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.”

About David Westphal

After almost four decades in newspapering, I've made the jump to academia at USC's Annenberg Journalism School in Los Angeles. I hope to use my recent experience as head of McClatchy's Washington Bureau to write about the revolution that's taking place in journalism -- and in particular to study new-media business models. I'm a senior fellow at Annenberg's Center on Communication Leadership and Policy, and also affiliated with the Knight Digital Media Center.


  1. says:

    Sure, research could become a business model. There are thousands of specialty analyst and research firms around the globe. The difference between such a firm and your average news organization is that the analyst firm has deep, sustained, and comprehensive coverage on a single subject.

    An average newspaper (or, say, CNN) is more of a variety show — and as a result, the information on any one topic never gets deep or comprehensive enough to be sold to someone, or if it does, once the story has run its course, the newsroom is on to whatever the next big thing is. A salesforce would always fail if they had to develop entirely new pools of prospects each month.

    A business where you have sustained, deep, and comprehensive coverage of a given topic (say, foreclosures, or sports statistics) is also very “webby.” The web rewards “narrow comprehensiveness,” that is, everything about something. That’s another reason news organizations who focus on variety and whatever the hot story of the moment is get taken on the web — entrepreneurs keep peeling off one thing they cover and doing it far better than they can by having a single-purpose site that specializes in that topic. (Think Craigslist — “just classifieds” or Fanbase “just sports teams” — but ALL the sports teams, not just a particular city’s, or even just pro teams).

    Lisa Williams

  2. says:

    Oh! And I almost forgot:

    Full disclosure: I’m an adviser to the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, but I’ve never actually talked about this subject with them. I guess I should, huh?

    Lisa Williams

  3. As an IT reporter, I’ve done a little analysis and “white paper” work. It’s still reporting, usually in more depth than you do for a mass-market audience, but with better pay.

    Now that I’m a laid-off *former* IT reporter and editor, I’m doing almost nothing but marketing and analysis work, with journalism relegated to hobby status in my life.

    Times change. I try to change with them, maybe even stay a little ahead of things…

  4. Perry Gaskill says:

    Interesting direction you’re going in, David. I’ve been thinking along similar lines but have come at it from a slightly different angle. It seems to me that a lot of the new revenue model discussion reverts back to Stewart Brand’s comment that information “wants to be free” as the cost of spreading it goes down, but it also wants to be valuable depending on a particular person, context, or point in time.

    One of the ideas which has been tossed around in the past, but sort of edged out of focus in the midst of the current debate about general reader paywalls and micropayments, is the idea of “Freemium” content which may be expensive to produce and targeted at a limited reader base. An area which doesn’t seem to have been explored well in the freemium model is the business-to-business realm in a local market. What I mean by this are those things such as legal filings, government RFPs, zoning variances and a blizzard of other data which may not be particularly interesting to a general readership but crucial to a smaller group.

    Although this may sound like expensive content to produce, the reality is that the nature of the news business has always been to filter things, to present the top tier of what’s out there based on an editorial judgement of what the largest group of readers would like to see. A beat reporter might be checking probate filings regularly, for example, but only generate an actual probate-based story every six months.

    An additional possible advantage of a B-to-B subset of content production is that it could move the existing turn-ink-into-pixels advertising stream into one geared more towards marketing services. And although it may seem as if there may be ethical gray areas involved in this, the distinction is that you’re not writing nice stories about a business because they paid for it; you’re providing information to help them make money.

    We’ve already seen some of the capability for doing this in the EveryBlock open-source project, and with specialized business journals and legal publications in larger markets.

  5. David Westphal says:

    My USC colleague Joe Saltzman sent me this comment and agreed to let me post it:

    It’s a great piece and opens up all kinds of ideas for coming up with innovative ways to make use of the journalist’s skills. In the image of the journalist, there is often little difference between a PI and a investigative journalist and it seems real life is emulating that.

    I particularly like the idea of having individuals contacting the investigative unit to do work on a story of interest. I think you point out the tricky grounds involving ethics and traditional journalism practices, but I’m not sure that’s a major problem (as you conclude) as long as the journalists involved behave as traditional journalists always have. I don’t see much difference between an editor assigning a reporter an assignment or a group assigning a reporter an assignment requested by a client — as long as that information can eventually reach the public and as long as the assignment isn’t mean-spirited or for revenge (i.e. exposing a company that someone doesn’t like could get tricky — although an argument could be made if a company is doing something corrupt it really doesn’t matter what the client’s motive is. It’s similar to a whistle-blower calling the IRS to investigate an annoying neighbor. If the neighbor isn’t doing anything wrong, it wouldn’t matter.)

    Joe Saltzman, Professor of Journalism and Director, Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture (IJPC), a project of the Norman Lear Center, USC Annenberg

  6. says:

    Interesting article. Many news librarians have been laid off as newsrooms have downsized. This could be a new opportunity for them.

  7. Thank you, Mr. Westphal, for your great post.

    We summarized your article in English on our blog and translated that summary into Spanish and Portuguese to send to our audience in Latin America and the Caribbean.

    Joseph Vavrus
    Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas

  8. I think a research model is the best way to go now. Are newspapers even making any money anymore? More people rely on continuing information throughout the day, which is not available through newspapers.

  9. says:

    Boy, that prompts some hard questions! Remember the ethical no-no of keeping news secret, for however long? Secrecy ALWAYS hurts the truth. And so, I might add, does the appearance of secrecy.

    What is the client’s reason for wanting the report to be kept secret (however briefly–and how briefly will it be)? Will you insist on knowing that before signing on? And will that reason be disclosed in the final, public release of your “report”?

    If the reason is, say, competitive financial advantage, aren’t you are really serving a private purpose, whose dimensions and ramifications you might not even know?

    To the extent you try to do BOTH, won’t you be vulnerable to suspicion of a conflict of interest in both areas? (Imagine the disclosures! … or won’t there be any disclosures?)

    What if the “news” you find–i.e. defined as the truth that’s important for the public to know–rebounds ON the client? Will you withhold it, because the client’s not interested?

    Frankly, I don’t know how a reporter can even CONCEIVE of what to report without thinking of the public. But, I admit, the word “public” is starting to sound quaint.