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I-News: Can Laura Frank's journalism project slow the disappearance of investigative reporting?

With resources and revenues for print and broadcast news operations continuing to shrink, investigative journalism -- a vital form, but among the field's most expensive -- is becoming more rare with each passing day. But former Rocky Mountain News reporter Laura Frank thinks she's found a way to help fill the void: I-News. And a $300,000 grant and the decision of a Denver Post staffer to join her mission suggests she's onto something.

After the Rocky closed in early 2009, a number of news enterprises were launched by its displaced crew members. The most ambitious? InDenver Times, an online operation featuring more than two-dozen ex-staffers. But in the end, the project's backers pulled out after falling approximately 47,000 subscribers short of their goal of 50,000.

But Frank stresses that I-News is no InDenver Times. In her words, "it's a news collaborative. It's a business-to-business operation.

"I didn't want to try to build a new source for news, and then spend time trying to train people to come to it, and take audience away from other news outlets," she continues. "The idea was to collaborate with those newsrooms and get the news to places where people were already looking for it -- local newspapers or online sources or even mobile sources. And if we could do that, we could immediately begin to address this gap of in-depth coverage we're all struggling from."

Frank developed this formula after being being awarded a Ted Scripps fellowship in environmental journalism at the University of Colorado at Boulder. "I applied the week the Rocky closed," she says. "The way it works is, you come to them with a project, and my project was to create I-News. A stipend comes with that fellowship, and it enabled me to keep going through the year."

Along the way, she created a partnership with Rocky Mountain PBS, Denver's Channel 6, which provided newsroom space in exchange for being able to use I-News material. In addition, I-News became a founding member of the Investigative News Network. Frank describes it as "a national umbrella group of nonprofit investigative news outlets all over the country. The idea was that a national network could really help nonprofit investigative news outlets in back-office kinds of things -- getting insurance, sharing marketing, whatever. But the really exciting part was, we could collaborate on editorial projects."

Which led to I-News's first report.

The Center for Public Integrity, an INN member, had been working on a project about sexual assault on campuses for a number of months and "we decided that if we took this story and had a small group of organizations collaborating on it, we could do it across platforms and see if the idea worked," Frank says.

The result was a series of reports from multiple info purveyors, with I-News' initial contribution, "Sexual Assault on College Campuses: Is Secrecy Putting Students at Risk?," coming along in late February. The project fueled an edition of Channel 6's public-affairs program Colorado State of Mind and several pieces by National Public Radio, as well as appearing on Rocky Mountain PBS's website, Colorado Education News and the web home of the Fort Collins Coloradoan.

Back in the day, such cooperation between ostensibly competing news operations probably wouldn't have happened. But in Frank's view, times have changed.

From I-News' medical marijuana report.
From I-News' medical marijuana report.

"Technology has changed the scoop -- not the mentality of it, but the mechanics," she allows. "I used to write a story for the Rocky Mountain News, and maybe the Associated Press might pick it up, and other papers might run some version of it -- and other outlets might be tempted to not touch the story, because someone else had done it first. But now, because of technology, a story can go viral immediately. And that's changed the way we do things. Before, getting the news out was really the focus. Now, it's communicating about the news, and watching where the story goes after it's been released."

Example: An August I-News report suggesting that surplus marijuana grown for medical purposes was reaching the illegal marketplace. The Boulder Daily Camera ran it, and thanks to the website Digg, it became an Internet blockbuster. But the Fort Collins Coloradoan also published the piece; it did so well for the paper, Frank notes, that web gurus left it on the website's front page for an additional day.

Accepting such material is a no-brainer for news operations at this point, since I-News is currently providing it to them at no charge -- something initially made possible by a $100,000 grant from the Ethics & Excellence in Journalism Foundation. But an even bigger score was on the way.

This week, Frank announced that I-News had been awarded $300,000 from the Knight Foundation. And this cash infusion has allowed Frank to bring aboard two former Rocky colleagues: Joe Mahoney, who served as the tabloid's assistant multi-media director, and Burt Hubbard, a reporter who, like Frank, specialized in data analysis and computer-assisted reporting.

Since the Rocky's closure, Mahoney started his own business, doing journalism-related contract work for a number of outfits, including I-News.

As for Hubbard, he was among the fortunate handful of Rocky veterans to be hired by the Denver Post: The others were columnists Mike Littwin, Tina Griego, Bill Johnson and Dave Krieger, editorialist Vince Carroll, and reporters Gargi Chakrabarty, Kevin Vaughan and Lynn Bartels. But Frank insists his departure less than two years later shouldn't be interpreted as a slap at the Post or its commitment to the type of journalism in which he specializes.

"Burt didn't leave the Post because he was unhappy," she says. "He left because he really believes in I-News. He and I sat next to each other at the Rocky, talking about what we could do after the Rocky closed, and he was very supportive of the whole idea. So when this grant came through, it was an opportunity neither of us could pass up."

She adds that "the Post is very supportive of this kind of reporting, as you can see by the fact that they hired Burt. And in my conversations with [Post editor] Greg Moore, he's been very enthusiastic about I-News."

Still, Frank isn't basing I-News' future solely on corporate giving and the kindness of strangers -- two uncertain sources even when economic conditions aren't as grim as at present. She describes the project's business plan as a "four-legged stool."

"Grants and donations are one leg," Frank notes. "Because we're a nonprofit, that was essential in the beginning -- but we feel it will become less important as we go along.

"The next leg is the relationships we have with media outlets. Right now, we're giving content away to show the value of what we're doing, but eventually, that will become transactional, with news outlets paying for it. And so far, the reaction to that has been surprisingly positive. People who run newsrooms in this state know audiences want in-depth news, and they're delivering all of it they can -- but the audience still wants more. And I-News can provide it at a fraction of the price they could do for themselves. We'll be able to deliver roughly eight investigative packages in the next year based on the grant money we have now. No reporter could do that number, and what those outlets would be paying us is less than what they'd pay one reporter."

Underwriting is leg number three, "but the fourth leg is the one I'm really excited about -- products and services," Frank says. "Joe, Burt and I have a background in training. I used to be a trainer for Gannett, Joe has trained everyone from the military to nonprofits, and Burt's trained journalists across the state. What we can offer a partner is twice-a-year specialized training on whatever they want. They can arrange topics, from computer-assisted reporting to data visualization to public-records research -- a whole menu of things we can offer. And we can do the same thing for citizens in these communities. If you're Rocky Mountain PBS, you can invite part of your audience to a forum, and we can teach them how to figure out who's bankrolling a political campaign, or what Twitter is and why they should care."

Isn't Frank afraid that by providing these tools to reporters and community members alike, she might be lessening the need for an operation like I-News? Hardly. "There are way more stories than anybody could ever do," she says.

In other words, there's plenty of subjects for everyone -- including I-News.