interest journalism? How else should Project Word pursue its goals? Where best to direct our resources?
The question is not likely to go away in coming years, or become less relevant. So whether you attended the event or missed it, we welcome your thoughts: email@example.com.
And please consider lending your support to Project Word any way you can, including making a donation. You are now a facilitator of a new newsroom, carrying on an indispensable tradition.
To donate by mail, please make the check out to The Center for Investigative Reporting, put “Project Word” in the memo line, and send to:
Director of Finance & Administration
Center for Investigative Reporting
2130 Center Street, Suite 103
Berkeley, CA 94704
Project Word’s debut article appeared in The Nation magazine in June 2009. It was a quintessential success story, highlighting the broadest range of services that Project Word makes available to writers and editors.
Teo Ballvé, a Bogota-based investigative reporter editor at the small but highly regarded journal NACLA: A Report on the Americas, had been struggling to publish in higher-circulation magazines. He had an important story idea: farmers in northwestern Colombia had lost their land to paramilitary thugs, and were organizing to claim it back from the narcotrafficker-linked palm oil companies that now held the land (many with support of the US). Ballvé wanted to tell the farmers’ story. He wanted to find it a home.
In 2008 he called on Project Word. Over the course of about a year Project Word helped him pursue his reporting, develop his narrative, secure funding from The Nation Institute, and produce a winning draft for The Nation. The magazine’s editors took it from there (no writer can have more than one editor at a time). Because Ballvé was able to document questionable involvement of the US Agency for International Development, the piece became widely read, spawning follow up stories in a range of US and Latin American media. The article was subsequently nominated for awards by The Inter American Press Association, Overseas Press Club, Investigative Reporters and Editors, and the Livingston Award for Young Journalists.
Compared to “The Dark Side of Plan Colombia,” which received our start-to-finish services, this article revealed Project Word’s motto of restraint—“Do what’s necessary, stay out of the way.”
The writer, experienced investigative journalist Mark Schapiro, wanted to trace the effects of controversial carbon trading on the inhabitants of a Brazilian forest. But he needed absolutely no developmental editing assistance of any kind from Project Word, nor any entrée to editors. Project Word never saw a word of any draft. We simply liked and trusted his proposal, as did Mother Jones.
Instead, Schapiro needed support to report from Brazil. So we provided that assistance, along with access to an indigenous Guarani interpreter and a world-class French photographer, Nicolas Villaume. The results ran in the magazine's November–December issue, and included a PBS/Frontline documentary. Both works were widely circulated at the UN climate conference in Copenhagen (2009) and Cancun (2010). Schapiro’s subsequent article in Harper’s (with no involvement from Project Word) also covers related material.
Like "Plan Colombia," this article highlighted Project Word’s versatility. It involved a range of necessary services, from developmental editing to a photography package, to entrée to editors.
From the start we strongly believed in the story, which originated as a project at the University of California-Berkeley. The writer, Jon Mingle, had learned the Zanskari language as a teacher in the northwest Himalayas. Later he returned for two more trips, which resulted in an intimate portrait of Zanskari villagers as part of a journalism course at the university. But he thought the story needed a fresh direction and guidance. So he contacted Project Word, signed up, developed the piece under the Project’s guidance, and hoped we would find it a home.
Numerous drafts and two rejections later, Mingle persevered. In November 2009, an editor in the Boston Globe's Ideas section recognized what Project Word saw in the work: insightful reporting from an indigenous community that deserved to be heard. Through his familiarity with the language and empathy with Zanskari culture, Mingle had managed to convey climate change from the perspective of an ancient village. Mingle portrayed people who, in deed and word, had something rare and valuable to say—not only about a melting glacier but also about adaptation and human resilience. Illustrated by the evocative photographs of Nicolas Villaume, the Zanskari’s message was as surprising as it was provocative, certainly judging by readers’ comments about the Boston Globe article.
This was an opportunity not to be missed: convey the first-hand experience of Gwich’in, People of the Caribou, with climate change.
In April 2009, Project Word took up an invitation to visit Arctic Village, at the foot of the Brooks Range in northeast Alaska, part of a larger Athabaskan-speaking territory stretching in to Canada. Along with a photographer, Nicolas Villaume, the Project Word director camped out on a hunt with Gwich’in hunters Charlie Swaney and Jimmy John (who fed us the caribou they took with clean shots, after brief, silent prayers). After the hunt we talked with Swaney, John, and their fellow villagers, piecing together an essay for the British-based Resurgence, a photo essay for Guernica, and other stories in the pipeline. The land was a wilderness of severe beauty, the Gwich’in response to it remarkably complex and resilient. But the effects of permafrost were wreaking havoc on a 5,000-year-old cultural tradition, whose survival, upon reflection, is more important than it would appear.