The Winners

FIRE reporters chosen for annual stipend

Freelance investigative reporter Emily Palmer, left, first applied to FIRE in 2016. When her story wasn’t awarded, she proposed another one, a collaboration with ProPublica colleague Jessica Huseman, right. It received FIRE’s full support, helping the pair win coveted Spotlight fellowships this July. 

We are happy to announce a breakthrough for a pair of enterprising FIRE reporters working on an in-depth national investigation.

Emily Palmer and Jessica Huseman, Virtual Newsroom winners in September, 2016, advanced their story with FIRE's signature services, including open-records experts and trained IRE researchers, along with a custom offering we created for them—data entry.

The work has paid off. Last month Participant Media announced that Palmer and Huseman won the coveted 2017 Spotlight Investigative Journalism Fellowship, funded by the film's proceeds.

Their prestigious team at the Boston Globe, of movie fame, in collaboration with ProPublica, has welcomed FIRE’s continued service to the reporters. Everyone looks forward to the results.

Also last month, FIRE awarded a new round of Editorial Consultancies and Virtual Newsroom services, including stipends, to more than 30 reporters—look for details in September.

Lastly, a personal update—in late June the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting released my own multi-year freelance investigation of repeated labor allegations against Monsanto and DuPont Pioneer over their use of migrant labor to produce lucrative GMO seed corn.

I sign off in even deeper appreciation for unaffiliated investigative journalists—who serve the public interest so ably with such fierce devotion, against all odds.  FIRE is dedicated to helping them.

Laird Townsend,

FIRE director

PS  A big thank you to the funders of my own story—the Fund for Investigative Journalism, the Midwest Center, and the Investigative Fund of the Nation Institute. Also, to all FIRE supporters—on behalf of Palmer, Huseman, and many other FIRE reporters like them. You share credit for their important successes. 

Grant Amount Increases

New Support Enables Higher Stipends 

Earlier this month, Project Word announced a new round of applications for FIRE's Virtual Newsroom, which awards stipends of $2,500 to $5,000 to 5 reporters. 

Since then, FIRE has received additional funding for reporters. As a result, Project Word will be increasing the amount of individual stipends available to FIRE awardees.

The same number of reporters will receive stipends—5 of the 10 Virtual Newsroom applicants selected. But the maximum amount of the stipend is now up to $10,000.

The new stipend amount is the only change in the application process; everything else remains the same. 

In addition to the Virtual Newsrooms, FIRE offers an Editorial Consultancy program. The two programs have separate applications. 

The deadline for both applications is Thursday, March 23, 2017.

For details, please visit FIRE Guidelines.

Launching Another Round

Deadline: March 23, 2017

Project Word is pleased to announce another round of applications for its signature program, Freelance Investigative Reporters and Editors (FIRE). 

FIRE, a collaboration between Project Word and Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), provides two basic services to unaffiliated reporters: 1) an Editorial Consultancy (formerly “Help Desk”) for an hour of reporting strategy and advice; and 2) the Virtual Newsroom, for access to a suite of newsroom reporting services. 

FIRE again invites applications for both programs. This round, we will be increasing the capacity of the Virtual Newsroom by about 40%, to ten reporters. All ten will be eligible for the Newsroom’s full complement of reporting services—from research assistance to pro bono legal help; five of them will receive stipends of $2,500 to $5,000. The capacity of Editorial Consultancies will expand as well, to 25 reporters.

This new round of applications builds on the success of our 2016 pilot project. In January, we canvassed the 30 participants in the pilot project. Approximately 60% of them were able to complete an online questionnaire and follow-up interview with a Project Word researcher. As expected, both beginning and experienced journalists reported benefiting from FIRE. The upshot was highly positive, as indicated by some heartening testimonials

The feedback has already informed FIRE’s operations and applications process, which we are always seeking to make more efficient and freelancer-friendly. We are grateful for the feedback. 

To apply to FIRE, reporters are encouraged to visit the program's Guidelines page.  Application deadline is March 23, 2017. (Those who previously applied to FIRE are invited to reapply.)

Breaking Through 

Empowered reporters, new funding—and a challenge

With help from FIRE's Research Desk, Texas-based freelancer Cecilia Balli broke open reporting on a political-corruption story. Photo by Joel Salcido

Freelance Investigative Reporters and Editors (FIRE), Project Word’s collaboration with Investigative Reporters and Editors, has developed a roster of 30 reporters, gained new philanthropic backing, and carved out our niche as the nation’s first center for freelance investigative reporters.

Our constituency, unaffiliated investigative reporters (those without a newsroom), face the toughest challenges of any reporters—from inadequate compensation to lack of research assistance and expert counsel to crack open public records.

These freelancers are among the most dedicated and effective reporters anywhere. They deserve a national service center of their own—which is what FIRE gives them.

FIRE helps the next generation of unaffiliated reporters thrive. We provide stipends, hands-on problem-solving, and customized matchmaking with experienced data experts, story editors, open-records specialists, and media lawyers. These services, which recreate the benefits of newsrooms, are collectively referred to as our Virtual Newsroom.

Right off the bat, the Virtual Newsroom already has helped these reporters:

  • Ben Hattem, working on a story about psychiatric patients, faced obstacles on a state open-records request. Within 24 hours, FIRE found him a state expert who put him on a viable path to obtain key documents.
  • Yvette Cabrera, working on a Latino-detention story, needed help creating the database at the heart of her story. FIRE’s two data experts allowed her to begin building the database. She’s off and running, finding the human stories to accompany the data.
  • Cecilia Balli, working on a political-corruption story for a major national magazine, needed to obtain legal background on key sources. We connected her to FIRE’s Research Desk, which enabled her to break open her story. Her editors have scheduled publication for Spring 2017.

Challenge

This approach is being recognized. In late 2016 the Ford Foundation generously provided first-ever support for FIRE—a $25,000 award to boost our newsroom services.

Between now and our 10-year anniversary in November, 2017, an anonymous supporter has offered to match personal contributions to FIRE, dollar for dollar, up to $75,000. This supporter made a transformative gift to us in 2015, and has now challenged other contributors to position us for strong years ahead. Inspired by the challenge, long-time supporter Josh Mailman has added a $15,000 pledge toward the match. That, in turn, has inspired more than $5,000 more.

In closing in on the full $75,000 gift, we’ll advance our objective of adding an editorial manager in mid-2017, which will help us triple the number of reporters we serve by 2018—from 30 to 90.

Virtual Newsroom Expands

FIRE stipend winner Yvette Cabrera reporting on her criminal justice story in southern California.

FIRE, the initiative to aid investigative freelance journalists, has awarded a $5,000 stipend and accompanying use of the FIRE Virtual Newsroom to one additional freelancer from its initial round of applicants—Emily Palmer.

Palmer, working on a national story on child abuse with co-reporter Jessica Huseman, joins a small group that earned the Virtual Newsroom back in April and are currently developing their stories with the FIRE Newsroom tools.

The Virtual Newsroom includes a range of services—from transcribers and contract editors, to LexisNexis research assistance, to general research assistance from the resource center of Investigative Reporters and Editors.

Another 18 reporters are receiving Help Desk Services from Project Word, which translates into an hour of consulting from the executive director on fundraising and story development.

FIRE also has chosen four reporters from the original pool of applicants to receive a combined package—Help Desk services PLUS the Virtual Newsroom: that’s full editorial service without financial support.

With this new service, FIRE can bring the Virtual Newsroom to more reporters than it could otherwise afford to help. We are confident that the results—strengthened stories—will encourage other grant makers to fund expenses for the stories those reporters are working on—and also provide stipends.

FIRE plans to announce our next round of stipend applications, easier and more streamlined, as early as November 15. (If a story is particularly time-sensitive before then, a reporter may check FIRE guidelines before emailing a brief pitch to application@projectword.org.)
 

Upcoming Events

  • Project Word is partnering in the Double Exposure Investigative Film Festival and Symposium October 6-8 in DC. The festival will feature new work in a cutting-edge medium for investigative reporting, with intensive discussions and workshops for practicing journalists and filmmakers.

  • Media Law Resource Center event, also in DC, on September 20, will directly address legal issues facing all reporters, especially unaffiliated ones. Those issues also emerged in a well-received panel at IRE’s annual conference in New Orleans, moderated by the Project Word director, on the business of freelancing. For more information on the panel, contact info@projectword.org.

The Next Round

After receiving 100 story proposals earlier this year, FIRE has begun providing a handful of diverse reporters with stipends and Virtual Newsroom reporting tools—from editing referrals to LexisNexis research assistance. We are also assisting more than a dozen additional reporters with Help Desk services—advice and referrals on story development and funding opportunities.
 
In August, we expect to announce one more stipend winner from among those who already submitted applications. Any 2016 applicant who did not receive a stipend is automatically eligible. While no further action is required, any reports or updates may be sent with the subject line, "FIRE Update", to fire@projectword.org

Meanwhile, we will be conducting a thorough review of the FIRE application process—what worked, what didn’t. We encourage any 2016 applicants to provide feedback on their experience by emailing fire@projectword.org with the subject line, "Application Feedback". We will contact you from there.

As soon as we complete this review process, we will announce another full round of applications.

We will continue to keep you informed on application timelines and dates. For the latest, please continue to check the Project Word website and our periodic e-newsletter.

Thank you.

Recipients Selected

FIRE services to six reporters

Freelance Investigative Reporters and Editors (FIRE), a collaboration of Project Word and Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), is pleased to announce the selection of six reporters to receive the first ever FIRE Virtual Newsroom services—stipends and accompanying tools to facilitate freelance investigative work.

The selected reporters and their proposal topics include:


  • Yvette Cabrera, a Southern California-based freelancer, on criminal justice and law enforcement 
  • Jonathan Richard Jones, a San Francisco-based freelancer, on US interests in the South Pacific 
  • Raven Rakia, a New York City-based freelancer
  • A freelancer based in the southwest US, on criminal justice
  • A Texas-based freelancer, on US-Mexico border relations
  • An East Africa-based freelancer, on a military conflict in Africa

The FIRE Selection Committee, composed of five award-winning print and broadcast journalists, chose the reporters from 100 applications covering a wide range of public-interest topics—from municipal criminal justice to US foreign policy. 

The awardees will receive the stipends of up to $5,000 along with the full benefit of FIRE’s Virtual Newsroom services—custom reporting services, including research assistance via IRE, a fiscal sponsor of Project Word. More than 20 other applicants are to receive Help Desk services, which will include consultation and referrals to advance their proposals. 

The Virtual Newsroom and Help Desk services, the core of this pilot project of FIRE, were crafted to address the challenges and solutions identified in Project Word's 2015 survey of freelance investigative reporters. The pilot offers a model to strengthen this valuable sector of public-interest reporting.

The next call for FIRE proposals is scheduled to take place in June, 2016. For details, please see the Project Word News page in mid-May.

In the meantime, reporters are encouraged to check the following additional opportunities for independent reporters, with deadlines in the next few weeks:
 
The Fund for Investigative Journalism
The Fund is currently accepting applications from journalists breaking new ground and exposing wrongdoing in the public and private sectors. Grants are meant to cover out-of-pocket expenses and average $5,000. The next deadline in May 16, 2016; detailed application instructions can be found on the FIJ website.

McGraw Fellowship for Business Journalism
The fellowship offers editorial support and awards of $5,000 for one to three months to a story involving business or the economy. The opportunity is open to anyone with at least five years of professional journalism experience. The spring application deadline is May 31, 2016; please visit McGraw Center to apply.

For more information, check Project Word's Resources page for a list of professional and funding organizations supporting journalists. If you know of any opportunities not included on this list, please email them to fire@projectword.org.

Announcing FIRE

Project Word is pleased to announce the pilot of a new program, Freelance Investigative Reporters and Editors (FIRE). Launched with a $200,000 grant from an anonymous donor, FIRE has heeded the recommendations of freelancers gathered in a 2015 national survey, which found that declining pay and other resource constraints were causing a crisis in independent reporting.

The program is a collaboration between Project Word and Investigative Reporters and Editors. It will provide two basic services: 1) a Help Desk for referrals, and 2) a Virtual Newsroom for stipends and a suite of reporting tools. To apply to FIRE, reporters are encouraged to read the program's Guidelines page. Application deadline is February 10, 2016.

FIRE Opportunities

Editors & Fact-checkers

FIRE has a small stable of experienced freelance investigative editors and fact-checkers who will work on a contract basis with freelancer reporters on their stories. Interested editors or fact-checkers should contact Project Word, selecting the "Editor/Fact-checker" category from the drop-down menu.

If you are a freelance reporter interested in applying to FIRE, go to the program's Guidelines page.

Untold Stories

Resource constraints prevented respondents from reporting 500 to 1,000 stories.

Over the past five years, declining pay and other resource constraints have prevented at least 500 to 1,000 stories from reaching the public and caused several hundreds of freelancers to drastically curtail their reporting in the public interest.

Those are among the findings of a national survey on freelance investigative reporting conducted by Project Word in mid-2014, which we’ve released in a 32-page report below (and which the Columbia Journalism Review has covered here).

The survey was the first of its kind that we know of—and it evidently struck a chord. Respondents left a remarkable outpouring of comments and we are including a selection of them in an appendix below.

Both reports portray accounts of a little-appreciated crisis: pay declining, editors overstretched, freelancers reaching into their own pockets to do the work, a resulting loss of at least 560 public-interest stories from respondents alone. But both also air a range of creative solutions from freelancers themselves. We hope these ideas will open a dialogue. We hope that dialogue will ultimately transform the crisis, helping independent reporters fulfill their role in democracy.

If you are interested in these issues and not already receiving Project Word updates, please sign up here.

Note on Additional Resources: The report’s Resources section includes many important programs and organizations for freelancers—inevitably we omitted many valuable listings. We apologize for the oversights and will update you with additional resources here. We welcome additional suggestions at info@projectword.org. Thank you!

Scratch Magazine

Essay on Survey

Multimedia reporter Ruxandra Guidi, a respondent to Project Word's survey of freelance investigative reporters, reflects on the survey's findings.

WordRates & PitchLab

Citation of survey

This Kickstarter campaign cited Project Word's survey in its pitch for a platform to allow journalists to share payment structures, rate editors, and sell pitches. 

Latest Survey Coverage

Inside Philanthropy, a publication reporting on accessibility, transparency, and accountability in philanthropy, had this to say about Untold Stories: "Foundations have done a lot of good work in trying to pick up the slack in investigative reporting. But clearly much still needs to be done in this area, and funders could find no better source for refining their initiatives than the feedback offered by reporters on the front line as covered in the Project Word survey."  Posting of other coverage follows in Project Word's News section.

Columbia Journalism Review

Two-Page Report

The Columbia Journalism Review, the premiere journalism trade publication in the US, covered Project Word’s national survey on freelance investigative reporting in a two-page story featuring quotes from Project Word director Laird Townsend and infographics from the report on the survey results.

Please join others who have come forward to support this important work. Donate now.

Story Update

Court denies Exxon, backs villagers

The story highlighted in Project Word's 2012 coverage of a human rights lawsuit against ExxonMobil—which appeared in the Dallas Morning News,  Mother Jones, and accompanying pieces for radio and multimedia—has taken a surprising turn. A 2013 Supreme Court ruling favored Shell Petroleum in a similar case. But on September 24th, the group of Indonesian villagers we profiled won a groundbreaking ruling in federal court. 

Announcement below.

ExxonMobil Indonesian Villagers Human Rights Abuse Cases to Proceed in Federal Court

(WASHINGTON, D.C. – Sept. 24, 2014) – In a significant victory for families of Indonesian citizens who were killed or abused by security personnel hired by ExxonMobil Corporation, a federal court today ruled that two closely related lawsuits against Exxon Mobil for human rights violations can proceed.

The Plaintiffs in the cases, which were filed in the U.S. District Court District of Columbia, allege that Indonesian soldiers hired by ExxonMobil to provide security at the corporation’s natural gas facility physically abused and killed family members who lived or worked in villages within the sprawling operations in rural Aceh, Indonesia.

“This is a huge victory for the plaintiffs,” said Plaintiffs’ co-lead counsel Agnieszka Fryszman, a partner at Cohen Milstein Sellers & Toll. “We are especially pleased that the Court agreed with us that the Plaintiffs had sufficiently tied Exxon’s conduct to the injuries and abuses that were inflicted on these villagers. We look forward to seeing justice done and to putting our case before a jury.”

In 2008, another judge on the District Court had denied ExxonMobil's attempt to avoid trial by rejecting the company’s motion for summary judgment, citing “evidence that these security forces committed the alleged atrocities.” The Court of Appeals then held that the claims must be considered under Indonesian law, not the law of the District of Columbia.
Among highlights of today’s decision, the District Court in a meticulous 43 page opinion:

• Held that Plaintiffs claims can go forward under Indonesian law, finding that “expert testimony indicates to the Court that Indonesian tort law, while using different terminology from American law, compensates tort victims in similar fashion to the common law.”

• Permits Plaintiffs to add information regarding Exxon’s conduct in the United States in order to meet the standard set out by a recent Supreme Court decision, Kiobel v. Royal Dutch Shell.

• Rejected Exxon’s arguments regarding the application of a variety of international law doctrines.

• Permits Plaintiffs to gather additional evidence in support of their claims.

Co-counsel Paul Hoffman of Schonbrun DeSimone Seplow Harris & Hoffman LLP,
said, “The well-reasoned and thoughtful opinion is an important one for the enforcement of human rights law.”

Co-counsel Terry Collingsworth of Conrad & Scherer added “Since I first met our clients in 2001, they have endured not only the agony of human rights crimes, but over thirteen years of justice delayed. We are looking forward to getting this case to trial so that our long-suffering clients can obtain justice.”

For more information about the case and the District Court decision, visit the Cohen Milstein website.

Nation Investigation

Digging for the truth in PNG 

The Nation magazine has published the latest fruits of Project Word’s facilitation efforts, a freelance investigation into ExxonMobil’s alleged role in a fatal 2012 landslide in Papua New Guinea.

The disaster killed at least 27 people at a quarry serving Exxon’s $19 billion Liquid Natural Gas project. Exxon has denied culpability. But the report found evidence that mining operations contributed directly to the fatal landslide.

To keep the project on schedule, Exxon and the PNG government quickly rebuilt a road directly over the bodies, infuriating mourners who were attempting to recover their loved ones. The report found that this was one example of a pattern of growing resentment against the project in Papua New Guinea.

If opposition within PNG were to derail the project, US taxpayers would be on the hook—the US Export-Import Bank loaned Exxon $3.1 billion for this project, one of the bank’s largest loans ever.
 
Nobody was reporting this story. Project Word identified the basic sketch, contracted researcher Hannah Rappleye for the preliminary reporting, entrusted the results to reporter Ian Shearn, connected him to The Nation, helped him raise investigative grants from The Nation Institute and the Fund for Investigative Journalism, and provided general administrative support (Shearn also produced a related video version of the reporting).

The story would not have otherwise appeared. Project Word believes the public deserves good freelance investigative reporting like this. We will work to facilitate more freelancers—and we are happy to do so through our new fiscal sponsor, Investigative Reporters and Editors.

The Results Are In

Hundreds respond to Freelancer Survey

Our national survey on freelance investigative reporting, distributed through a range of professional organizations in March and April, generated nearly 350 responses, which far exceeded our expectations. The responses revealed rare statistics and insightful comments about the state of freelance reporting. We will now conduct follow up interviews with respondents, analyze the overall findings, and release a summary to you and our survey partners, ETA September, 2014. Thank you to all who participated!

Freelancer Survey

Canvassing the Landscape

Project Word director Laird Townsend reporting on climate change in the Gamo highlands, southern Ethiopia, in 2009. Photo by Nicolas Villaume, Conversations with the Earth

In an age of shrinking newsrooms, philanthropic support has become increasingly vital to investigative reporting - and that includes freelance reporting. Project Word, a nonprofit organization that facilitates freelance stories for media outlets, is conducting a national survey on freelance investigative reporting.
 
The survey aims to inform efforts to support freelancers. Project Word is sharing a summary of survey results with almost a dozen participating journalistic institutions, from the Fund for Investigative Journalism to the Society of Professional Journalists.
 
There are two separate on-line surveys here: one for NON-freelancers, and one for freelancers. Both versions are strictly anonymous and confidential. All data from the survey will be shared in aggregate only.

Each survey has its own link. Choose your option:
 
1) Freelancer survey (c. 15 minutes, with option for additional questions)
Freelancers: reporters, writers, broadcast producers, or photojournalists who have done freelance investigative reporting in any medium, to any degree - regardless of the extent to which their current freelance load includes investigative reporting.
 
Link to freelancer survey:
Freelancer Survey
 

2) Non-freelancer survey (c.10 minutes)
Non-freelancers: anyone who isn’t currently freelancing but engages somehow in investigative reporting in the public interest - from staff reporters and editors to funders and journalism professors.
 
Link to non-freelancer survey:
Non-Freelancer Survey

Note: To generate the strongest needs assessment, Project Word is asking folks to distribute this survey privately via any journalistic listserv or outlet - or share directly with journalism colleagues. Thanks!

Deadline is Friday, April 4. For more information, please contact me at ltownsend@projectword.org. 413-528-6592

The Nation

Upcoming report

In November 2013 The Nation magazine arranged to publish another Project Word piece, with a tentative release date of February, 2014. The story, reported by Ian T. Shearn, investigates a contested incident involving a US company, with substantial political implications. We are grateful to the Fund for Investigative Journalism and The Nation Institute for supporting Shearn’s reporting. Thank you! The last Project Word piece to appear in The Nation was Teo Ballvé’s investigation of Plan Colombia in 2008.

Center for Investigative Reporting

Mutual goal

Project Word has a new administrative home.

From its founding in 2007, Project Word happily operated under the fiscal sponsorship of San Francisco-based Tides Center, which expertly incubates a wide range of nonprofit initiatives. For the next phase, we wanted to move to a more journalism-focused location. In August 2013, Project Word signed an agreement to become a fiscally sponsored project of the California-based Center for Investigative Reporting, one of the oldest and most prestigious nonprofit reporting organizations in the country. We look forward to working with the Center to advance a mutual goal: strengthening and diversifying investigative reporting in the public interest.

In Exxon's Shadow

As company leaves Aceh, a complex legacy remains

At the height of Aceh's separatist conflict more than a decade ago, 11 plaintiffs filed a human rights lawsuit against ExxonMobil, the world's largest private oil company. The lawsuit has been ordered to trial, pending a Supreme Court ruling. But now the company plans to sell its stake in the area, where gas reserves are dwindling. As ExxonMobil prepares to depart, Emily Johnson takes us to visit the people that it will be leaving behind. See also her radio piece here.


 

What ExxonMobil Left Behind: The End of an Era in Aceh from Emily H. Johnson on Vimeo.

Dallas Morning News

Sunday edition feature


After nearly a year of reporting this piece on ExxonMobil, human rights, and the Supreme Court, a team assembled by Project Word and led by reporter Ian T. Shearn has contributed the results to the Dallas Morning News. This story, which published on Sunday, September 30, 2012, would not have been possible without Project Word.

But Project Word's role would not have been possible without our hard-working reporting team, the enterprising editors at the News, and a growing network of dedicated allies and supporters. Special thanks go to the Fund for Investigative Journalism for a grant to 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.

The work of nonprofit journalism is crucial to  serving the public interest. Consider making a donation to Project Word. And for more on the story and related work to come, see the Project Word blog.

Legal Barriers

Lawsuit against ExxonMobil in limbo


In Project Word’s entrée into broadcasting, reporter Emily Johnson takes us to Aceh province, Indonesia, where we hear from a man who filed a human-rights lawsuit against ExxonMobil, joining more than a dozen other plaintiffs. They claim that the company's security personnel committed arbitrary detention, torture, and murder during a civil war. The case is on hold, awaiting a historic Supreme Court ruling expected as early as December. Emily Johnson filed this report for Free Speech Radio News.