A billionaire is pouring money — $15 million the first year of operation alone — to launch a nonprofit news organization in Baltimore.
Five foundations are putting up $20 million to start a similar venture in Houston.
Me? I started Investigative Post with my credit card and an understanding wife.
It was the fall of 2011. I had just taken a buyout from The Buffalo News, where I had worked for 25 years. I’d had enough. The paper was in the early stages of a downward spiral that continues to this day. I figured I had 10 years left in my career. Did I want to spend them grinning and bearing the decline, or strike out on my own?
I’d long had an entrepreneurial bug. I started a weekly paper in the Kensington-Bailey neighborhood when I was 23, and in my mid-30s started a side business running men’s hockey leagues and kids’ hockey schools, while working at The News and negotiating labor contracts and otherwise acting as an agitator for the Buffalo Newspaper Guild.
I decided I wanted out. Put my talents and experience to different uses. Build a news organization infused with my style of reporting — aggressive, thorough and hell-bent on making a difference.
My favorite journalism quote, uttered by Carl Bernstein and taped to the side of my work terminal for years, would become the byword of my news organization:
Journalism is not stenography. It is the best obtainable version of the truth.
I got a little irritated after leaving The News when people congratulated me on my “retirement.” I responded by quipping: “I didn’t retire, I quit with a pension.”
Retirement, it certainly wasn’t.
Building a foundation
Working out of my house, I got busy planning my venture. It had no name, no bank account, just my cell phone, credit card and desktop computer in a small room off my kitchen.
It didn’t take long for the foundation to take shape.
Joe Finnerty, a media law attorney who sometimes reviewed my stories when I was at The News, volunteered his services for everything from securing insurance to negotiating contracts to later previewing stories to keep libel litigants from my door. (He and his partner, Karim Abdulla, continue to provide invaluable help.) Steve Polowitz lent his expertise in nonprofit law.
I recruited a board of directors that included Lee Coppola, a former award-winning newspaper and TV reporter who had just stepped down as dean of the journalism program and St. Bonaventure University, and Tom Toles, my Pulitzer Prize-winning lunchmate from The News who had moved on to The Washington Post. (In time, I recruited two other Pulitzer winners, David Cay Johnston and Sarah Cohen; the latter currently serves on our board, along with Tom. Our current board president, Dr. Michael Merrill, worked as a reporter before changing careers.)
Initial funding of $25,000 each came from Bob Skerker, a retired business owner who liked my work at The News, and the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, thanks to the advocacy of Cara Matteliano. Then came an even bigger break: Bob Kresse (rest his soul) got behind my effort. He and his fellow trustees at the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation cut us a check for $140,000.
I was in business. Well, once I had a name, and a website, and a staff, and partnerships to distribute our work.
I got the name and website working with my son, who had started his own business in college building websites and later expanded into analytics and social media marketing. We wrestled with names until settling on Investigative Post — not The investigative Post; oh, how I agonized over that — and young James built me a website and otherwise strategized with me. (I learned at the time that the secret to being a successful 56-year-old digital publisher is having a 22-year-old digital-savvy son.)
Early days of publishing
I launched on Feb. 22, 2012, nearly six months after walking out of The News. I still remember pressing the “publish” button. It was about 2 in the morning, maybe later. I was exhausted. And exhilarated.
I was without any distribution partners, aside from Artvoice, but that changed quickly. Jeff Woodard, news director at WGRZ TV News, called me within 12 hours of launching. Was I interested in a collaboration? Uh, yeah. We met twice in the following days and had ourselves a deal.
Our partnership with Channel 2 has been critical to Investigative Post’s success. The station delivered us an audience, visibility and production chops that we needed as a startup. The syndication fees didn’t hurt, either. I couldn’t ask for a better partner.
As a lifelong newspaper reporter, I had long held television news in contempt. I quickly had an attitude adjustment. I discovered that TV news is hard to do well, and when done right can be really powerful. I now sometimes prefer the television version of our stories over what we publish online.
I was a one-man reporting staff when I launched Investigative Post, as well as editor, executive director and fundraiser. (And once I moved into an office, I took out the trash and watered the plants. I no longer remove the trash in our present digs on Main Street, but I still water the plants. None have died — lately.)
Investigative Post’s first story, prophetically, analyzed the recently unveiled Buffalo Billion program. The lede read like this:
Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to invest $1 billion of state incentives in an effort to revitalize the region’s economy is even bolder than the “B as in billion” suggests.
Bold, but potentially flawed.
Nearly two years later, I broke the story that raised the specter of bid-rigging and other skulduggery in the awarding of the contract to build a solar panel manufacturing plant for Tesla, then known as SolarCity. Preet Bharara and his crew in the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan took notice and launched an investigation that culminated in felony corruption convictions of those involved, including Alain Kaloyeros, the state’s highest-paid employee, who had emerged as Cuomo’s go-to guy on economic development.
It turned out to be the first chink in the armor of the previously untouchable governor, and the story and our aggressive follow-up coverage put us on the map, not only locally but across the state.
But I digress.
Exposure during our early months came via our website and Artvoice, whose editor, Geoff Kelly, championed our investigative reporting center and years later came to work for us.
We began reporting stories for Channel 2 in May 2012 and I found I liked being in front of a camera. I was always an aggressive reporter, but, working for a newspaper, readers never saw me at work. Put a microphone in my hand and a cameraman behind my back and look out.
We moved into offices on Pearl Street the summer of 2012 and I hired my first reporter, Dan Telvock, that September. Two years later, I hired another, Charlotte Keith, right out of the journalism program at Columbia University. Two years after that, I hired another recent Columbia grad, Daniela Porat, after she had completed an internship at The New York Times.
This reporting team produced a lot of top-shelf investigative reporting for our website, Channel 2 and, in time, WBFO, with whom we’ve partnered since October 2015.
Dan, covering environmental issues, reported extensively on lead poisoning in Buffalo’s inner city, all sorts of nasty pollution and contamination in Niagara County, and the fouling of Scajaquada Creek with a half-billion gallons of sewage a year.
He reported the best television story we’ve ever produced with Channel 2.
Charlotte, born and raised in England and educated at Cambridge University before coming stateside, was an intense, dogged reporter who was a natural for television, even though she preferred poring over documents and quizzing her sources.
Her best work included reports on problems within the Buffalo Billion program and the Erie County Department of Child Protective Services, and the misconduct of a pediatric surgeon at Children’s Hospital, which has been the most-read investigative story we’ve published. The CPS story helped earn Charlotte the distinction of being cited by the Livingston Awards as one of the top young journalists in the nation, one of some 20 honors Investigative Post has received.
Daniela excelled at reporting on police issues. A department spokesman once told her he got a knot in his stomach when she called; I told her that was a good thing. She exposed the unconstitutional practices of the unit established to counter violent street crime and the department’s shortcomings that contributed to the drowning death of a police diver.
All three eventually moved on from Investigative Post — Dan as an investigative producer for WIVB, Daniela to ProPublica and Charlotte to a statewide investigative reporting center in Pennsylvania founded by The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Hitting stride again during the pandemic
Investigative Post hit a bit of a rough patch after their departure. Money got tight. Staff turnover continued. Several initiatives stalled, although not our newsletter, WeeklyPost, which is going on its fourth year of publication.
Things began to pick up when Geoff Kelly joined us in April 2019 after closing The Public, the alternative weekly he founded after leaving Artvoice. He was an outstanding addition: knowledgeable, well-sourced and a graceful writer. He’s focused on politics and City Hall and has produced a lot of great work that has parlayed his deep institutional knowledge of the community.
Other reporters we added produced top-shelf work, as well.
Marsha McLeod’s reporting documented how City Hall targeted minority motorists with stepped up traffic enforcement and increased fines and fees.
Ali Ingersoll, camera in hand, fearlessly covered the street demonstrations in Buffalo following the murder of George Floyd with compelling stories and tweets.
Like Trump fled to his bunker, @MayorByronBrown fled in a police car to a hotel Wednesday night when a group of about 70 protesters began marching down his street: https://t.co/0J0eMHTSHc #BuffaloPD #protests #Buffalo pic.twitter.com/Wq1mUbiBEM
— Investigative Post (@ipostnews) June 25, 2020
A year-and-a-half after Geoff joined us, I hired Nancy Webb as director of development and administration and our finances began to improve.
Of late, we’ve distinguished ourselves with Geoff’s coverage of the city’s fiscal problems and mayor’s race last year, Layne Dowdall’s reporting that’s exposed a bevy of problems in Buffalo public schools, and Mark Scheer’s coverage of wasteful economic development studies and inconvenient truths involving a push from the Buffalo Bills for a new stadium.
Mark has added experience he gained during his years of newspapering in Niagara and Orleans counties. Layne has provided us digital, as well as reporting, chops.
We’ve also added an important partnership with the Civil Rights and Transparency Clinic at the University at Buffalo Law School. The clinic provides us pro bono services as we fight efforts by government officials to suppress public records.
Reporting and lawsuits aside, we’ve managed to have fun along the way. Not that catching the bad guys isn’t a hoot by itself.
We’ve hosted scores of events, including an annual benefit show at the Sportsmen’s Tavern headlined by Tom Toles, backed by my friends in the Outlyers. (We’ve got another show coming up Aug. 11).
We’ve also hosted a lot of issue-oriented panels, including national experts on lead poisoning, a member of the Boston Globe Spotlight team discussing sex abuse by Catholic priests, and BTF President Phil Rumore and School Board Member Larry Quinn debating educational matters.
I’ve also thoroughly enjoyed my dealings with Susan Arbetter over the years. She had me on frequently when she hosted The Capitol Pressroom, as her successor, Dave Lombardo, does now, and was the keynote speaker at two events we hosted at the Burchfield-Penney Art Center.
Looking to the future
Our first decade is behind us. What lies ahead?
I’m intent on continuing to grow the only news organization in Western New York dedicated exclusively to producing watchdog journalism. There’s enough skulduggery going on in Buffalo, and Albany, to keep a dozen reporters busy.
We just signed a new three-year contract with WGRZ and will be talking soon with WBFO about expanding our presence on their airwaves. We’re continuing to work with Say Yes to Education and local news outlets and educators to provide a career path into journalism for students of color. We’ve also established a relationship with the Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, one of the top journalism schools in the nation.
I feel we’ve become an important community asset. While we are a relatively small operation, we punch well above our weight, to use the boxing term, and our work has had outsized impact.
There’s an acute need for our style of independent, fact-based accountability journalism. Other local news outlets are becoming more hard-pressed to produce it because of the changing economics of their industries.
Our method of operation is cutting edge. We produce content for all the major platforms — television, radio, print and online — and our nonprofit business model is gaining traction as legacy media outlets struggle to stem the loss of audience and revenue.
The community agrees: Our roster of donors, both big and small, continues to grow.
Many media observers feel nonprofit news organizations are the wave of the future, especially in providing local coverage. Consider this: There were about 50 nonprofit news organizations when I launched Investigative Post. A decade later, there are some 360, and that number is growing exponentially.
I guess I wasn’t so crazy for whipping out my credit card all those years ago.