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.”