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July 17, 2014, 11:37 a.m.
Business Models

Germany is getting a data-centric nonprofit newsroom and hoping to build new models for news

The new CORRECT!V is trying to find a place for foundation-supported media in Europe’s largest economy.

While the United States’ newspaper industry has faced more rapid disruption than any other country’s, it’s also benefited from the world’s most vigorous nonprofit journalism sector. But with rapid changes affecting the German newspaper business, a new media startup there aims to bring the ProPublica approach abroad, creating the country’s first nonprofit investigative news organization.

CORRECT!V, a data-journalism focused investigative organization, is being backed by the Brost Foundation by a grant of €1 million a year for three years. Brost was founded in 2011 via a €300 million euro gift from Annelise Brost, the wife of a German publishing mogul Erich Brost, most famous for founding German newspaper Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung.

Correctiv (all caps removed for the benefit of our readers) has ambitious plans. Like ProPublica in its early days, it plans to publish mainly through partner organizations, in multimedia formats, including TV and radio. Their seven-person team, which they hope will grow to 20 within the year, is well connected in German media — for example, founder and director David Schraven had been head of investigations at Funke Mediengruppe since 2010. Those connections will make placing Correctiv content in popular outlets easier; Schraven says they’re already in talks to develop an investigative radio show with a major German station. In addition, they have plans for multiple books — printed books, ebooks, and at least one comic book, about a fascist terrorist group.

“We are completely focused on data journalism,” Schraven says. The team intends to compile and share large datasets that map people in power to the money behind them, collaborating with local open data organizations as well as other newsrooms. Correctiv’s outreach will extend to education as well — senior reporters on the team will travel throughout Germany, helping journalists and “regular people” learn data journalism skills. “I don’t know whether there’s any newsroom in the world who does that,” says Schraven.

Being a first for Germany leaves it lots of room to define its territory and to learn from what’s been tried elsewhere. “To be honest, there is no competition,” says Schraven. “There are other newsrooms and guys around to do investigations, but a newsroom who is focused on this? There isn’t anyone else.”

Before launch, members of the Correctiv team met with investigative nonprofits outside Germany, including ProPublica, the Global Investigative Journalism Network, and members of INN, to discuss the project. “They thought that we could tell our stories, get our stories, but they said we should be very careful on the funding side,” says Schraven. “And they are right, this is the most important — to get the money.” To that end, Correctiv hopes to diversify its revenue streams, including both additional foundation support and individual donors. Schraven says his goal for a few years down the road is an annual budget of between €3 million and €4 million a year.

But the nonprofit news funding model is different in Europe than it is in the United States. As Ken Doctor has written for the Lab, foundation funding is rarer because foundations are rarer, which could make life difficult for Schraven. Stephen Weichert, director of Hamburg Media School’s digital journalism program, says Germany doesn’t have a long history of foundation-funded news organizations.

“Unfortunately, we don’t have a lot of wealthy philanthropists thinking of journalism as a sponsored field yet. We also don’t have foundations like the Knight Foundation that push real money into journalism to stimulate innovation and entrepreneurship in the news industry,” Weichert says.

But that doesn’t mean that noncommercial media is entirely new to Germany. Die Tageszeitung, a German political news outlet that focuses on small countries and outsider politicians, has been cooperatively owned since 1979. Editor-in-chief Ines Pohl says 14,000 people pay between €5,000 and €20,000 euros for a a spot among the paper’s shareholders.

“This whole crowdfunding idea is the birth idea of the taz,” as the paper is known, says Pohl. “We had a thousand people paying for the first edition before it was printed.”

Pohl says while German media needs an infusion of capital, there are two challenges inherent to accepting philanthropic money. First, the organization should endeavor to provide oversight that ensures editorial independence from their benefactor. Second, she says, “the funding in the beginning might be easier than funding over time.”

But both Schraven and Weichert agree that foundation funding could have a future in Germany. Weichert himself helped found VOCER, a media startup that is “completely financed by foundation money.” Schraven believes that philanthropic support for Correctiv, and for all German news startups, will grow.

“I’m talking to a lot of foundations that fund cultural stuff — museums, and other stuff,” he says. “They see that we’ve got problems with our papers. They see that we’ve got problems with our news industry. I’m pretty sure I can convince some of them to fund us — to change their idea of funding.”

So, yes, Correctiv is Germany’s first nonprofit devoted to data-centric investigative journalism. But Germany’s news-minded citizens have long been familiar with important reporting supported by something other than circulation or advertising, even if the “nonprofit” classification (or verein in German) is relatively new. In fact, in some ways, the narrow focus on big investigations may be more novel to a German audience.

“Investigative journalism in Germany isn’t so big. That has a lot to do with our privacy laws. It’s much more difficult to really dig deep,” says Pohl. “It is changing over the years, but the tradition isn’t so big.”

Pohl pointed to the organization Netzwerk Recherche (roughly, “investigation network”) as an example of growing interest in expanding investigative efforts in Germany. NR is, among other things, interested in working to assure German nonprofits the same tax benefits that similar organizations receive in the U.S.

Weichert also sees investigative journalism as a potential growth area in Germany. “There have been a lot of investigative divisions established in the last few years within the newsrooms,” he said in an email. “Furthermore, some newsrooms decided to build networks between traditional publishing houses and public service broadcasting authorities. One good example is the ongoing collaboration between Süddeutsche Zeitung, Norddeutscher Rundfunk, and Westdeutscher Rundfunk. A handful of the best reporters are working for together under the lead of Georg Mascolo the former editor-in-chief of Der Spiegel.”

Although some in the German media industry are critical of merging public funds and private dollars, Pohl says she believes, in the long run, collaborations between existing major outlets are more likely to be successful than startups, which are burdened by having to fill their coffers and build their brand simultaneously. But, she adds, if there was a mutually interesting project, she’d be interested in having the taz and Correctiv collaborate. She also has faith in Schraven as a leader.

“He’s not only a money maker, he’s not someone who wants to do a cool startup business,” Pohl says. “He’s a true, true journalist.”

In the end, the real proof of what Annelise Brost’s fortune can do for German journalism will be born out in the work Correctiv produces, and when it comes to getting stories, Schraven says he has more than enough whistleblowers lined up. In addition, the team has multiple data projects already underway, including “a broad overview of the mobster structures in Germany” with a database of over a thousand individuals, plus a healthcare project that’s comparable to ProPublica’s Dollars for Docs.

If those projects pan out, Correctiv could stand as an example to future German donors of what happens when investigative journalism is supported. Next to corporately-funded Investigate! and crowdfunded Krautreporter, it could even be that Germany is seeing the beginning of a serious turn away from reliance on legacy media.

“Some big papers in Germany are in trouble now, some are already closed. That’s a new thing here,” says Pohl. “It’s kind of easy to get the money now for the funding, but to keep these organizations running — that will be the big, big challenge. And that will depend on the success these groups, like David’s, will have.”

POSTED     July 17, 2014, 11:37 a.m.
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