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.