Some investigative journalists have been resistant to change in their profession, but hard times at newspapers have brought about a new sense of experimentation and collaboration. That is evident at the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) and its new California Watch project, which attracted major foundation funding from the James Irvine Foundation, Hewlett Foundation and Knight Foundation.

When I visited their cramped offices in Berkeley, Calif., recently (they are moving to a larger space soon), CIR’s executive director Robert “Rosey” Rosenthal and California Watch’s editorial director Mark Katches were the ultimate “yes” men. Nearly every experiment I brought up to them, from crowdfunding to holding town hall meetings, was on the table and in the realm of possibility for them. “We’re open to anything,” Katches said at one point. “You ask us anything, and we’ll say, ‘Sure we’ll try it.’ “

When the California Watch site relaunches in early January, it will showcase some of those new approaches. Reporters will be blogging and tweeting openly about their ongoing investigations, and the audience will be included in a network of eyes and ears on the ground. While the latter is still a work in progress, Katches is open to having the audience help crowdsource work on documents, or give tips to reporters as they work on investigations.

California Watch soft-launched a few months ago, and its first story received wide distribution, making the front pages of dozens of California newspapers. While Rosenthal has had success in fundraising and hiring what he says is the largest investigative reporting team in the state, his attempt to keep the site non-partisan will be a challenge. Having reporters blog and tweet without giving away their biases will be difficult. CIR itself shows liberal leanings via online distribution partnerships with Huffington Post, Mother Jones and Salon, without any similar conservative sites in the mix. When I brought up this point to Rosenthal after our interview, this was his response via email:

In addition to hundreds of stories published in mainstream news outlets over 30 years, we have worked with outlets you mention. Going forward we hope to broaden our distribution more widely, working with with as many outlets as we can to reach people of all political persuasions and points of view. If you are going to make a judgment on the nature of the work by where it was published I think it makes sense to read, view or listen to it, and see if the stories were unfair or biased.

The following is an edited transcript with video clips from my recent visit to the CIR/California Watch headquarters.

Q&A

Robert Rosenthal explains how the idea for California Watch grew out of talks with the Irvine Foundation:

How do you choose your partners for distribution? Are you selective about that?

Robert Rosenthal: We are selective, but we also really want to reach an audience. We’re not looking for exclusivity. Exclusivity lasts about three seconds now on the Internet. We want to reach an audience, and part of that model is working. We had a piece where Mark Shapiro, whose expertise is in the cap-and-trade carbon issue, his work is in Mother Jones, it will be in Harper’s, and we’ve worked with FRONTLINE/World on a series called Carbon Watch. There’s a piece on Marketplace with NPR, on NewsHour with PBS. He’s blogging and other people want to work with us. Our idea of having one core reporter working on multiple stories really works.

One of the stories we did was on 25 front pages throughout California on the same day, which is unheard of, plus radio, plus TV. Again, there’s different partners. If we went to a big national partner and they said they wanted exclusivity, we would consider that. But what we’re finding is that they don’t care. If 10 papers have it in California, or if it’s on “California Report” on KQED, they see themselves as having a different audience, and they will take that story and give it a much more contextual, national flavor. They’re interested in the information we’re bringing them.

The last story we did was translated into Korean, Chinese, Vietnamese and Spanish, and [we] distributed it to ethnic media in California, which I don’t think anyone has done. Sandy Close at New American Media helped us out, and La Opinion translated it for us in Spanish.

Mark Katches: For the first stories we’ve done, there’s no set model for how we’ll distribute stories. A lot of other non-profits that are sprouting up are mostly doing one-offs with one news organization or a collaboration for an exclusive story. ProPublica will do that, but they also give their content away to anyone who will take it online. They are partnering with one news organization at a time.

What we did with our first story was that it ran on the front page of 25 newspapers with a combined circulation of 1.8 million. There isn’t a newspaper in California that comes close to that circulation on its own. We want to get the story out to as many eyeballs as possible. Our mission is to tell stories that will make an impact and change lives. The broader the audience you have, the better you can do it.

For that first story, we created 15 versions of the story. It was a story about Homeland Security grant spending in California — misspending in a lot of ways and lack of oversight. G.W. Schulz, a CIR reporter, did a fabulous job reporting it. To sell that to very different news organizations, we couldn’t hand them over a 100-inch story and expect them all to run it. So we had the story edited at three different lengths. Beyond the custom lengths, we also created a version with custom content for the Sacramento Bee, San Jose Mercury News and others.

What are you doing for online promotion?

Katches: When we launch our new website [in January], all our stories will be running jointly with the news organizations that partner with us. We’re also thinking we’ll use our blog as a marketing vehicle. We’re not up there yet, but when we start rocking and rolling in January, we’ll let people know stories are coming on our blog, and keep stories alive on our blog and on our websites.

Rosenthal: And on Facebook and on Twitter.

Katches: Yes, we’re going to use lots of social networking. Everyone here has a Twitter account. If you go to our site, you can see what our reporters are up to, we’re using Publish2 to show what people are reading. We’re also — without giving [away] the store — showing what our coverage priorities are, what we’re working on. Our reporters’ latest tweets are there on our site. We have a Facebook page, a Twitter page and will use the whole gamut of social media.

Would you consider partnering with Yahoo News? The same way you’re talking about getting distribution in print, isn’t there a parallel online?

Rosenthal: Yes. We’re hoping to reach out to them and do just that. We want our site to be vital, but we know it’s not going to become a news site, with that kind of activity. We want to showcase our work and create traffic, but our model is not to have our site as the only place you can find it. If we do this right, our stories will be on multiple sites — not just on California-focused sites but, for the right stories, national sites and global ones.

Rosenthal explains what the funders’ expectations are and how California Watch has to create a ripple effect to be successful:

What do you think would be the ideal split in the business model between bringing in money with ads and charging news organizations for content and grants from foundations?

Rosenthal: Right now we’re about 90 percent or 95 percent reliant on foundations. We haven’t been as aggressive about raising $50 checks and more, but we’re going to build that into the model. I think if we can get to 30 percent or 40 percent revenues outside of foundations, it will be very successful in the next 12 to 18 months. My own feeling is that we’re not creating a strategy where the end user pays, but we’re seeing that newspapers are willing to pay. Some are talking to us about long-term syndication models. There will be TV stations that might be willing to pay a consistent fee for access to what we’re doing.

There’s a lot of interest. The niche we’re in, high quality investigative, unique storytelling… I think there’s an opportunity to get more funding. Not to totally fund us, but the goal is to bring in revenues and hire more journalists to do more of this work.

What do you think of the crowdfunding model and what Spot.us is doing?

Rosenthal: We’d like to work with Spot.us and we’d like to try that. I think there are issues around the quality, and we’ve talked to David Cohn. If we can put out a pitch and help manage a story and get it placed, it may add value to that. I think there are issues around how you pick a story. If you say you want to make sure so-and-so is never re-elected, that may raise some issues.

The challenge long-term is establishing this as a credible model at a time when information and news is becoming more partisan. That’s a risk. If we’re seen as being partisan or coming from the right or left, it would hurt our credibility in the long term.

So would you stay away from syndicating in a place like Huffington Post?

Rosenthal: No. If they were our only outlet [it would be a problem], but we’re talking about multiple outlets and you’re not looking to one outlet or the other. You’re arguing that you want to reach eyeballs from different points of view. If an organization said it doesn’t want a story because it doesn’t fit their point of view, then I don’t think we’d ever deal with them again. I think the Internet opens the field up to a lot of opportunities to reach audiences.

What about your own reporters? You are showing off their tweets and inside thinking and blogging. They are people with biases and political leanings. How will you deal with that?

Katches: A lot of that will have to managed pretty strictly early on. We’re expecting people to be responsible. We don’t have a social media policy but we might need one. We have professional, outstanding journalists, and they know how to handle themselves, whether they’re blogging or tweeting or conducting an interview. But it’s something we need to keep an eye on.

One of my worries is that reporters are venturing out into one area they’re not used to, revealing what they’re working on. Investigative journalists have tended to be paranoid by nature, they don’t even let people in their own newsroom know what they’re working on. We’re not going to give away the store, but we do want to pique people’s interest.

Rosenthal: We have clearly addressed that, and we do have guidelines, but it does potentially create issues. Everyone has to be aware of that. We’re already perceived, because we’re physically located in Berkeley as being ‘“Berkeley [liberals].” We are sensitive to that, and our goal is that our body of work will address those issues if they exist.

Katches talks about the balance of doing long-term and short-term investigations, and how the staff will spend 10 percent of its time blogging and on social media:

The Guardian used crowdsourcing with its Investigative Your MP’s Expenses in the UK. Are you considering doing things like that?

Katches: Absolutely. We’re looking at those kinds of things, and have had discussions about those. Not only are we building our investigative team, we’re right now working with three different USC class projects with more than 40 student journalists collaborating with us. We’re looking at mobilizing small armies to do the types of work you’re talking about. We can’t do it all ourselves, but if we do it collaboratively, we can get a lot of things done.

Rosenthal: Mark is right that what we’re doing with USC Annenberg is great, but you have to build an infrastructure to manage it and do it. What we can help others with is to figure out how to do this. It’s not easy. You have to know how to manage it and have the right people, and willing partners. We’re looking to raise more money for the California Watch and CIR, and I want someone whose job is basically a collaboration editor, because it’s really full time. You have to have some journalistic skills, but it’s complicated. When I was at the Philadelphia Inquirer you had to have a collaboration editor for inside, for the warring departments [laughs].

Katches: One of the things that’s been wild is that a reporter will file the story, we’ll edit the story, Rosey [Rosenthal] will review the story, and we’ll get the story done to the point where it meets our standards. Then we put on our salesmen’s hat and we’re calling news organizations around the state and we’re actually selling the stories to them. In some ways it’s the same jobs we’ve always been doing, producing good journalism, but [we’re] going to another level of marketing it and distributing it… it’s an exciting new world.

Rosenthal explains how journalists need business partners for help now, and how new models will have to have alignment between funders and journalists:

Are you planning on having something to help people take action on your reports?

Katches: We are. We’re planning to have a feature called “React & Act” and tie it to every one of our stories. We may not do it right at launch, but pretty soon after. We hope it’s a platform, a jumping off point for people who want to get involved. It goes beyond commenting on stories. If we do stories about a particular agency, then what runs along with it is a sidebar with the photos, the email addresses, the phone numbers of stakeholders who can make a difference.

Do you feel you might even bring your audience together with you in some way, like a town hall meeting?

Katches: Sure, we’re open to anything. You ask us anything, and we’ll say, ‘Sure we’ll try it.’

Rosenthal: You still have to make sure you have an infrastructure so that you can manage it. But strategically, we’d like to be a place where there is discussion. If there’s a town square where we can help take a big state-wide issue and show a community how it impacts them, or show them data on a ZIP code level, we want to get that information to a community. We might even facilitate a public meeting.

We’re talking about websites, but one of the key things that might develop is that in some communities it won’t be people having laptops. It’s going to be handheld devices or cell phones, or whatever that becomes. So creating content for that is just as important. And we talked about ethnic media and how they reach an audience, and that’s a completely different issue. If we’re going to be effective, we have to do all those things. If we’re going to be effective, we don’t have to only build the journalism — [we have to build] the infrastructure to do all these things.

Katches gives a preview of the coming redesigned site for California Watch:

With your redesign, I saw part of it asks people to “join our network.” What is that exactly?

Katches: The idea is that it will start with the ability to comment and engage on our site. We would love to get it to a point where it becomes like a crowdsourcing community of people who can converse about investigative reporting, share their own knowledge of things they are learning in their community, and maybe even direct coverage. It’s early in the development, but it will start with the basic ability to comment and engage on the content we put up.

So it’s required for people to register in order to comment?

Katches: Yes, that’s one of the things we want to do to make sure we have responsible commenting.

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What do you think about the work of CIR and California Watch? Can their non-profit model be replicated in other states? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Videography and photo by Charlotte Buchen.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.