The Center for Public Integrity retools for the future, with a much more interactive Web presence and new approaches to bringing in revenue. Posted: Fri, May 13, 2011
By Greg Masters
Greg Masters (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an AJR editorial assistant.
The masthead on iWatchNews.org, the new Web site of the Center for Public Integrity, spells out the meaning of the prefix "i": "Investigation. Impact. Integrity." For the 22-year-old nonprofit investigative news organization, those are old-school values. But the "i" also expresses something new.
"Part of the reason we chose the name 'iWatch News' was to convey that this is going to be a two-way news relationship," Executive Editor John Solomon says. "I — the reader — can help you — the news organization — extend your ability to do accountability reporting."
The Web site, which had its formal launch May 3, has "at least a dozen and sometimes two dozen social engagement points" on every page, Solomon says, such as the ability to tweet stories, write comments on Facebook and upload documents and story tips. Since October, when the center introduced social media, RSS feeds, tagging and initial efforts at crowdsource reporting, pageviews have increased six-fold, he says.
"The old site was fairly static," says Solomon, who will leave the center in June to become editor of news and investigations at Newsweek and The Daily Beast. "It was a traditional, two-dimensional Web site." A typical reader would spend less than two minutes on the site in September, compared with 16 minutes in April and 22 minutes since the formal launch of iWatch News, Solomon says. "The new site is all about interactivity and engagement."
He points to the site's multimedia elements as well as the Ujima Project, a data portal that offers access to databases and documents from around the world. "You're clicking on videos," Solomon says. "You're drilling down and doing your own research. You can go to our Ujima Project and look up data yourself. You can go read or mark up the documents that we've uncovered on our latest story. You can watch video and get to know our reporters. You can send us tips and leak documents and videos to us."
Despite the new handle for the Web, Executive Director Bill Buzenberg stresses the organization is still the Center for Public Integrity. "But sometimes people see that, they think it's a think tank, or they think it's some sort of advocacy group, which it's not," he says. "We are a bona fide news organization."
The center continues to team up with other media outlets, such as the New York Times, CBS News and NPR, to distribute content. "Our collaboration with other news organizations has only been growing," says Managing Editor Keith Epstein, who came to the center from the Huffington Post Investigative Fund when the two operations merged in October. But Buzenberg says the center is "creating more of a destination site for the public, and that's why the traffic is soaring."
Partnering with the Investigative News Network, a consortium on nonprofit news organizations, and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists — which the center launched in 1997 — writers and editors at the center will produce and upload daily original investigative stories, as well as aggregated content from sites like FactCheck.org. Big projects, like ICIJ's investigations into the murder of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and the black market surrounding bluefin tuna, will mix with quicker turn-around stories. "I started at the center now four-and-a-half years ago, and from the beginning I said we have to do long-form projects and shorter work as well," Buzenberg says. "And I think iWatch News is a culmination of that."
Another difference with the new Web site is the presence of advertisings. The center will start selling sponsorship spaces in June, after a one-month round of "congratulatory" sponsorships having to do with the site's launch. "When your pageviews go up six-fold in six months, you have a way to monetize that space," Solomon says. In about two weeks, an ad-free version of the site, the iWatch daily digital newspaper, will be available "as a benefit" for those who purchase a minimum $50 annual membership in the center, he says. The digital version will be delivered using Treesaver, software that formats stories to any computer, tablet or smartphone screen and allows horizontal page-scrolling.
The ads and the upcoming push towards membership revenue underline the challenge facing investigative nonprofits as a whole, but especially a large one like the Center for Public Integrity. To make the payroll for 52 people — above $5 million this year — Buzenberg says the center can't simply rely on foundation and individual support. "Within this next five years, we'd like to be earning one dollar for every dollar that's donated," he says.
Says Epstein, "We now have the largest nonprofit investigative newsroom anywhere, and we're aiming to be the first sustainable one." He adds, "It's not just that we're big. It's not just that we're doing this from a position of an organization that's been around for two decades. It's that we have a business model for finding a way to sustain this really important work into the future."
Should a nonprofit news organization be earning revenue from its readers? "Look, I come out of public radio," says Buzenberg, who once served as NPR's vice president of news and information. "The memberships in public radio are an enormous source of revenue for public radio stations. It seemed to me that the center needs to be having a membership — in other words, earning revenue from individuals in a very concerted way."
Solomon believes the opportunity to receive a daily digital newspaper will attract members. The Treesaver platform, he says, "gives you that Kindle-like reading experience with the page-flipping and the nice, crisp text," and also supports videos and other interactive elements. "People aren't going to pay or spend more time onsite or click on more pages unless you can offer them something they can't get elsewhere," he adds.
Roger Black, a veteran media designer who has worked with newspapers like the New York Times and magazines like Rolling Stone, developed Treesaver along with Filipe Fortes, who worked with the New York Times in designing the Times Reader. Black says of long-form investigations, "People will read them if you can put them in a great format." The way longer pieces are presented on news Web sites is "a little annoying," he says, because of the need to click through multiple pages. "The general data is that every time you ask a user to go to another page, you lose half the users."
Says Solomon, "I think the frustration is that as the Web era came on, we'd do these great long reports, and it was hard for people to read in a traditional news environment a 4,000- or 5,000-word project." But "if you give them great investigative content like the old days, but you give them something that can be read on the iPhone, on the iPad, on an interactive television screen, they'll consume it just like they used to consume it on paper."
With iWatch News, Epstein says the center has "a very good chance now of demonstrating how we can keep doing this in perpetuity, rather than having to, as many nonprofits do, go back and ask for funding from funders years after year after year."
"We all started out on this bold experiment, and now we're taking that experiment to that next level," Epstein says, adding, "If we succeed, we won't just be sustaining the largest newsroom able to do this, but we'll be growing it."