Research for hire: A revenue model for the news?

New business models are coming quickly now, at news organizations big and small. The New York Times is tapping the continuing education market, charging $185 for the chance to sit in a seminar room with Nicholas Kristof, Gail Collins or other Times stars. The tiny Texas Watchdog has become a citizen-journalism training laboratory, hitting the road with a consultancy that has become its No. 1 source of revenue. Many news sites are trying to replicate NewWest‘s success at running conferences. Others are thinking about building networks, or at least becoming part of one.

This trend of experimentation and innovation has almost certainly just begun. Now on the horizon, for example, are multiple initiatives to charge consumers for some aspect of a news organization’s content.

To my eye, one of the more interesting new-model ideas popped up at this summer’s meeting of investigative reporting nonprofits outside New York. The idea, mentioned by two participants, was to set up a separate unit that would do contract or customized research for paying clients. Revenue generated would supply one piece of the business-model formula that would pay for the core investigative reporting business.

The concept seemed both promising and potentially ethically tricky, but in any case it seemed like a fresh approach. Fresh, anyway, till I discovered that the owners of the Economist have been doing this since 1946 through the Economist Intelligent Unit. These days the EIU, with more than 40 offices worldwide, sells country analyses in 200 markets, provides custom research and presentations for executives, convenes conferences on both government and business topics, and more. It calls itself the “world’s pre-eminent global research and advisory firm.” If that’s true, it’s obviously a business that’s bringing in tens of millions of dollars annually in revenue.

In the United States, though, this model has had little adoption, at least not by news organizations. Until now. Several new (or relatively new) sites are getting into this game, leveraging their research and reporting skills to offer specialized information services to corporate clients. Interestingly, two of the new adopters are in Boston: GlobalPost and the New England Center for Investigative Reporting.

GlobalPost, the international reporting startup created by Phil Balboni and Charles Sennott, has started a custom-research operation under its premium Passport service. For $104 a year ($50 for students and senior citizens), Passport members get access to special content, join weekly conference calls with reporters abroad, and make story suggestions to be voted on by other Passport members. But they also can request, for an additional fee, custom reporting by a freelancer or a GlobalPost reporter on a story of special interest.

Phil Balboni, CEO of the for-profit GlobalPost, said the fee would depend on the research’s scope, travel requirements and so on, but said it would be at least in the “thousands of dollars.” The client would have exclusive access to the information for a time, but GlobalPost would keep the information’s copyright and reserve the right to publish findings.

GlobalPost recently had its first paying customer, a client who asked for research about remittances sent back to Mexico by workers in the United States. The material hasn’t been published yet, Balboni said, but might be at some point. This client and subsequent ones won’t be named, he said, but Balboni argued that conflicts shouldn’t be a problem because any special-order research is liable to be published eventually on the website.

I asked Balboni what research GlobalPost wouldn’t do. “We won’t accept projects if they’re serving PR or advocacy interests,” he said. “Things that are before the courts or a regulatory matter… Basically we reserve the right to reject any research request that would compromise the integrity of Global Post.”

The custom research initiative not only brings in new revenue for GlobalPost — the remittances charge was in “the thousands” — but provides extra income for staff reporters, who are on $1,000-per-month retainers.

Might this become a big deal? “Conceptually it could,” said Balboni. “But it’s too early to say. It’s like everything else we’re doing. It’s so new.”

A similar program is under way at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, based at Boston University. Center director Joe Bergantino said one contract research project is in progress, and more are expected. Bergantino said he will use freelancers to handle the contract work.

Asked what kinds of cases he would accept and reject, Bergantino said classic private investigative work like divorces and insurance cases would be out of bounds.

“We’re thinking more along the lines of research an author needs for a book, or maybe a lawyer needs some pre-interviewing of witnesses, that kind of thing,” he said.

Like Balboni, Bergantino said the client list on the contract side will often (perhaps always) be confidential. That’s business-as-usual in the world of research-for-hire, but it’s at odds with the transparency ethic that the news operations embrace to the hilt in their core businesses. Might this become a problem? It certainly could, but as the Economist has shown, it doesn’t have to.

Journalists, of course, have often found their research skills a good match for related endeavors outside the news business, including investigative-oriented jobs in the criminal justice system or legislative branch of government. Some have chosen that route recently as investigative reporting jobs have retrenched in the legacy media. Case in point: Douglas Frantz, former star investigative reporter and editor at the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, who was named chief investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Two other high-profile investigative reporters, Susan Schmidt and Glenn Simpson of the Wall Street Journal, went in a different direction. They set up their own investigative shop, SNS Global LLC, where Schmidt said they’ll be doing everything from organized crime to counter-terrorism work, for private clients.

What’s interesting here is the idea that news organizations might do this under their own corporate banner, using proceeds to fund the news. I asked Trent Seibert, who runs the investigative site Texas Watchdog, what he thought about this trend. Seibert had thought about doing something similar earlier, but now has doubts. He’s still thinking through how he would set up a separate research operation, and even more important how to decide which projects to take on.

“Where would you draw the line?” he said. “Would you, for example, do opposition research for a political candidate? I’m thinking no, but then it’s not clear to me what is out of bounds.” Seibert said he was also concerned about confidentially requirements that would clash with the news side’s ethic of transparency.

“But I’m not saying these things couldn’t be figured out,” said Seibert. “Everyone is re-evaluating. Everyone is wondering where next month’s budget comes from.”

A free-lance prototype: multimedia and entrepreneurial

The University of Virginia prepared Jason Motlagh very well for his career has a free-lance foreign correspondent.

When he applied to take a journalism elective course, he was rejected because he wasn’t an English major. When he applied for a job as food columnist at the school paper, he was also rejected.

But Motlagh persisted, and eventually won a spot on the school paper as travel columnist. His specialty: Travel to fascinating world spots on very low budgets.

Voila. Today Motlagh has five years of free-lance foreign correspondence under his belt and, in many respects, he is the prototype for the journalist of the future: a free-lancing, multimedia correspondent who knows how to market his work and live on a tight budget.

I found Motlagh through my friend Jon Sawyer, who runs the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, and who has made Motlagh, 28, one of the workhorse reporters for his up-and-coming nonprofit. Jon confirmed one of Motlagh’s most attractive traits: his “doggedness.”

In the last two years, Motlagh has covered for Pulitzer the massive flooding in south Asia, the Maoist Naxolite rebels of north-central India, the Nepalese Maoist groups, Sri Lanka’s fight with the Tamil Tigers and, more recently, civilian casualties in Afghanistan.

But that rendition of Motlagh’s recent work doesn’t get at the heart of what he does or what makes it work. Here’s what’s telling:

  • He’s a multimedia journalist. Motlagh doesn’t just write stories. He shoots still photos. He shoots and edits video. He does audio. He blogs. He narrates slide shows. And because he does all of those things, he says, he has a huge advantage over free-lance foreign correspondents working in a single medium. Having multiple media skills is “still unusual,” he said. “There aren’t a whole lot of people yet who have gotten up to speed. If you are, you can make clients an offer they can’t refuse.”
  • He’s an entrepreneur. This isn’t a new part of a free-lancer’s life, but it’s becoming increasingly important as traditional clients fall by the wayside. In the last two years he lost two important outlets in the San Francisco Chronicle and U.S. News & World Report. But landing work at the Pulitzer Center, and increasing billings through his multimedia work, fills the gaps.
  • He lives modestly and accepts that there may be periods in his work where he’ll have to do something besides journalism to pay the bills.

This question of compensation is something that bedeviled my class at the USC Annenberg School for Communication last semester. Students were thrilled with Jon Sawyer’s presentation about the Pulitzer Center – some of them were ready to go abroad immediately – but were stumped about how they would live when Pulitzer essentially pays only travel stipends (usually $1,500 to $5,000).

One answer for the foreign free-lancer, Motlagh said, is that you can live abroad much more cheaply than you suspect. “I was paying less than $500 a month for a very, very nice place in Delhi,” he said. “Even had a house-cleaner. You can do what I do and live well. You can buy insurance, get an apartment.”

Motlagh was a few years into his free-lance career before hooking up with the Pulitzer Center. He began with a six-month stint in West Africa, came home to work for UPI for about a year, then made a decision to go abroad full time. Over the next three years he focused his work on south and central Asia, producing mostly newspaper stories and photos.

Then, about two years ago, another example of Motlagh’s never-say-die trait played out. He pitched an idea to the Pulitzer Center. Then another. Both were rejected. Finally, the center said yes, and Motlagh has become one of its chief contributors.

He acknowledges that his multimedia skills are a big reason. One of Pulitzer’s key partnerships has been with Foreign Exchange, the weekly public broadcasting show. Now Motlagh and other Pulitzer free-lancers were being asked to produce short video documentaries that could air on the show. He needed to learn video and shooting, on the fly.

“One of the things I’d tell students is if I can do it, the sky is the limit,” he jokes. “I’m comfortable with it now. I can shoot and edit my own video.”

In addition to giving him free-lance assignments and a productive nudge on the multimedia front, Pulitzer maneuvered to connect Motlagh with other possibilities: He’s done a couple of IWitness webcam interviews for Frontline/World – work for which Pulitzer pays him $1,000 per interview. It also put him in touch with Virginia Quarterly Review editor Ted Genoways, resulting in a 7,500-word article on the Asian ethnic insurgencies. (Another Virginia Quarterly Review piece, on the anniversary of the Mumbai terrorist attacks, is forthcoming.)

Perhaps most rewarding to Motlagh have been the campus lectures he’s done for Pulitzer’s schools outreach program. Pulitzer made his India work the focus of its schools program last year, and created a Web site that includes lesson plans plans and an interactive chat room. The school visits, to Ohio University, Southern Illinois University, Washington University (St. Louis) and several St. Louis high schools, produced a $500 honorarium for each trip, but also gave Motlagh an emotional charge.

“It’s very satisfying,” he said. “You get more mileage for the work you do; you get feedback, dialogue. You get students interested in foreign concerns.”

I asked Motlagh to circle back to the questions of my students, wondering if their interest in foreign reporting can square with financial realties.

“I feel my case is evidence that this is very possible for young journalist to do,” he said. “As grim as it might look, there are opportunities out there… The other thing I’d say is just go if you think this is what you want to do. Sometimes it’s just being there that creates the opportunity.”

At least for Motlagh, being there is what he wants to do. After a brief stateside visit, he’s heading back to Afghanistan.

Foreign reporting, the entrepreneurial and multimedia way

What are the two new qualities that journalists of the future must embody? They must be entrepreneurial and they must be multimedia. These are precisely the qualities that animate the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Almost five years ago now, my wife (Geneva Overholser) and I sat in Jon Sawyer’s living room in Washington, D.C., and listened to him spin out what sounded like an improbable tale. He wanted to set up a nonprofit center on foreign reporting, and he wanted a philanthropist to bankroll it.

I will confess right here. I was supremely skeptical that this could work. And I was wrong as could be. Jon, the longtime Washington bureau chief of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, indeed did persuade Emily Pulitzer to establish the nonprofit center. And today, three-and-a-half years old, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting is producing dozens of exclusive, multimedia reports on issues and regions of the world that otherwise wouldn’t be covered.

Jon is a longtime friend so I won’t feign impartiality here, and will basically let him tell his own story. But it’s worth making a few points up top:

First, the Pulitzer Center is demonstrating that high-quality international reporting can happen on a modest budget. Jon’s entire expense budget is less than $1 million a year, and that pays for the center’s staff in Washington as well as dozens of reporting grants.

Second, the center is one of the leading proponents for the journalist-as-entrepreneur model. Free-lancers commissioned by the center receive only a travel stipend; but the center then works with the journalists to find multiple platforms and venues for their work. (Note: In a later post we’ll focus on a couple of journalists who exemplify this model.)

Third, the Pulitzer center’s projects aren’t just one-off stories, or even a multimedia menu of stories. They are full-blown campaigns, designed to create maximum exposure for the reporting. Notably, Jon is developing the idea that the college lecture hall and the school classroom are critical pieces of a journalist’s ability to get his or her story across.

I asked Jon a few questions about his center. His answers run a little long, but they’re worth your time:

I’ve been surprised at how quickly you’ve made the Pulitzer Center into a major engine of foreign news coverage. How have you pulled this off in such a short time?
Three and a half years isn’t so short (especially since it feels like three and half years with no weekends off!). But I agree, the Center’s scope has grown much faster than I imagined when we began. We’ve gone from fewer than 10 projects the first year to a projected 35 for 2009, and from just a handful of placements in the first year to more than 250 in 2008.

We benefited a great deal from my experience doing this sort of enterprise reporting over many years at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, a newspaper with a strong commitment to independent reporting on global issues but no foreign bureaus and a relatively modest travel budget; in my dozen years as DC bureau chief we never had a budget greater than $150,000 for domestic/foreign travel. On the 40-plus foreign projects I did for the PD the travel budget was never more than $20,000, even for trips where I spent six or eight weeks traveling. So I was used to squeezing as much as possible out of limited dollars. I also had field experience in most regions of the world, was familiar with most of the issues presented, and enjoyed relationships I had developed over the years with editors at many print and broadcast outlets.

We’ve also grown faster than anticipated because we’ve been offering unique and high-quality content at a time when the traditional sources for such content have been in free fall. You know the drill – bureaus shuttered, budgets slashed. News organizations that told me three years ago they had no interest in partnering with outside collaborators on international reporting have a very different view today. (This also reflects, I think, the fact that three years in we now have an established reputation for providing quality work – and so we’re able at least to get a hearing most places when we pitch our journalists’ work.)

Lastly, and most important, I was very lucky in the people I hired, and in the quality of journalists who came to us for travel support.

My associate director, Nathalie Applewhite, brought a wealth of experience in video documentaries and international education; Ann Peters, our director of development and outreach, had been a UPI reporter in the U.S., Jerusalem and South Africa and later, after law school, worked on the program side for
Human Rights Watch and the Open Society Institute; Janeen Heath came straight from college but with terrific organizational skills and experience in campus leadership positions that made her well suited to take the lead in our high school and university outreach programs.

How is the Pulitzer Center different from other news organizations (profit and non-profit) in focusing on foreign news?
The biggest distinction is probably our “full-cycle” approach, from the identification of underreported systemic crises and the recruitment of journalists to help in placement of their work across multiple media platforms and a very aggressive program of after-marketing and educational outreach. In essence we view our projects as campaigns – not as one-off stories where the work ceases at the point of publication or broadcast.

The heart of our work is travel support to journalists, getting them out in the field, but we differ from other funding sources in that we seek out journalists who embrace our model and are willing to work closely with Pulitzer to maximize the impact of their work. The commissions we make come with a host of requirements – all the information you see on our “project pages,” multiple print and photo/video blogs from the field, the creation of audio slide shows to complement the work, entries on Wikipedia, at least one article for our partners at Global Post. For many of our journalists, the blogs and audio slideshows they create for us are their first experience with either – and almost without exception they’ve found it rewarding and highly useful in terms of promoting the work.

The relationship with Global Post is typical of our many collaborations, from traditional platforms like the Post, the Times and NewsHour to new outlets like WorldFocus. We’ve built strong relationships with regional or niche papers that had interest/resources in foreign news (Christian Science Monitor, San Francisco Chronicle and Washington Times), putting us in position to help less established writers/producers get outlets and income. We’ve also worked hard on the magazine front, from big outlets like Time and Newsweek (online and print) to specialty mags like Mother Jones, Rolling Stone and The Nation. Because of the many contacts we’ve made, and the track record we’ve established, we’re able to serve our journalists as agent, getting their pitches a hearing. We also do a lot of work on the pitches themselves, getting them in shape to make the strongest case possible.

Among the several dozen projects we fund each year there is implicit competition to be singled out for the after-marketing and educational placements we do for the best of the projects. We plug the chosen journalists into our growing network of schools and universities, giving them this additional opportunity for exposure, contacts and income. We handle all the logistics, the marketing and payments.

The after-marketing and education outreach distinguishes us in another way, in that we are singularly focused on reaching out to audiences not now engaged in traditional news media outlets. In our view we are creating the news audience of the future, exposing young people to quality journalism and encouraging them to join a conversation on critically important global issues – but within the context of vetted, professional journalism.

This is one of the reasons our partnership with YouTube on Project:Report was so important. YouTube came to us as the journalist partner on their first video reporting contest because they wanted to convey their commitment to serious journalism. If you look at the way the contest was structured you’ll see that commitment vividly displayed. Each of the three rounds of the contest was presented with aspirational “model” videos from the work of Pulitzer – on Iraq, Jamaica and Liberia – and each round included a “how-to” video produced by us with our journalists and videographers (e.g., how to do an effective profile, how to find the universal elements in a local story, how to create a collaborative video project). YouTube showed its own commitment to the project via heavy promotion on its site and throughout Google, and by showcasing the ten finalists on YouTube’s homepage (a rare exception to YouTube’s general rule of having popularity dictate placement). The result was nearly 3 million views for videos associated with the contest, and priceless exposure for some exceptional video work. The grand-prize winner, Arturo Perez, is now at work with Pulitzer on a reporting project from Cuba that will be showcased on YouTube, too. We are working with YouTube on doing Project:Report again next year, hopefully with even greater participation by journalism school students and by the broader YouTube community.

What are the one or two projects you’re most proud of?
Of course I’m proud of all our projects (well, almost all!) I tell more about WaterWars and our growing strand of multiple-reporter projects in the section below. Our work in Sudan is very special to me, partly because of our sustained commitment (half a dozen projects and counting) but also because our work on the African Union in Darfur was the Center’s first project, one I did myself and on which we discovered the extraordinary value of using multiple platforms. (The decision to hire a videographer to work with me led to the short documentary for Foreign Exchange, a longer 25-minute doc that aired on LinkTV and that we used to frame a special presentation at the Holocaust Memorial Museum that we simulcast to 35 college locations via Internet2 – and that then became the basis for some two dozen talks I gave at universities, schools and churches across the country … in short a pretty good wake-up call to the idea that the Pulitzer Center was going to be more than a funder of print journalists!)

Our multiple projects in Iraq are worth special note, I think, because they demonstrate (a) the role we can play highlighting under-covered angles even on stories that traditional media IS covering; and (b) the fact that small operations such as the Pulitzer Center can play a significant role even in active conflict zones characterized by security concerns and high cost. We supported Beth Murphy’s documentary on Kirk Johnson, the young AID worker who left the government to mount a campaign to win U.S. visas for Iraqis who were targeted for their work with U.S. army/government. We also made it possible for the Baltimore Sun’s Matt Brown to do a three-part series on the plight of Iraqi refugees stuck in Jordan and Syria.

And lastly, most significantly, we have funded four different projects over the past two-plus year by free-lance journalists David Enders and his wife Alaa Majeed (formerly of McClatchy) and videographers Rick and Jacqui Rowley. They’ve done things most American news organizations didn’t even try – embedding with Mahdi units and Sunni militias and getting cameras in to vast Shiite displaced-persons camps that were off limits to UN, NGOs or other press. We’ve aired multiple pieces on Foreign Exchange, put David on air with Fareed Zakaria to challenge conventional wisdom on the Surge, and made possible dozens of articles and broadcasts across a range of outlets, from the Washington Times to al Jazeera English, Democracy Now, Pacifica, The Nation and Mother Jones. David and Rick would tell you that they couldn’t have done this work without the Pulitzer Center – not so much because of the money (although that of course helped) but because we were willing to serve as sponsoring news organization at times when no one else would, given the security risks entailed and possible liability. They went in with their eyes open as to their own exposure, and having signed liability waiver forms with us. But we went in with our eyes open too, cognizant of the potential risks we bore but viewing it as crucial to produce stories that weren’t otherwise being told.

The other project I want to cite is HOPE, our multimedia examination of the human face of HIV/AIDS in Jamaica. This is the definitive example of our approach to news projects as campaigns, and our willingness to work outside the box in drawing attention to the big systemic issues we address.

HOPE began with a commission from the MAC AIDS Foundation, which gave us a grant to “do journalism” on HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean, the region with the second-highest incidence of HIV in the world but one that had gotten far less media attention than sub-Saharan Africa. There were no restrictions on the work we did, beyond a geographic focus on the Caribbean. The first project we completed was an examination of U.S. policies on HIV/AIDS in Haiti and the Dominican Republic, in collaboration with Foreign Exchange, the Palm Beach Post, and Cox Newspapers. This led to a newspaper series, three television pieces, and an interactive web portal “Heroes of HIV: HIV in the Caribbean.” It also produced results, among them a $200,000 emergency appropriation from U.S. AID to clean up sanitary conditions in a Port au Prince prison we exposed in the reporting.

For the second project we opted on a very different approach, commissioning a report on the human face of HIV/AIDS in Jamaica by Kwame Dawes, a Ghanian-Jamaican poet who teaches at the University of South Carolina. Kwame has written some 20 books of poetry and a highly regarded book on Bob Marley and reggae but before this assignment had never done anything on HIV/AIDS. He was recommended to me by Ted Genoways, editor of the Virginia Quarterly Review. I made the first trip to Jamaica with Kwame and over the course of several months in late 2007 and early 2008 he made four more trips, twice with Nathalie Applewhite and twice with other videographers we hired and also a photographer and web designer we commissioned to work with us. He interviewed some 50 individuals in all, from those infected with HIV to educators, doctors, social workers and gay-rights activists; along the way he wrote some 20 poems about the individuals he had met.

In the spring of 2008 we aired two short docs on Foreign Exchange. Kwame wrote an 8,000-word essay for VQR and I then pitched a shorter version of it The Washington Post, which published it in Outlook that spring. Meanwhile Kwame recommended that we commission original music to accompany the poetry. We agreed to do so, at a cost of $15,000, even though this was beyond the scope of the initial MAC AIDS commission and thus something we had to fund through internal Pulitzer dollars. The music, photography, video and poetry all became the basis for, the multimedia website we launched in early 2008. The website is an extraordinarily beautiful piece of work, one that has been honored by the Knight-Batten Awards for Innovation in Journalism and with multiple design awards – most recently as special honoree in one category of the WEBBY awards, finalist honors in two other categories, and winner of the “people’s choice” award for best use of art in a website.

We arranged for Kwame to present the project in an appearance at Busboys and Poets in DC, at the same time pitching coverage of it. NewsHour featured the project last fall, in a lengthy segment that included excerpts from the site as well as interviews with Kwame and me. We were then approached by PRX (Public Radio Exchange), which co-funded production of a one-hour radio documentary drawing on all of the material we had collected in Jamaica as well as the music we had commissioned. That documentary has aired across the country this spring, on some of the biggest NPR stations. In the meantime we were seeking a venue to produce HOPE live, as a music/spoken word ensemble. We learned last month that we had been selected as a feature presentation for the National Black Theater Festival in North Carolina, widely regarded as the most important venue in the country for black theater. The production takes place this August; we hope to make it the occasion for raising the visibility of the HIV/AIDS issue as well as for our innovative approach to journalism. We hope that it will help us raise funds for the Pulitzer Center in general, and for further productions of HOPE, on university campuses and in Jamaica.

In the meantime we are pursuing a follow-on reporting project on HIV/AIDS in Jamaica, this time focusing on stigma and homophobia and how that has contributed to the spread of the disease. We are working in partnership with WorldFocus, on a series of broadcast pieces that we hope to air early summer – in time to help with marketing of the Black Theater Festival event.

My students at USC were excited about the Pulitzer Center, but were perplexed about how a travel stipend fits with the journalist’s need to pay the rent. How would you say the center’s business model is working for the journalists who receive your grants?
The Center is not “the answer” to journalism’s crisis. It is one answer, not just through the help we give to specific journalists but also as a model for other actors in this sphere – a demonstration that relatively small amounts of money, strategically deployed, can jumpstart careers and lead to sustained relationships.

The next generation of journalists is going to be much more entrepreneurial than ours. It’ll have to be. The old model of “company men (and women),” rising through the ranks of stable news organizations and drawing on ample resources to do stellar work, is simply gone – and not likely to return. But for imaginative reporters willing to hustle there are many opportunities, and few so rich as in foreign coverage. Our success in placing stories by quite young journalists in high-end publications/broadcasts is evidence of what can be done.

On the modeling front I also want to stress again the importance of new players stepping up to take responsibility for sustaining this kind of journalism. Start with universities, and journalism schools. To me it’s an outrage that J Schools expect journalists to come on campus and talk for free, at the same time as they bewail the dwindling opportunities for their students. They should be working to fund this work themselves, through initiatives like Campus Consortium — and I hope many more will be signing up in the months ahead.

I believe I’ve heard you say that the Pulitzer Center has quickly become one of the top creators of international news content in the United States. Is that a true statement? Is the work receiving the kind of attention you want?
I’ve said that we are one of the dozen or so top U.S. providers of original enterprise reporting abroad. I believe that is a true statement. If you were to make up a list of organizations sponsoring at least three dozen enterprise reporting projects per year, you’d be hard-pressed to get beyond a handful. But in making this point my larger purpose was to indict those in our business who say international news is too expensive and can no longer be afforded. The Pulitzer Center is doing 35 in-depth projects a year, nearly half of them encompassing television elements too, on a budget of less than $1 million. We are stretched way too thin and we need more money, for adequate staff to manage/promote this work and to funnel more dollars to the journalists themselves. But still: What does our record say about the performance – and the hand-wringing — of traditional news organizations with vastly more resources?

It’s interesting how much focus you put on the educational portion of your mission. It’s almost as if the news presentation and the education part – campus visits, etc. – are two sides of the same coin. Talk about how the educational piece works for you.
Our Global Gateway and Campus Consortium educational outreach programs are absolutely central to our mission, to engage the broadest possible public in global affairs. The original journalism we sponsor is a means to that end but won’t do much good if we don’t use it creatively to engage younger audiences.

We started with a pilot program in St. Louis high schools and middle schools two-plus years ago, bringing our journalists on selected projects into the classroom and creating interactive web portals where they could engage with students online. If you look at Global Gateway on our site you’ll see the series of projects we’ve presented, from the first one we did in spring 2007 on environmental issues in Mozambique (you’ll also see there five short videos on the Global Gateway concept produced by St. Louis public television station KETC). Gateway projects since have included Iraq, child soldiers in Liberia, HIV/AIDS in the Caribbean, WaterWars from east Africa, India’s internal conflicts, and Women/Children/Crisis.

Crucial from the beginning was our partnership with Arthur Lieber and Civitas Associates, a St. Louis educational consulting firm with deep roots in that region’s schools. Arthur helped us make contact with interested teachers and to get through the often-daunting challenge of demonstrating that exposure to our projects met state requirements as to educational “purpose.” We subsequently have worked on teacher lesson plans on several of our Gateways with the Choices program at Brown University’s Watson Institute, a national leader on international-issue curriculum packages with an established network of 5,000 schools.

The in-person visits by journalists have been invaluable in testing out our approach – and a wonderful experience for journalists and students alike – but long term our goal is very much to create an interactive online experience accessible to any school anywhere. Beginning with WaterWars last fall we have significantly enhanced the online experience, using everything from YouTube and Google map platforms (for “your stories” videos responding to each of the reporting topics) to video interviews with journalists and the subjects of their reporting to bring the stories home to students.

We took WaterWars to a dozen-plus schools in Seattle as well as St. Louis, and then to additional schools in Philadelphia, New York, Miami and Nairobi. These schools are now all part of the Gateway “community,” with simple logon/passwords that allow their students to post comments/questions on any of our Gateway portals. The portals themselves remain open to anyone.

Our Campus Consortium is the university counterpart to Global Gateway. We had achieved considerable success at finding university venues for many of our journalists, producing some 100 events over the past three-plus years and often persuading universities to cover all or part of the cost of bringing journalists on campus and giving them an honorarium ($500 to $1,000 per event). Last December we decided to systematize this relationship, seeking commitments by universities/colleges to fund this relationship on an ongoing basis via the Consortium. We set the price at $10,000 per year. In return the university would work with us to bring at least one journalist event on campus each year (in practice this is looking more like one per semeseter). We would designate a Pulitzer liaison on each campus, to work with us on making campus use of all Pulitzer journalism and Gateway portals. And lastly, students at Consortium schools would be eligible to compete for $2,000 travel reporting fellowships with the Pulitzer Center, one per participating campus. In a miserable economic climate we got a wonderful response: full commitments from Ohio University, SIU-Carbondale, UNC-Chapel Hill, Kent State University and the University of Oregon, plus partial commitments from St. John’s/Minnesota and Washington University. We are actively recruiting for additional Consortium members – hopeful that journalism schools in particular will see this as a low-cost means of bringing innovative journalism approaches on campus and supporting the work of stellar journalists.

Where is the Pulitzer Center going next?
As the Pulitzer Center has scaled up, producing several dozen projects a year, we’ve gotten to the point where we can draw on multiple reporting projects to create quite extraordinary web portals that tackle big issues in a variety of ways.
WaterWars is one example, where we’ve followed up the initial reporting from east Africa with our current work on desertification in China, water issues in South Asia, and drought in Kenya. WaterWars is also the model of stronger relationships we’re building with NGOs and other journalists. We teamed with the nonprofit journalism organization Media21 (out of Geneva) to send three Pulitzer journalists (including me) to the World Water Forum this March in Istanbul, and then on follow-on reporting trips to India and Ethiopia. We produced nearly 40 short videos, interviews with experts, other journalists and people on the ground, summarized in blog entries and encapsulated in posts to the WaterWars site. We also created banner ads on this work, serving as hyperlinks back to the reporting and videos, and worked with NGOs like Water Advocates to get them displayed on NGO websites.

This spring we launched a similar cross-cutting web portal on Food Insecurity, drawing on reporting we’ve commissioned in Nigeria, Kenya, Uganda, India, Tajikistan, Guatemala and Vietnam (and counting! with Australia and other reports yet to come). Lead partner is NewsHour but we’ve also placed stories in The Washington Post, Slate, Global Post and elsewhere. All displayed together on the FOOD portal, which we plan to make focus of major schools/university outreach this fall. We’re also partnering with Mercy Corps to make this content (and accesss to the “Your Stories” video feature) part of the Mercy Corps “Action Centers” that have been established in New York City and Portland, Oregon.

Later this summer we’ll launch our similar web portal “Heat of the Moment: Human Face of Climate Change,” with at least half a dozen separate Pulitzer reporting projects around the globe. By fall we’ll have portals that showcase the four projects we’re currently funding in Afghanistan, a portal based on work now in the field on education in Pakistan/Afghanistan, and FRAGILE STATES, the comprehensive work we’re doing on failed/failing states with support from Carnegie and the Stanley Foundation.

By then (we hope!) we’ll have redone our website to make the interactive portals a more integral part of the site overall – and to set them up in ways that can be integrated routinely in school curriculum and as a social-networking site for audiences more broadly.

Our biggest challenge is raising the resources (dollars) we need to take advantage of the amazing opportunities we now have. From our point of view we’ve established a model that works – from identifying gaps in coverage to recruiting journalists to do the work and then a means of getting it out to the broadest possible audience. On the reporting side I think our current scale is optimal; 35 projects a year is about the max we can do and maintain a personal connection with each of the projects. The key is staff resources to build our network of schools and universities, through the Gateways and Campus Consortium. Much of this work will eventually be self-sustaining, through Consortium membership fees and the possibility of modest charges to schools for engagement with our journalists on line. Getting to that point is a matter of persuading foundations and individuals to invest in success – to invest in the Pulitzer Center.