Journalism Worth A Million: The fund to grow Investigative Post

Investigative Post is unique in several important ways.

We’re the only news outlet in Western New York dedicated exclusively to watchdog journalism.

We’re the only one that delivers the news on all the major media platforms — television, radio, print and the web.

And we’re the only local outlet with a growing staff and audience.

We’re helping to fill an increasingly large void in the local news ecosystem. We tackle stories that other outlets lack the resources or gumption to take on. And our reporting has outsized impact — the Buffalo Billion corruption convictions are just one example.

That said, we’re swamped. Too many stories that demand coverage, too few reporters to produce them.

Jim Heaney – Editor and Founder

Investigative Post has therefore launched a campaign to raise $1 million through the end of 2021. The money will sustain our current operation and enable us to hire more reporters, expand our award-winning coverage, and bolster our business operations to ensure our economic sustainability.

Our campaign comes at a time when a free press is under assault by economic and political forces. Local news coverage, here in Western New York and across the nation, is under particular stress as revenues fall, staffs are cut or stretched thin, and coverage is scaled back.

News outlets are not the biggest losers, however. That would be the communities they serve, citizens who rely on local outlets to keep them informed on matters big and small. There’s simply less local news coverage and more potential for malfeasance by those in power.

Helping to fill this void are more than 200 nonprofit news organizations that have been established nationwide over the past decade, including Investigative Post here in Buffalo. These nonprofit newsrooms rely on a different business model and have a digital-first strategy for delivering the news. We are dynamic news organizations of the times.

Ben Smith, media columnist for The New York Times, recently wrote that now is “a moment of great promise for a new generation of largely nonprofit local publications.”

That includes Investigative Post. We are uniquely positioned to deliver the most important type of journalism — investigations and analyses that expose corruption and injustice, hold people in power accountable, and explain complicated issues of public importance. But we can’t do it without community support from people who value a free press and a vibrant local media.

Former federal prosecutor Preet Bharara, for one, believes supporting investigative journalism is a smart investment. Here’s what he said in announcing the Buffalo Billion indictments:

“A lot of the greatest work that prosecutors and watchdogs do comes from the work that journalists do, and I would encourage anyone who’s able to fund investigative journalism to spend money on it because it’s money well-spent and it’s good for the public.”

Our mission and impact

Mission: Produce fact-based, nonpartisan investigative stories and analyses on issues that matter to the citizens and taxpayers of Buffalo and Western New York.

Nonprofit status: 501 (c)(3)

History: Launched in February 2012.

Office: Located on Main Street in downtown Buffalo. Newsroom includes state-of-the-art recording studio.

Staff: Editor/executive director, three full-time reporters, development/administrative director.

Journalism awards: Our work has been cited for excellence in some 20 journalism and other award competitions, including those sponsored by Investigative Reporters & Editors, the Edward R. Murrow Awards and the New York State Associated Press Broadcasters Association.

Board of directors: Our members include local educators, journalists and business and civic leaders.

2020 budget: $434,154, more than two-thirds of which is spent on producing journalism. The balance is spent on technology, marketing, administration and fundraising.

Investigative Post has four distinctive strengths

Partnerships: We produce stories for all the major media platforms and distribute our work through WGRZ TV (NBC), WBFO (NPR), NewsRadio930 WBEN, The Capitol Pressroom and Buffalo Spree.

Audience: As a result of these partnerships, our stories reach an audience of up to 175,000 readers, viewers and listeners.

Diversity in funding: We receive broad financial support from individual and corporate donors and local and national foundations.

Local foundation supporters include the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo, the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation, the M&T Charitable Foundation, the Donald & Barbara Newman Family Foundation, and the Cameron and Jane Baird Foundation. National foundations include the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Ethics & Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Hundreds of individuals, companies and donor-directed funds have made donations that range from $10 to $20,000. Notable individual and business supporters include Try-It Distributing, Savarino Companies, Confer Plastics, Anthony Colucci and Sam Magavern and Monica Angle. See our list of major donors.

Impact: The quality of our reporting and the large audience it reaches means our stories have impact.

Editorial plans

We select stories based on their importance and potential for impact. Our aim is to expose wrongdoing and injustice, explain complex issues and hold people in power accountable. Much of what we report on would otherwise go uncovered.

We apply rigorous reporting standards to our work and make extensive use of data and documents to supplement interviews and other reporting methods. We also vigorously fact-check our stories before publishing.

While we cover a range of topics, our reporting is focused on the environment, criminal justice, economic development and government and corporate malfeasance. We have devoted most of our resources to covering the impact of COVID-19 since the onset of the pandemic. Most recently, we’ve covered issues related to racial inequality and police misconduct.

There is a growing need for investigative and explanatory journalism in our community and a diminished capacity for established outlets to produce it. With sufficient financial support, we’re ready to help fill this gap. Doing so requires us to add journalists to our staff, expand our scope of coverage and improve our capacity to produce broadcast versions of our stories.

Our plan is to expand our coverage to report on social justice issues and the impacts of COVID-19 on the local economy and other aspects of public life.

  • Our environmental beat will be expanded to include public health.
  • Our government/politics beat will include the fiscal and policy impacts of the pandemic while stepping up coverage of the region’s ineffectual, self-serving political culture.
  • Our criminal justice beat will be reconfigured into a social justice beat to include not only criminal justice but education and underlying social issues that have fostered inequalities laid bare by police protests and COVID-19.
  • Our coverage of the local economy and economic development will be expanded to track the region’s recovery from the pandemic’s financial devastation.

Our economic coverage necessitates the hiring of a fourth full-time investigative reporter as soon as possible. We’ll track economic indicators to provide insight into how the local economy is performing post-pandemic, while continuing to report on the use, and mis-use, of economic development subsidies.

We’ll also expand our economic coverage of issues related to poverty and income inequality, as well as cross-border commerce to determine whether Western New York is doing all it can to seize on the opportunity presented by its proximity to Toronto.

We also plan to add a fifth full-time reporter in 2021.

Our stepped-up reporting will require part-time support staff to help research stories and produce them for television and radio.

Our plans also include efforts to diversify our operation through our hiring and development of a pipeline of collegiate and high school talent of budding minority journalists.

Investigative Post’s continued growth will provide the public valuable insight and intelligence that is otherwise likely to go unreported. The importance of watchdog journalism has never been greater and Investigative Post is uniquely positioned to provide that coverage and deliver it to a wide audience.

Business plans

Investigative Post has built a solid foundation during its eight-plus years of publishing. It produces top-shelf journalism delivered to a large audience and has built a diversified base of financial supporters. But our continued growth depends on greater financial support from the community to not only to help pay for more journalism but to also cultivate a larger direct audience, which, in turn, will increase the size of our donor base.

Our media partnerships provide us with a large audience. But, due to market fragmentation, there are many people in our community who are still not aware of us or are uncertain where to find our work. Moreover, we “own” a relatively small portion of our total audience, that is, people who visit our website. Rather, most of our audience is “borrowed,” three to five minutes at a time, when they view or listen to our stories broadcast by our partners. That poses challenges, particularly when it comes to fundraising.

The solution: Increase our brand awareness through improved marketing. The objective is to dramatically increase the size of our “owned audience.” That is, people who visit our website, subscribe to our weekly newsletter and “like” our Facebook page. Doing so establishes a direct relationship with our audience, an essential first step to convert our readers into donors.

These are proven tactics, as we send out a weekly newsletter with an open rate consistently above 30 percent, considered high by industry standards, and Facebook accounts for up to 90 percent of our referrals from social media and half our total web traffic.

The plan: Promote brand awareness and increase email subscribers and Facebook likes with paid digital advertising on platforms including Facebook, YouTube and Google. Our goal is to double our email subscribers and Facebook likes in 2020 and double them again in 2021. Our larger Facebook and email following will enable us to drive more traffic to our website and help make the case to our readers they should donate.

We have used these tactics with success in the past and they provide a good return on investment.

While cultivating more small donors, Investigative Post will continue to obtain funds from large contributors, as well.

The goal: We’ve set a fundraising target of $1 million for the balance of 2020 and 2021. This income will cover our current level of expenses and provide the income necessary to:

  • Hire additional reporters and support staff.
  • Make other editorial improvements.
  • Implement the marketing campaign.
  • Develop a pipeline of minority journalists.

We’re confident our goals are attainable, but they require the support of those who value local journalism and a free press.

If you’re interested in learning more, contact our director of development, Nancy Webb, at nwebb@investigativepost.org or 716-831-2626 x. 2.