Nonprofits help fertilize news deserts with investigative reporting

reporters taking notes (Roger H. Goun / via flickr)

By Grace Vitaglione

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When Ken Ward Jr. started working at the Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia 30 years ago, the paper’s reporters traveled all over the state and had ample time for long-term investigative reporting. But as the years passed, Ward started to see more and more empty desks as his newsroom shrank. 

Ward, speaking June 15 at an Investigative Reporters and Editors conference, said watching local journalism struggle in his state was a key reason why he helped found Mountain State Spotlight in 2020, a nonprofit investigative journalism organization in West Virginia. 

“The only thing you can do with less is less,” Ward said. “We founded Mountain State Spotlight to combat that. When the budget gets tight, watchdog reporting is the first to go.”

The number of nonprofit newsrooms is growing as local outlets disappear around the country. Panelist Debbie Blankenship, director of the Center for Collaborative Journalism in Macon, Georgia, and moderator Carla Minet, executive director of the Centro de Periodismo Investigativo in Puerto Rico, both cited the lack of resources available to local news as contributing to a lack of in-depth coverage.

But while nonprofits may help address news deserts and areas without investigative coverage, the panelists spoke about continuing challenges in forming sustainable organizations and building trust with the community.

Blankenship said the high poverty rate in Macon makes it more difficult for audiences who need information to access news. This was especially true during the pandemic when reporters couldn’t engage with the community in person, she said.

Ward said investigative outlets can sometimes antagonize communities by reporting only on negative issues while ignoring such things as the pride people take in their homes. To combat this, he suggested proving to communities that reporters care about more than scandals. 

man sitting at desk working on computer
Ken Ward was a 2018 MacArthur “Genius” Award winner for his environmental reporting. (Courtesy John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation)

For one series about the growth of the natural gas industry in West Virginia, he traveled around the state with a journalist from the local reporting network at ProPublica to ask people what changes they’d seen in their communities from the industry. The two left notes in coffee shops and asked people to meet with them in their favorite local places, such as restaurants or scenic overlooks.

“They will help you do that story more if they feel like you care about the whole place and you’re not just parachuting in to get your sexy story,” Ward said.

Another issue facing many nonprofit newsrooms is reliable funding. Minet said the local philanthropy community in Puerto Rico is small and that depending too much on grant money can be risky.

“When you investigate someone that is close to the power entities in your ecosystem, then you are no longer that supported,” Minet said. “It’s good to maintain and grow philanthropic money but also develop grassroots support.”

Ward also cited the need for balance in funding, saying that Mountain State Spotlight has had to rely too heavily on national funding because of the lack of local philanthropy and community support. 

For local newsrooms trying to create more investigative opportunities, he suggested connecting with local academics who might be able to help with applying for grants and programs such as Report for America.

For local journalists trying to break away from the pattern of writing from press releases and press conferences, Ward encouraged reporters to learn about their paper’s business model and question whether a short story built around a press release is what will get the paper more readers rather than a more substantive longer form story. 

Minet said if a reporter is stuck in an organization that doesn’t allow them to propose investigations it may be time for them to move on — or start their own news outlet. 

“This is a vicious cycle, and if you don’t interrupt that then nobody’s going to do it,” Minet said.