The state of Investigative Post

Reporting, analysis and commentary
by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post

This is the time of year everyone from the president to the mayor makes “the state of …” speeches. I’ll spare you the sound of my voice, but I do want to take stock of Investigative Post on this, the first year anniversary of our launch.

We’ve had a good first year. A very good year, in fact.

We’ve broken a number of important stories, which, of course, is why we’re in business. But just as importantly, we’ve started to build a solid foundation with media partners and funders that’s necessary for our growth and sustainability.

Journalistically, we’ve made our mark on a couple of fronts:

  • We’ve been all over Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s “Buffalo Billion” program, first with an analysis of its strengths and weaknesses, then an investigation into the financial struggles of the first company in line for assistance, and, just the other day, a report detailing the particulars of the first investment and how it differs from what usually passes for economic development in this town.
  • Dan Telvock, who joined us in September as Western New York’s only full-time environmental reporter, has produced a number of in-depth pieces. Of particular note are stories on the city’s lackluster recycling program, the state’s lax enforcement of environmental regulations at the Peace Bridge and public health concerns related to industrial pollution in the Town of Tonawanda. He’s also writing a blog, Green Post, that tracks environmental developments in the region.

Dan and I have done a number of other noteworthy pieces.

My series on City Hall’s failure to even attempt to collect more than $20 million in Housing Court fines is a personal favorite. Pieces on the shenanigans of Dino Fudoli (didn’t like paying his taxes) and Demone Smith (didn’t like paying his election fines) also generated a buzz.

Ditto for Dan’s story on the long-delayed linear park through the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus and his piece that followed the money at the Peace Bridge and raised questions about the Public Bridge Authority’s motives in pushing for a plaza expansion.

Investigative Post also launched the only long-form interview program on local television in conjunction with WGRZ. I’ve interviewed prominent newsmakers such as Congressman Brian Higgins, Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz and Niagara Falls Mayor Paul Dyster.

I’ve also included up and comers who are often overlooked by the local media in their rush to quote the usual suspects, interviewing the likes of Kevin Connor of the Public Accountability Initiative, Aaron Bartley of PUSH Buffalo and Stephanie Simeon of Heart of the City Neighborhoods.

During our first year, we’ve also worked to lay the foundation for our future growth and sustainability. That begins with partnerships with media outlets that have gotten our work in front of more than 3 million pair of eyeballs since we launched.

I’m especially pleased with our partnership with WGRZ TV. Along with Artvoice, the station has been the major conduit for getting our work before the public. We also share content with 88.7, WBFO FM.

Being a newspaper lifer before launching Investigative Post, I never had a full appreciation of the power of television or the challenges that come with that form of storytelling. (It’s not easy, folks, as I explain below to Maryalice Demler in an interview taped about a month ago.)

Not only has our association with WGRZ helped put Investigative Post on the map, News Director Jeff Woodard and his team have been great to work with – a talented, welcoming and genuinely nice group of people.

We’ve had success on a second important front, securing financial support.

The Margaret L. Wendt Foundation provided critical first-year funding. The Community Foundation For Greater Buffalo provided key assistance on two fronts: providing a grant to help fund environmental coverage and partnering with us to obtain major funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Bob and Sara Skerker lead the way among individual donors with their generous support.

So … so far, so good. But we’re just getting warmed up and have big plans for our second year.

We’ll continue to focus on the environment and the Buffalo Billion and other economic development issues.

I hope to hire at least one more reporter to deal with the flood of story tips we receive – I get appreciably more now than when I was at The Buffalo News, many of them involving skulduggery in government. I could employ at least three more reporters just running down the tips we get; readers are hungry for watchdog journalism.

I’ve revived Outrages & Insights, my blog from The News, and hope to add a video component on WGRZ when I can carve out the time to do so on a regular basis. I love doing the blog, as it allows me to blend reporting, analysis and commentary to provide a candid and readable take on the news.

Investigative Post has a two-fold mission – producing top-flight investigative and analytical reporting and training young journalists to do likewise. We made modest progress on the educational front this past year and are poised to bring an academic coordinator on board and establish partnerships with several university programs to tap the brainpower of the academic community across Western New York and beyond.

Likewise, we’re exploring several additional media partnerships to broaden our reach. We’re already making greater use of social media to reach readers and viewers and it’s starting to pay dividends: We not only set a record for traffic to our website in February, we did so by the 13th of the month, a testament to compelling stories and the power of Facebook and Twitter.

We not only intend to continue to grow our social media presence and web traffic, but take full advantage of digital storytelling forms to present our work. Expect to see more integration of video, audio and data visualization into our stories in the coming months.

Of course, all this takes money, and we intend to redouble our fund-raising efforts. Foundations will continue to play an important role, but we need to build grassroots support through major individual donors and memberships. As Joshua Sterns recently noted, communities need to support non-profit outlets like Investigative Post with both their eyeballs and their wallets.

On a personal level, I have found the past year to be both exhilarating and exhausting, as anyone who has started a business can attest to. I left The News to start Investigative Post because I wanted to put my ideas into play and I am doing just that. I’m learning that it’s sometimes easier said than done, however. I’m also learning what I don’t know, and that, thankfully, there is a pool of talented people who believe in what we’re building and are willing to lend their time and expertise.

Any business start up is an exercise in trial and error. While our first year has not been flawless, we’ve avoided any serious hiccups and have, in fact, built a solid foundation on which to build a top-notch news organization. Measured by the start-up phases of other non-profit investigative reporting centers, we’re off to a strong start, particularly when it comes to our partnerships and establishing ourselves as a part of the local media landscape.

Unlike the major media outlets, we don’t have to concern ourselves with chasing fires, covering meetings and reporting scores. We can focus on digging, digging deep, to tell the stories that need to be told. We’ve told some of them during our first year and will tell more over the next 12 months.

Keep reading, keep watching, keep listening, and if you can also see fit to help fund our work, that’s all the better.

Thoughts? Suggestions? Comment below or send me an e-mail.