The Indy 500: On deep-dive journalism, and staying afloat

The lazy river we didn't laze in last week in Houston. Photo by Tina Griego
The lazy river we didn't laze in last week in Houston. (Photo by Tina Griego)

Each June, a few of us at The Indy head to some overheated, off-season destination for two back-to-back journalism conferences.

The first is a meeting of the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN), a consortium of public-interest news outlets grappling with the challenge of how to keep a news outlet afloat in an era when readers expect their news for free. It is a two-day shot in the arm for journalists like us who now find ourselves running the business side of the outlets for which we also write – and trying like hell to keep them growing.

Then follows the annual conference of Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), a four-day deep dive into deep-dive journalism. It’s where we learn the latest digital tricks of the trade to find out more about government agencies, the people running them, and how to keep them accountable. It’s also where we hear the war stories behind war stories, the details of what it takes to shine light on overseas juntas, graft within a president’s businesses, or patterns of financial, sexual and emotional abuse by clergy.

My favorite IRE experience was two Junes ago in Phoenix, where the air conditioning in the conference hall was about 50 degrees cooler than the 115-degree heat outside. Some friends and I were floating in the hotel’s lazy river after the workshops one evening when a former colleague who had been working closely with the Panama Papers and his coworkers joined us in their innertubes. We must have circled that pool about 25 times as they talked about how they handled the 11.5 million leaked documents, the ethical issues that arose, and the challenges of confirming the information in them. It was, at least for this journalism geek, a perfect evening, a rare confluence of two things I adore – reporters’ backstories and a river (albeit a fake one with floaties).

Thanks to financial help from INN, IRE and their generous donors, The Indy’s Managing Tina Griego and reporter Alex Burness and I were lucky enough to attend this year’s conferences in Houston, where there was also a lazy river (see pic above, ya’ll), but no time to float in it.

Tina and I packed our first two days with business workshops on how to turn passive news readers into active supporters (might this be you?), how to build a more diverse newsroom (we’re working on it), and how to get over our weirdness about asking readers for money. INN has over the past decade grown from 27 to more than 200 members, a testament to the key role nonprofit outlets like ours now play in a vastly changed national, state and local media landscape.

Then followed a daze of IRE workshops that filled our notebooks with new ways to approach our reporting. They also fed our souls with the purpose and promise of this work we do, and the importance of smart, socially conscious investigative and narrative journalism. I wish you could have seen Alex’s face after his first day at IRE. That enthusiasm translates into a long list of story ideas he’s itching to investigate for The Indy.

If the business part of nonprofit news is something we – and all of our nonprofit counterparts nationally – struggle with, the reporting is the easy part, and a labor of love. We have audacious goals for The Indy, and will be reminding you that, as Amy Martin, founder of the fabulous Threshold podcast, put it so eloquently last week, “There are no brave journalists without brave funders behind them.”