Covering the Business of Nonprofit and Independent News Thu, 12 Mar 2015 19:10:11 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Media law guide for today’s startups Mon, 09 Mar 2015 23:36:40 +0000 One of the last things media entrepreneurs think they need to worry about when they prepare for launch is legal liability.

It’s a bad practice that can come back to bite them later.

To that end, the Tow-Knight Center for Entrepreneurial Journalism has just published one of the most comprehensive legal guides available: “Law for Media Startups.” Free on the web and detailed with resources and anecdotes, it covers everything from incorporation to copyright to privacy to defamation.

The legal issues involved in operating a new media venture involve much more than classic First Amendment law,” the authors—Jan Schaffer and Jeff Kosseff—write in the introductory chapter.

Kosseff is a communications and privacy attorney with Covington & Burling in Washington, D.C. Schaffer is executive director of J-Lab and Media Entrepreneurship professor at American University.

We talked to Schaffer about the genesis of this project and what readers can take away from this guide.

JOURNO.BIZ: Your guide serves as a “primer on the kinds of legal issues media entrepreneurs … encounter in running their day-to-day business operations and in their newsgathering activities.” Why is it so relevant now?

SCHAFFER: Media entrepreneurship is at an all-time high. But not every startup has a big angel investor or an infusion of venture capital. Hyperlocal sites, nonprofit investigative startups, single-topic sites may be bootstrapped to start. They need to know how to jumpstart forming their businesses without having to hire expensive legal help.

Or, if they need legal assistance, the guide may help them focus their questions or do some preliminary paperwork that might cut down on the services they need to buy.

How did you get involved in this project? And how long did you work on this?

I have wanted to do this project for a long time. I felt that media law courses, as now taught, are akin to history of journalism courseS. They focus on on the past—past history, past cases—and fail to focus on current needs.

I proposed this project to CUNY’s Tow-Knight Center and recruited Jeff, who also teaches at American University, to help me do it.  We began the project last October and wrapped up our reporting and writing in early January. CUNY worked on web production from there.

What are the thorniest legal issues that media entrepreneurs must face today?

There are several, but fair use looms large. News sites may not have many photographers on staff, so they need to know what photos they can use without violating copyright, or how much of someone’s else’s story they can cite.

As important, they need to know how to protect their own content, which is their major asset. As well, you cannot repurpose your content in books, video or other products unless you actually own it, so you need to attend to ownership for anything you commission.

The rules around hiring freelancers and interns can also trip up some startups, who understandably don’t want the commitments of full-time staff, to start.  And this is where you need to establish who owns copyright and whether a freelancer can use any part of their reporting for you in a blog post or something else.

Terms of use and privacy policies are things most people don’t read, but as a startup you need to adhere to the promises you make concerning data you collect from individuals.

What are some of the legal issues that are constantly changing due to technology or the adoption of technology?

Well, the FTC is supposed to come out soon with new guidelines around native advertising, or sponsored content, which is turning into a significant revenue stream for some startups. Right now, for instance, the sponsored posts labels often don’t travel with sponsored content that is shared in social media.

For-profit startups need to figure out state-specific rules for business formation, wherever they are located.

Was there anything in particular that you learned along the way that was surprising to you?

I welcomed the clarification on user-generated content. A site is generally not liable for user posts, no matter whether a site editor “touched” it or not.

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What it’s like to be a freelance investigative journalist today Mon, 09 Mar 2015 21:03:25 +0000 Pay and resources for freelance investigative journalists appears to be dwindling, often forcing them to abandon public-interest stories in an evermore competitive and shrinking news economy. Unsustainable economics was at the top of numerous findings from a survey of more than 250 freelance investigative journalists published in February.

“Untold Stories”—a Project Word survey—is the first of its kind to provide some anecdotal and quantifiable insight into the working conditions of those doing investigative journalism. Project Word is a fiscally sponsored project of Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE).

The survey highlighted a number of challenges freelancers have faced in the past five years, including unworkable economics and inadequate reporting tools. But the damage extends beyond the income of freelancers.

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According to the survey, there is a connection between compensation and public-interest journalism in general. Some 81 percent of freelancers who participated in the survey said that lack of resources has forced them to pass on “otherwise viable and important public-interest reports.”

“Local publications have eliminated so many beat reporters and no longer have staffers to sit through City Council meetings or School Board Meetings etc., which means that these organizations go unmonitored. Thus the potential for abuse and corruptions have multiplied. It is hard for freelancers to dedicate the necessary time given what they are paid for articles,” said one of many respondents who submitted comments and chose not to be identified.

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Other more notable findings of the survey include:

  • Some 85 percent of respondents said they used their own money to produce investigative stories.
  • Nearly one-third of respondents said they shell out more than $5,000 out of their own pocket each year to this kind of work
  • About 14 percent didn’t get any compensation for their work.
  • Forty-three percent spent more time in maintaining their business as freelancers rather than reporting.
  • When asked about their “most lucrative investigative report,” about 40 percent of them said they got paid less than $1 per word.

“Even places that will pay $1/word, plus expenses, still amount to $3,000-6,000 at most, which is a pretty small amount for a story that can take upwards of a year to report and write. Not to mention that you get paid on publication, so what are you supposed to eat during the year of reporting and writing?” another unidentified respondent said.

Screen Shot 2015-03-09 at 11.12.24 AMWhile the survey offers candid admissions about the lesser known side of investigative journalism, the report says it offers no solutions to the challenges of the market.

Instead, respondents were asked to offer possible ways to address those challenges. They suggested that freelancers need to seek “viable economic arrangements” such as newsroom collaborations, improve relationships between editors and foundations, standardize fair contracts, and improve legal and research services.

The full report can be read here.

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Closing the gaps in local news Mon, 09 Mar 2015 17:18:11 +0000 People are hungry for local news and they follow local issues and debates closely. I’ve seen that in my daily work with newsrooms and communities in New Jersey and New York and it is reinforced in a new report on “Local News in a Digital Age” just released by the Pew Research Center. Using surveys, news content analysis and interviews the study attempted to map the local news ecosystem and trace the ebb and flow of news through three very different cities: Denver, Macon and Sioux City.

Across the board, the researchers found that “Nearly nine-in-ten residents follow local news closely — and about half do so very closely.” That’s the good news, and it adds to the evidence that local news is still of vital importance to people, even as many journalists struggle to find new ways to pay for that reporting.

However, the report also suggests important areas where local newsrooms — and especially local digital news entrepreneurs — can and should to do more to meet the diverse needs of their communities. These lessons are particularly relevant to the work we are doing at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation to strengthen and expand the local news ecosystem in New Jersey. (Subscribe to our newsletter on local news innovation and community engagement here)

Race and Ethnicity are “One of the Greatest Divides” in Local News Ecosystems

The Pew report found that race and ethnicity are “one of the greatest divides in news habits.” In Denver and Macon people of color follow community news at higher rates than white residents.

In Denver, the researchers found 9 outlets specifically serving the Hispanic community there, whereas in Macon they found only one newsroom serving the large African American community. The report didn’t assess how the other mainstream outlets are serving these communities but they did find that amongst the entire population, only 18% of Denver residents and 21% of Macon residents are satisfied with the local media ecosystem.

1-OT2vB9h63Ost2aK5LKmUbwFor me, one of the key findings is this huge gulf between people’s high level of interest in local news and their low satisfaction in local news. Our communities crave access to relevant, timely, useful local information and news but right now our local news ecosystems are not meeting that need. Closing that gap has to begin with creating local media that better reflects the diversity of our communities. But it also calls on us to think more broadly about the services we provide.

That is an exciting opportunity for the future of journalism and an important challenge for civic life in our communities. Elsewhere in the research the authors report that in general, civic engagement corresponds with news consumption. “Civically engaged residents are more connected with their local news and are drawn to a more diverse set of news sources,” the authors write. In addition to following the news at a greater rate, blacks and Hispanics specifically also expressed “a greater sense of agency when it comes to improving their community.” We have to understand that news is a civic tool and our communities are eager to put it to use.

Local News and Participatory Journalism

The Pew report found that most local news outlets are not engaging citizens creatively or deeply as part of their journalism. “Citizens are a part of the news process, but mainly as quoted sources or as disseminators of news in social media,” the report notes. The research focused on fairly established modes of engagement with news beyond sources and distribution — submitting content, calling in to radio shows, commenting on a blog — but even these actions came in very low. Deeper models of engagement like crowdsourcing, events, citizen-driven beats, hands on journalism, and open editorial meetings were not even explored as far as I can tell.

For all the attention community engagement has received in journalism discussions over recent years, we still have a long way to go in thinking about how local newsrooms can build community around the news, encourage participation, and open themselves up as a resource for local people. Given that the report found an alignment between civic engagement and engagement with local news there is an opportunity to marshal the creativity and energy of these engaged citizens to strengthen local media. But, it is not enough to only reach out to the already engaged. In thinking about new forms of engagement we should embrace the challenge of using new models to welcome in new people. And we should recognize that some of the best ideas for how to do that likely exist within the communities we want to reach, not within our newsrooms.

Local Doesn’t Scale

The report also highlights how unique local communities have different ideas about what they need and want from local news. Each city had different priorities for the topics they wanted to see covered, reminding us that local news isn’t ever one-size-fits-all. That finding was reinforced by other parts of the report.

1-r8-42IoCpE9KOnwYdyrO5QTaking a wide angle lens to the question of how people get their local news makes clear how diverse social, political and structural issues shape the landscape of journalism. “These three cities are not meant to be extrapolated to the nation as whole,” the authors write, “but they do indicate the degree to which local factors — from digital infrastructure to economics to civic engagement to race, ethnicity and education — contribute to the mix of providers that emerge, the public that supports them and the ways they interact.”

Indeed, in places with greater internet access and where more people are engaging with local news online and via social networks their experience of news is fundamentally different.

“In more wired cities news may literally travel faster” the authors write.

For those of us in newsrooms, education, philanthropy and community who are working on expanding local news and supporting new journalism entrepreneurs, this finding is important. We can and should create new networks to share resources, lessons and foster collaboration. But we also need to be helping journalists develop tools and strategies for identifying and address unique community assets and needs. We need to encourage more listening and empathy, and understand how to map the local factors that are shaping our communities. After decades of local news being defined largely by chain newspaper ownership, we need to embrace and respond to the uniquely local character of our communities and develop services that meet them where they are.

A Systems Approach to News Ecosystems

The Pew report complements other recent reports on local news, like theFCC’s Information Needs of Communities and Duke University’s The Goat Must Be Fed. It is particularly useful in its deep exploration of local news outside of the major media markets on the east and west coasts that often get a lot more attention. I’ll be interested to see how local journalists and residents in Denver, Macon and Sioux City respond. Hopefully the report can serve as a useful catalyst in bringing together diverse coalitions of people and organizations who are interested in working together to expand what’s working and tackle what’s not.

In New Jersey, we are trying to develop strategies to help local newsrooms expand the kind of work outlined above with a particular focus oncommunity engagement and revenue sustainability. Our ecosystem is knit together by an incredible collaborative experiment called the New Jersey News Commons at the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State University where more than 120 local newsrooms are members. That model may be of use in other areas. The findings in the Pew report will help inform that work but we are also working with a team of researchers at Rutgers University to explore some similar questions about the news ecosystem in our state. We’ll share the findings from that work later this spring.

This post originally appeared in the Local News Lab blog and has been republished with permission.

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How CIR measures impact and finds new audiences Mon, 23 Feb 2015 17:15:33 +0000 Futures Lab—a weekly segment on innovation in journalism created by the Reynolds Journalism Institute—takes a look at the Center for Investigative Reporting and how it expands its audience and tracks impact. This post appeared on the Futures Lab blog and has been republished with permission.

PART 1: Partnerships to reach new audiences

Central to CIR’s ethos is collaboration and partnership with other organizations. Recently that has grown to include performance groups, which are turning weighty investigative reports into live productions that engage and inform live audiences in a different way. We hear from Meghann Farnsworth, director of distribution and engagement, about how the partnerships work.

For more information:

Storyworks is the collaboration between CIR and the Tides Theatre in San Francisco. The latest production, “Alicia’s Miracle,” premiered in January. It explores the potentially harmful chemical fumigants used on strawberry farms throughout California. Dramatizing the plight of five fictional characters, the play conveys key factual information uncovered during a 15-month CIR investigation and also illustrates the complexity of addressing the issue in the real world. In addition to English-language performances, the play was translated in Spanish; and plans include taking the show on the road for performances in some of the affected areas across the state.

Off/Page Project is the collaboration between CIR and the literary nonprofit Youth Speaks. Some examples:

  • This Is Home,” written by three young poets who explore the troubles with the Richmond Housing Authority at the center of a CIR investigation.
  • Whispers From The Field,” a short film in which a young poet offers a different take on the story of female agricultural workers being raped, harassed and assaulted on the job (inspired by an in-depth investigation by CIR and other partners)
PART 2: Tracking impact

CIR staff members track and observe how their journalism brings about real-world outcomes, thanks to an in-house tool built by Lindsay Green-Barber, an ACLS Public Fellow working in their newsroom.

For more information:

A series of blog posts on the CIR website offers more details about how the organization is defining and measuring change and how various stories generated micro, meso and macro impact.

PART 3: Radio show and podcast

CIR is re-centering its journalism around a new radio show and podcast called Reveal. The hourlong program, produced in collaboration with the Public Radio Exchange, provides a new avenue for working with partners to deliver in-depth investigative work. We learn more about the initiative from CIR’s Chief Executive Officer Joaquin Alvarado, Managing Editor Amy Pyle and Director of Distribution and Engagement Meghann Farnsworth.

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How nontraditional journalism is filling the gaps in declining statehouse reporting Tue, 17 Feb 2015 16:00:41 +0000 A number of journalism and technology projects are hoping to fill the gaps caused by a dramatic decline nationwide in statehouse reporting.

Interviews with news nonprofits, technologists, funders and experts on the issue confirm there is no scarcity of ideas or projects to address the decline of journalists at each of the 50 statehouses.

INN compiled the interviews for a follow-up report on a summit it held last October, called the “Statehouse Reporting Workshop.” Prompting the summit was a 2014 Pew Research Report titled “America’s Shifting Statehouse Press,” which found that fewer than a third of newspapers assign any kind of reporter to the statehouse.

INN wanted to see how nonprofits were dealing with the issue. Leading the meet—which comprised 24 funders, practitioners, technology companies and legislative experts—in Chicago, was Kevin Davis, CEO & Executive Director of INN, who emphasized the increasing need for insightful and persistent unbiased news and information.

“We see nonprofit newsrooms as being a key part of the solution moving forward, tackling this need by increasing engagement and participation of the people in the communities, counties and states served,” Davis said.

The follow-up report, which combined summit discussions with months-later interviews with the attendees, reveals that projects to fill the gap in statehouse reporting mostly split into two categories. One calls for more reporters on the ground at each statehouse; the other believes technology can help equip those reporters with information vital to their jobs.

At the summit, two concepts stuck out. One involves a surge of resources, including more reporters, in the statehouses themselves; the other is an open-state database of legislative activity across all states.

No projects specific to those two models came out of the summit, but a number of nonprofits already have been pursuing projects that emulate those two ideas.

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One comes from POPVOX, an online startup that, according to its site, “meshes real-time legislative data with users’ personal stories and sentiment, delivering public input to government in a format tailored to actionable policy decisions.”

POPVOX, based in Washington, D.C., is working on making its current database of legislative activity available to application developers, who then can use it as a basis for action. Currently POPVOX combines every bill that is introduced in Congress and “select regulations that are open for official public comment” with personal stories into one database.

Marci Harris

Marci Harris

Expansion of that database is dependent on funding for POPVOX. “Really, the only thing that determines how quickly we do that or how big we go—whether it’s one state at a time or a larger project, a 10-state pilot moving out to the 50—is that we’re resource-constrained,” said CEO Marci Harris.

The problem: Legislative data software these days is that it is often produced by for-profit companies that offer at a price tag too expensive for journalists or the public to access, she said. “Neutral information is expensive,” she said.

POPVOX is not alone; other similar projects are moving forward—for example,, an “open-source platform for questions-and-answers with public figures,” and ​Councilmatic, which dispenses and contextualizes legislative information and allows people to debate its pros and cons. Both work similarly in concept but more at the local level.

Then there’s the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, a Cox Media Group newspaper. It recently launched its own database, the Legislative Navigator, which tracks Georgia state bills and legislators’ activity. The Navigator utilizes technology and data from other organizations such as the Sunlight Foundation, MinnPost, the Georgia General Assembly and the National Institute on Money in State Politics.

Such projects exhibit promise and indicate that there is an emerging market in civic engagement—and there is a race on to be the first to strike gold.

Then there’s the other model, with a more human face, as espoused in INN member nonprofit news organizations like the VTDigger, the Texas Tribune and the ​Pulitzer Prize​­winning Center for Public Integrity. They are taking to the task of keeping statehouse reporting alive by increasing the body count.

The latter, for example, announced in September an initiative to hire 50 freelancers nationwide to cover corruption in state government. And in late January, it produced a major report​ on state­-level elections and money in politics.

The report essentially identifies individuals, unions and trade groups who gave the most money to politicians in each of the states for the 2014 elections. The CPI has produced a slew of stories focused on these findings as well.

Jon Dunbar

Jon Dunbar

Veteran journalist John Dunbar, deputy executive editor and managing editor covering politics and finance at the CPI, says the nonprofit also is working closely with the Associated Press, which in December began ​“doubling down”​ on state-government coverage by hiring more statehouse reporters.

In its announcement, the AP said it has hired 13 statehouse reporters over the past year and that an additional 40 contract reporters will be added this year. Further details of the hires or its collaboration with the Center remain to be seen, and both efforts will be followed up upon as new information emerges.

Screen Shot 2015-02-17 at 10.52.41 AMIn January, the Texas Tribune launched something of a hybrid product that combines data and old-school reporting. Its Texas Legislative Guide of the “​84th Lege”​ is a special page on the paper’s site that allows people to follow the actions of Texas lawmakers, including the bills they introduce and the ones they vote for.

The Tribune collaborated with the nonprofit Sunlight Foundation to use its ​Open States app, which allows voters to “track state bills, get campaign and contact information for legislators and follow all the action” across the country. The app feeds data about legislators to the 84th Lege to complement reporting done by Tribune reporters. It’s collaborations like these that could present a viable solution to fill the gap in statehouse reporting, says managing editor Ayan Mittra.

“Thanks to the Sunlight Foundation’s Open States product, we were able to keep our legislative-­bill search updated without having to do manual coding on our own. This is the type of common coding that more folks across the state need,” Mittra said. “Because of Open States, we were able to focus on other features for the page that will be a great service to our audience.”


Anne Galloway

Anne Galloway, editor and founder at VTDigger, a statewide news website that publishes watchdog reports on state government, politics, consumer affairs, business and public policy, is another advocate for hiring more reporters. She said the VTDigger is probably the news organization with the strongest presence in the Vermont statehouse with five reporters on the beat.

She praises the work of the CPI and the ​Sunlight Foundation’s Open States app​ but says statehouse reporting is more than that.

“Projects like those are a tiny, tiny part of it,” she said. “It’s important, but I think people want to know what the impacts of changing state statutes and what’s going on inside state government.”

Like CPI, Galloway believes putting more reporters on the statehouse beat is the solution. But she also expressed skepticism about whether any real solutions came out of the October meeting. She wants to see whether the AP or the CPI will fulfill their goals of hiring more reporters.

“If no hiring is done, let’s reconvene and see what’s happening,” she said. “We need to hire reporters.”

So which approach is better—hire more reporters or expand the open state database?

Tom Glaisyer

Tom Glaisyer

“The range of views on problems and solutions shared in the meeting was very useful, and though there is a temptation to think the solution is either more reporters or more technology, the reality is that it will be both. The challenge will be knitting them together,” said Tom Glaisyer, Program Director for the Informed Participation Initiative at the Democracy Fund.

“In a news environment that will likely continue to have a large number of relatively small outlets all with small shares of a state’s audience the challenge is knitting together the sometimes idiosyncratic strengths of particular organizations to serve the specific environments and local communities.”

Of course, the question on both approaches ultimately circles back to funding, the other major topic at the summit. Not everyone is convinced foundations are fully committed to the cause.

Galloway, for example, said the funding situation is “totally discouraging.” She said she left the summit with a sense that there is zero philanthropic funding for statehouse reporting—but she put the onus on the practitioners attendees.

“I think [the funders] want us to tell them what we want and come up with a plan, and they didn’t get that,” she said. “There weren’t enough practitioners there—I don’t think we had enough critical mass to say, ‘Hey look, this is what people on the ground need.’ Technology is important, but it’s a tool and you still need people—you need people digging. Technology is a starting place, not an end goal.”

The CPI’s Dunbar agrees that funding has gravely wounded watchdog journalism in each state Capitol.

“The reality is that cash­strapped news organizations, with some notable exceptions, have abandoned the statehouses of the nation,” Dunbar said, adding: “Some philanthropic organizations, like the Arnold Foundation, are helping to fill the gap. Foundations are essential in helping create a robust new model of state government coverage, supported by multiple funding streams, now and in the foreseeable future.”

Failure to invest in statehouse reporting projects would be a missed opportunity, says Ayan Mittra, managing editor of the Texas Tribune. A lot of important stories can be missed, and lack of funding prevents news organizations from engaging in a broader conversation and share best practices, he adds.

In a ​blog post​, Kelly Born of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, wrote that “while the discussion of problems facing statehouse journalism was rich and the ideas generated interesting, none are silver bullets.”

“Addressing the issues plaguing statehouse reporting will require time and effort from many actors across the news media’” she said “The question remains which, if any, of these ideas could be implemented, iterated, and scaled—and which might make a demonstrable difference.”

Funders overwhelmingly agree that statehouse reporting is vital to maintaining an informed citizenry, as well as keeping government accountable and transparent. But they’re also waiting to hear some good, solid ideas.

“We believe the recent meeting with journalists and innovative thinkers sparked new ideas and productive conversations. Our hope is that those discussions will lead to scalable solutions focused on making government more open and accountable,” said Kelli Rhee, Vice President of Venture Development at the Arnold Foundation.

Next week, the Knight News Challenge opens for submissions—projects that “range from bringing more transparency to money and politics, to making voting easy, efficient and fair, to converting election participation into longer-term civic engagement—on the local, state or national level.”

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How data-driven journalism revealed racial disparities in U.S. nursing homes Mon, 16 Feb 2015 21:04:25 +0000 In 2009, while at The Chicago Reporter, I took a deep look at racial disparities in the quality of care in nursing homes in Chicago, Illinois and nationally. For a project that the Center for Public Integrity published in November 2014, I brought together Medicaid cost reports, self-reported staffing figures, testimonies from advocates and lawyers, and personal stories from nursing home residents and their families to address a simple question: how much care is a loved one actually receiving at a nursing home? The conclusion? Nursing homes serving minorities offer a lot less care than those predominately housing whites.

A Medicaid cost report. Credit: Jeff Kelly Lowenstein.

A Medicaid cost report. Credit: Jeff Kelly Lowenstein.

Story genesis

The three-part series began with a leftover.

Toward the end of my reporting on The Chicago Reporter story I brought together self-reported staffing levels on Nursing Home Compare, a government website the public uses to compare and evaluate nursing homes, with the average daily levels of care I calculated by looking at Medicaid cost reports.

I found that the self-reported data was higher than the daily figure from the cost reports in many more than half of the facilities.

Intrigued, I spoke to advocates and lawyers who said the finding suggested that nursing homes “staff up” for inspections.

Toward the end of 2013 I submitted FOIA requests for four additional years of Illinois cost reports. I repeated the analysis and found similar results that convinced me the first year was not an aberration.

David Donald, then the data editor at the Center for Public Integrity, encouraged me to locate cost reports for all 50 states in order to tell a national story.

Finding the data

Fortunately, the website for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) had this information as the Affordable Care Act required that all skilled nursing facilities submit cost reports.

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services website. Credit: Jeff Kelly Lowenstein

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services website. Credit: Jeff Kelly Lowenstein

But finding the data presented a real challenge as the first person with whom we interacted told us that the data we wanted was not kept in the cost reports.  We looked through the nearly 100-page data dictionary before we found that was not true.

From there we needed to tackle the data.

At more than 14 million records, the file was the largest I had ever analyzed. It took me days before I could connect the data fields with their corresponding values in the dictionary.

I filtered the data with statistical software SPSS before getting a quantity of them I could analyze in Excel.

I located a 2007 peer-reviewed paper about over-reporting of staffing levels in Texas nursing homes. Guided by lead author Bita Kash and assisted by Charlene Harrington, a longtime national authority on nursing home staffing, I conducted the national analysis of more than 14,000 nursing homes.

Crunching the data in Excel. Credit: Jeff Kelly Lowenstein

Crunching the data in Excel. Credit: Jeff Kelly Lowenstein

Crunching the data

The analysis took weeks. Guided by our desire to find out if the gap we had identified in Illinois between self-reported staffing levels and the average daily level we found through the cost reports was national, we used Access to bring together the data sets, Excel to perform a preliminary analysis and SPSS to determine if we found had any statistical basis.

The gap was systematic, cutting across all ownership types, geographies and positions. Among the three direct care positions of certified nursing assistant, licensed practical nurse and registered nurse, the latter stood out by far.

More than 80 percent, or about five in six nursing homes, had higher registered nurse staffing levels on Nursing Home Compare than the daily average we calculated through the cost reports.

For more than 25 percent, the Nursing Home Compare figure was at least double the one we calculated through the cost reports.

These staffing discrepancies mattered for a number of reasons. They suggested that what a potential consumer thinks their loved one will receive in daily care is often much higher than the actual daily level of care. The discrepancies happened after more than a decade of reports and documents from CMS that said repeatedly that self-reported data from nursing homes are inaccurate. They come at the beginning of the “silver tsunami”, the explosion of aging Americans who could need that nursing home care. They also occurred at a time when the number of standard survey inspections dropped each year from 2008 to 2012, falling six percent during those years. The number of nursing homes decreased just one percent in the same period.

Less government attention only heightened the importance of having accurate data, advocates said. Beyond all that, a provision of the Affordable Care Act required that nursing homes transition from using self-reported to payroll-based data by March 2012. But in late 2011 the agency said it needed more time to implement the provision.

Little had happened since.

We subsequently used SPSS, Excel and Access for a separate story that identified and sought to explain national disparities in the amount of registered nurse care in nursing homes where most residents are black or Latino compared with those where the majority of residents are white.

During this part of the process we spoke with advocates, industry figures, academics and lawyers to identify and find data for as many different variables as possible that could possibly explain these disparities.  We did this because we wanted to rule out any other possible reason for the differences in registered nurse care.  Eventually, we found data about the residents, the level of market competition and the area where the homes were located.

None fully explained the disparities.

Letasha Mims’ family at her funeral in August 2014. Credit: Jon Lowenstein/NOOR.

Letasha Mims’ family at her funeral in August 2014. Credit: Jon Lowenstein/NOOR.

Adding human stories

Critical to each story in the project was a series of conversations with people who had been directly impacted by the issues we had uncovered. We met Lisa Sanders through Martha Deaver, president of advocacy group Arkansas Advocates for Nursing Home Residents.

Credit: Jon Lowenstein/NOOR

Credit: Jon Lowenstein/NOOR

With the help of Deaver and the state’s Long-Term Care Ombudsman, Sanders had helped build one of the largest family councils in the state. She told us her story and introduced us to other families.  All were black. All had loved ones who had spent time and experienced problems  in nursing homes with extremely low registered nurse staffing levels such as dehydration, falls, urinary tract infections and sitting in soiled clothes for long stretches of time. 

All the people we interviewed decided that caring for their loved one became a full time job and became increasingly impatient in their interactions with facility personnel. And all articulated a poignant and painful mixture of grief, guilt, helplessness, frustration and betrayal at what they perceived to be the home’s failure to live up to its stated commitment of providing their loved one the care and dignity they deserved. Meeting and learning from these people moved us a lot and reinforced to us the vital importance of of using data and documents to unpack the impact of policy and it’s lack of enforcement on people’s lives.

Publishing the story and its interactive elements

In an effort to reach as many audiences as possible we published the full project in English on the Center for Public Integrity’s website, shorter versions of the two main staffing stories, and in Spanish at Hoy Chicago, the Chicago Tribune Company’s Spanish-language newspaper.

Credit: Jon Lowenstein/NOOR

Credit: Jon Lowenstein/NOOR

We also published a series of photographs on my brother Interactive-Elements-330x500

A staffer from the Center for Public Integrity used Javascript to build a lookup table in which people could find staffing information for more than 10,000 nursing homes across the country.

We used Google Fusion Tables to build a map of nursing homes that received low-cost, HUD-backed mortgages the month after receiving the lowest possible rating for quality of care from Nursing Home Compare.

Impact and reflections

The project had impact on a number of levels.

It attracted widespread national media pickup in online, television, print and radio formats. U.S. Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL) said it helped shape her thinking for legislation she’ll introduce this year and pledged to take action on each part of the series.  The Office of Inspector General in the Department of Health and Human Services is deciding whether to take action against a Chicago-area chain. A state senator in Illinois said she plans to convene a hearing about the issues raised by the series. A pair of professors at John Marshall Law School and a corporate law firm are considering filling a civil rights car against a Chicago nursing home operator.

I presented the work during the plenary session of the annual conference for the National Consumer Voice, the nation’s largest nursing homes advocacy group, and spoke during a monthly conference call to more than two dozen long-term care ombudsmen from around the country. After these presentations I shared and discussed data with advocates, government agencies, long-term care ombudsmen and family members in about a dozen states.

This was the largest investigative project I’ve done so far. Conceiving, bringing it to fruition and seeing it ripple in different arenas was deeply gratifying.

But more leftovers remain.


Jeff Kelly Lowenstein is a writer, a lecturer at Columbia College and the former database and investigative editor at Hoy Chicago, one of Tribune Media Company’s Spanish-language newspapers. 

The post originally appeared on Storybench, a new blog on digital storytelling by Northeastern University’s Media Innovation program in partnership with Esquire magazine.


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Steal this crowdfunding playbook for your news nonprofit Mon, 16 Feb 2015 20:39:23 +0000 A year ago, American Public Media decided to place the crowdfunding site on hiatus and conduct an assessment of the platform and its potential. We completed that evaluation in the spring, took a few months to digest what we learned, and decided to sunset effective [Feb. 11.]

The things that didn’t work about’ back end were significant, and it would not be possible to scale the platform or improve the user experience without completely overhauling the code base. Doing this would be expensive, and given the other crowdfunding options that are available to journalists today — both general interest and journalism-specific – it became clear that we could not offer a fundable service that would benefit audiences, journalists or public interest media more than what already exists. Our analysis also showed:

  • Most projects were funded by friends and family, as opposed to community members with an interest in or a need for that information;
  • The majority of funders gave once and never returned;
  • The market for crowdfunding journalism projects in general, as based on actual donations, is tiny, accounting for just .13 percent of the $2.8 billion raised in FY2013.
  • Journalism projects have a 63 percent failure rate compared to 56 percent for all projects.
  • There are few successes, business model-wise, for scaling and sustaining a crowdfunding platform. proved that crowdfunding can help support independent, local journalism, especially that of freelancers. It was an important early innovator in the field, and many of the platforms available in 2015 owe a lot to founder David Cohn and the community of users. (We are archiving the code and the stories that make up, so the world won’t lose them.)

Its legacy also includes a large body of research, including the assessment we commissioned fromCarlson Ventures Enterprise (CVE) at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.

As Cohn so often said, “was an experiment in pushing the boundaries of transparency and participation in the process of journalism.” And it is in that spirit that we would like to share with you some of CVE’s other findings, specifically those that will help to write a new chapter in the crowdfunding playbook.

Large crowdfunding platforms can help grow your audience and test new ideas.

Kickstarter boasts 7.9 million users, including 2.3 million who have backed more than one project. Indiegogo, meanwhile, touts 15 million monthly visitors. (Donor stats were not immediately available.)

These large-scale platforms introduce users to projects via genre recommendations, making it possible for you to reach new audiences with an affinity for the kind of content you are making, even if they’ve never heard of you before.

“That is the purpose of public media: to provide educational, great content that betters families.” – Sara Robertson, KLRU’s vice president for production and technology

In 2012 and again in 2014, Austin’s public television station KLRU used Indiegogo to raise money for its educational “BBQ with Franklin” web series featuring Austin BBQ master Aaron Franklin. The first campaignattracted 241 donors and helped grow the station’s YouTube channel to 32,000 subscribers. The second campaign met its $20,000 goal in just three weeks and inspired a dramatic jump in views to the show’s YouTube channel.

Weekly views of KLRU YouTube channel before and after launch of second BBQ campaign. Image courtesy of KLRU.

Weekly views of KLRU YouTube channel before and after launch of second BBQ campaign. Image courtesy of KLRU.

Sara Robertson, KLRU’s vice president for production and technology, said the first campaign helped prove that there was an audience and a community ready to support the series, something that was critical to getting the attention of major TV underwriters.

It helped to have a BBQ celebrity whose advice is widely valued, Robertson added. But viewers also appreciate – and regularly comment on — the relevance and helpful nature of the videos. “They teach their sons how to [make BBQ], using the videos. To me, that is the purpose of public media: to provide educational, great content that betters families.” The series is available on and is coming soon to TV.

Crowdfunding can grow your donor base and, with proper planning, increase membership.

Crowdfunding does not cannibalize donors, a concern of crowdfunding critics. Instead, it segments them, according to Gabe Bullard, director of news and editorial strategy at WFPL in Louisville, Ky.

WFPL ran a successful campaign on Kickstarter in Spring 2013 for “Unbound,” a new program focused on short works of fiction. The station slightly exceeded their $4,000 goal with contributions from 150 backers. For the 70 backers who were already members of the station, the Kickstarter donation was an additional gift and didn’t reduce subsequent gifts.

“Get the fundraising team involved early on in the process, so that things run smoothly.” – Kelly Wilkinson, WFPL membership manager

But WFPL only was able to convert three of the new donors into members.

“They just fell off our radar because they were such a small group, and we had all these larger groups we were managing,” said WFPL Membership Manager Kelly Wilkinson. The lesson? “Get the fundraising team involved early on in the process, so that things run smoothly.”

That’s what KLRU did with its “BBQ with Franklin” campaign. In fact, the station treated all of its crowdfunding backers as members, inviting them to events (especially to anything BBQ-related), to receive station newsletters, and to connect on social media.

“Success at this fundraising method requires a shift away from thinking about crowdfunding as simply a gathering of small gifts. It’s more akin to joining and building a cohesive funding community,” explains public media consultant Richard McPherson in a 2013 commentary on

Observing Radiotopia’s recent successful Kickstarter campaign, Josh Stearns of agrees: “Throughout the [Radiotopia] campaign there was an intentional and ongoing recruitment effort to keep people engaged not just as donors but as part of the team.”

Of the 241 people who backed KLRU’s 2012 “BBQ with Franklin” campaign, all but eight were not current members. Twenty-five percent of those donors stuck around as members (including 10 as major donors) for more than one year, and 20 percent are still active today.

According to KLRU Membership Director Susannah Winslow, their success has made KLRU “stop and think about being more strategic about how we touch our prospective donors,” and that crowdfunding creates “more of a connection to the production and then to the station, whereas pledge is a transaction.”

Pubmedia producers want a playbook for planning crowdfunding campaigns.

Again and again, we’ve heard from stations (and our own internal producers, too) that they want a playbook for public media crowdfunding. This blog post and anything I’ve linked to should help you start to get an understanding of what works. We can also offer you a timeline and checklist of what to do when in order to conduct a well-run and well-organized campaign. This timeline was created by the CVE team working with us, and informed by interviews with staffers from nine public media organizations.

First, you should be able to answer YES to at least two of these questions:

  1. Is the program/content very specific and well-thought-out?
  2. Does the program/content have an engaging & relevant purpose for target audiences?
  3. Does the program/content have a charismatic or well-known person as the lead or central player of the campaign? (Not necessary, but it certainly helps.)

Next, make sure you give yourself enough time before and after the campaign. It’s smart to break up the project into four segments of work, which can potentially comprise a year-long project:


Planning (allot 30-90 days)

  • Content brainstorming & refinement.
  • Assess proposed content with organizational strategic fit.
  • Plan & set pre-promotion activities/targets.
  • Evaluate crowdfunding platforms (Indiegogo, Kickstarter, etc.)
  • Empower internal champion to align and manage all activities related to the campaign.
  • Seek partner organization.
  • Carefully budget entire programming.

Pre-promotion (allot 60 days)

  • Solicit pledges from known persons & entities likely to commit to supporting content.
  • Request to use their gift as marketing leverage.
  • Seek organization (perhaps existing partner) to pledge matching funds.
  • Define social media strategy during campaign.
  • Secure “tent-pole” donations to announce during campaign.
  • Select rewards to give to donors.

Campaign (plan for 14-30 days)

  • Balance messaging (emails, tweets, etc.) between announcements, solicitations, & developments.
  • Announce pre-planned/pre-timed donations & matching grants to maintain urgency and enthusiasm.
  • Implement social media & marketing strategy to raise awareness of campaign.

Production/Follow-up (expect up to 180 days)

  • Announce completion of campaign on all messaging channels.
  • Ship outstanding rewards to donors.
  • Begin production of promised programming.
  • Keep donors and followers informed of production status.
  • Manage all communications to keep buzz alive for the programming.

Joellen Easton is the Business Development Manager at the Public Insight Network. This post originally appeared on the Public Insight Network blog and has been republished with permission.

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Kevin Davis: What the ‘Lens’ story teaches news nonprofits about editorial independence Tue, 10 Feb 2015 17:56:29 +0000 “Unfortunately in today’s society, good journalism doesn’t necessarily translate to plentiful funding,” writes Paul Maassen, general manager of WWNO, in NetNewsCheck’s piece about the saga of how the Lens of New Orleans lost its office space on the Loyola University campus there.

He’s right. Today, nonprofit newsrooms around the globe have to scramble to keep the lights on, rely too heavily on too few funding sources and, as a result, are susceptible to influence exertion and retribution from funders, supporters and suppliers. 

While the case of Loyola’s decision to not renew the Lens’s lease for office space was ostensibly about resource constraints, the appearance of this move being punishment for the paper’s coverage of the university’s president, the Rev. Kevin Wildes—who then chaired the New Orleans’ Civil Service Commission—being in bed with city officials is very troubling.

Not only is this bad for the Lens (costing it more than $30,000 per year to relocate and pay for new space), it also deprives Loyola’s journalism students the opportunity to work on the forefront of civic journalism. And it negatively impacts the media environment in New Orleans, which continues to struggle with the information needs of its citizens. 

Unfortunately, this is not the only case of apparent backroom attempts to punish a nonprofit newsroom that aims to inform its community while also helping train a future generation of journalists. In June of 2013, legislation was introduced by the Wisconsin legislature that would have evicted the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism from its UW-Madison offices and barred faculty from working with its reporters.

Despite these attacks, both the Lens and the Wisconsin Center are able continue to report on the type of civic stories that commercial news organizations often can’t or won’t do. (Full disclosure: both the Lens and the Wisconsin Center are members of the organization that I run, the Investigative News Network.)

This is not an issue just for university-based nonprofit news organizations. Any nonprofit that accepts grants from a philanthropist or foundation also inherits the legacy of the funder or founder. Nonprofit news organizations that accept monies from foundations or directly from well-known philanthropists such as George Soros, John Arnold or the Koch Brothers are often painted with the funder’s political brush and suffer attacks based on that presumption.

But there are concrete steps a nonprofit can take before it accepts funds, services or enters into any contract with an outside party:

Be transparent. Producing ethical journalism in the public interest isn’t easy, but it’s what the 100-plus nonprofit news organizations that are members of INN do. Helping people understand what you do, why you do it and where you’re coming from is proving to be even harder. It starts with mission-driven organizations acting in the public interest by disclosing their donors and encouraging their readers to make up their own minds about the ethics and motivations of a story or the organization behind it.

Adopt strict editorial independence and conflict of interest policies. Under the review of leading ethicists in the field of journalism, INN recently crafted and adopted an Editorial Independence Policy, specifically to provide our nonprofit newsrooms with a clear statement to provide to their funders, supporters and suppliers that states up front and center:

“Our organization retains full authority over editorial content to protect the best journalistic and business interests of our organization. We will maintain a firewall between news coverage decisions and sources of all revenue. Acceptance of financial support does not constitute implied or actual endorsement of donors or their products, services or opinions.”

By adopting, posting and providing this policy to all its funders, supporters, suppliers and readers, along with a clearly stated Conflict of Interest policy, an independent news organization can go a long way to setting expectations up front. By educating the supporter at the outset, we believe that it will prevent and rebuff future attempts to influence the organization’s editorial content. 

Tell your own story, before someone else does. While journalists and practitioners pride themselves on their ethics and ethos, the battering that our profession has taken in public opinion means that it is now easier for bad actors to attack the source of a story than to deny the facts. Now more than ever, it is incumbent on investigative reporters and mission-driven news organizations to proactively tell their own stories and educate their audience rather than let others, who may or may not have the public’s interest at heart, do it for them.

While these steps may or may not have prevented the turn of events in New Orleans and Madison, it is likely that by adopting these ahead of time, news organizations will be more effective in establishing clear boundaries up front, while at the same time increasing the level of trust with their discerning audience members.

This post originally appeared on NetNewsCheck and has been republished with permission.

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What’s wrong with a state-funded news site?  Well… Tue, 10 Feb 2015 17:41:26 +0000 Concept photo of "Just IN," a proposed news site run by the state of Indiana.

Concept photo of Just IN, a proposed news site run by the state of Indiana.

I was a little busy last week, but I did notice one story running by me on Twitter: The state of Indiana was going to open and fund a news site.

All the media folk and web hipsters I follow thought this was a terrible, no-good, very bad idea.

I’ll admit it. I have attended a few too many conference on the need to find new business models for journalism. These sessions had an eerie sameness. You could set your clock by them: about 45 minutes in, everyone would be very depressed, and then someone would pipe up about how “other countries supported journalism” and that government subsidy was really the only way out. This would generally be regarded by the crowd as a pipe dream.

Even the Knight Foundation, which is really, really into giving money to journalism, had its doubts about the idea. From its Knight Commission report of 2011: “It is highly unlikely that in the near term, government will directly fund journalism, especially in a time of strained budgets at all levels. Even indirect subsidies or added tax breaks may be problematic.”

There are plenty of well-known and well-respected government-funded news organizations: the BBC, Canada’s CBC and Voice of America. Even our own NPR and PBS are funded in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Of course, there are also state-run news organizations that exist largely to repeat the views of the government that funds them—I won’t list them here, but it’s a much longer list.

So what kind of news site was Indiana intending to create? An independent, trustworthy news source, or a government megaphone? Over the weekend, I had a chance to find out. One Indianapolis Star story gave us this tidbit about the workflow of such an organization: Indiana governor Mike Pence, it said, “is planning in late February to launch ‘Just IN,’ a website and news outlet that will feature stories and news releases written by state press secretaries…”

Oh, dear. That’s not good. Not good at all. My friends on Twitter were right: This was a terrible, no good, very bad idea, indeed.

This brings us to the essential question: What’s the difference between a good government-funded news organization, and a not-good one? What makes one trustworthy, and the others not so?

Mostly, ironclad editorial independence.

Any form of funding—any form of funding at all, whether it’s commercial advertisers, philanthropic funders, government sources and even member/donors—can have an undue influence on the end product of a news organization if we don’t think things through.

The problem here is that thinking things through requires a good deal of sitting down, maybe even with a committee. Such a prospect may make you feel as though you’ve done something to anger the news gods. Maybe you started a sentence with a proposition, or buried the lede one too many times. The pressure of deadlines and the news events rushing by may make you just decide to table it for a while. Possibly forever.

We have good news for you: We here at the Investigative News Network did a lot of the work for you. Since we have 100-plus member newsrooms, there are many things that makes it easier for us to do as a group than it would be for each of us to sit down and hammer it out one by one.

Editorial independence is a cornerstone of building a trustworthy, sustainable news organization, which is why we wrote: “We will maintain a firewall between news coverage decisions and all sources of revenue. Acceptance of financial support does not constitute implied or actual endorsement of donors or their products, services or opinions…we accept gifts, grants and sponsorships from individuals and organizations for the general support of our activities, but our news judgments are made independently and not on the basis of donor support.”

If you’d like to use INN’s editorial independence policy as a template, feel free to download a copy here.

And what happened to Indiana governor Mike Pence’s idea for a news startup, anyway?  Well, it was stopped before it even got started, and Pence denies he ever had such an idea in the first place.

It’s tough out there for a news startup.

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For crowdfunding success, ‘simplicity and specificity’ is king Tue, 10 Feb 2015 17:40:17 +0000 When you ask for just $5,000 to crowdfund your journalism project but end up getting more than $13,000, you’re definitely doing something right.

And that’s what happened last month, when the nonprofit raised $13,648 from 215 backers in a Kickstarter campaign to photograph the entire Arizona-Mexico border. Two challenge goals resulting in $3,000 in matching donations helped the news nonprofit reach that goal. 

In fact, the sum is much higher than that, all thanks to a $1,000 donation from a donor outside Kickstarter.

Under Kickstarter’s all-or-nothing policy, campaigns must hit 100 percent of their goals by a given deadline or they receive nothing. Impressively, the site reached 100 percent of its $5,000 goal in the first two weeks, said editor and publisher Dylan Smith.

Screen Shot 2015-02-04 at 2.12.02 PM

While much of its support came from Tucson residents and people directly concerned about border issues, the “magic of the Internet has led people from all over to back us: the UK, Australia, etc.,” Smith said.

Given that the news nonprofit managed to score more than double its asking amount, the lessons it learned in pulling it off could prove valuable to those looking to fund their own journalism ventures.

For one thing,’s secret ingredient was simplicity. Its project boiled down to this: Take at least one photo of every single mile of the Arizona-Mexico border.

That’s it. 

“We worked to focus it just on this particular project—not that it won’t have benefits for the rest of our work,” Smith said. Just asking people to “give us money so we can go report on the border and stuff” would be too vague to catch people’s interest.”


Credit: Joseph Oland /


“We’ve had this project in the works for a long time,” he said, “and it seemed to be a great peg for a Kickstarter campaign. It’s finite and focused, has broad appeal, generates concrete rewards that are directly related—we’re not offering stickers or T-shirts—and is something that only we are crazy enough to tackle.”

Even then, it didn’t come easy. It took a lot of hard work—and some mistakes.

The Kickstarter project required more than a year of planning and some preparatory reporting, Smith said. Much of that was supported by the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

“Our biggest mistake was launching with a long title—your URL on Kickstarter is generated from that on launch, so we’ve got an unwieldy address,” he said.

But while URLs can’t be changed, titles can. For anyone who wants to try it out, he advises launching a campaign with a short, punchy title, so you get a concise URL. Then immediately change the title (not the URL) to anything you want, with particular emphasis on keywords.

If you feel brave enough to launch a Kickstarter campaign for your journalism project, Smith has the following advice:

Having a Kickstarter is by no means a “set it and forget it” prospect. “It’s work and requires a steady stream of promotion, responding to potential backers who have questions, and keeping the Kickstarter page updated.”

Do not put all eggs in one basket. Nearly three-fourths of the support for the project thus far has come from backers who found it in places other than the Kickstarter site itself, he said. “Counting on people to just run across you on that website won’t cut it—you’ve got to get out and promote the project and have enough of an existing base which you can draw from.”

Offer tangible rewards. “ plans to publish both paperback and hardback copies of a book stemming from their work, as well as offering photographs from the project,” he said. “Many of the rewards offer an experience, rather than something you can hold in your hand. Some backers will have dinner with the reporting team, others can play “editor for the day” while having input on which photos make the cut for publication, and three high-level backers will have the opportunity to fly along as the border is documented from the air.”

Even with a low ask, prepare to go big. “While many of those who contributed would likely have supported the project regardless, having a compelling case to make for a higher level of donations was helpful,” he said. “We explained how we’d be able to expand the project, and spurred more backers with matches for hitting a monetary goal and a donor count — along with sweetening the rewards a bit for nearly everyone.

One final note. The project was originally backed with a $3,500 grant by the Fund for Investigative Journalism, and Smith said “support from a respected funder may have prompted more people to back the Kickstarter, or to do it at a higher level.”

“Rather than being a completely unknown startup, having a track record and having other reputable organizations backing the project couldn’t have hurt, at least,” he added.

All of the reporting for the project will be made available for free on’s website.

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