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Oct. 16, 2015, 2:01 p.m.
Reporting & Production

The German investigative nonprofit CORRECT!V is building a name for itself by doing a bit of everything

On top of its collaborations with big media partners, the one-year-old investigative newsroom holds freedom-of-information request trainings and live events, and it published a graphic novel.

— CORRECT!V launched with lofty goals. In the year-plus that it’s been in operation, the nonprofit investigative news outfit — Germany’s first — has, impressively, met many of them. Grow a seven-person team to 20? Check. Publish and sell print and ebooks of its own investigations, as well as a graphic novel on a terrorist group? Check. Collaborate on investigations with magazines like Der Spiegel, Stern, and Focus and national papers like Die Zeit (as well as TV and radio stations)? Check. Public discussions and trainings? Check and check.

“When we started, we were not sure how other media would see us, handle us, and work with us,” Daniel Drepper, a cofounder and senior reporter at Correctiv (stylization removed for the benefit of our readers), told me when I visited the Berlin office recently. “It was way better than we’d thought. What was harder was to build a readership on our own platform.”

Correctiv occupies a cozy, cubicled space above a youth hostel in the center of Berlin (it also has an office in Essen). White IKEA shelves near the entrance prop up some of the books it’s published, and there’s a blackboard for events. The outline of a TV studio has just taken shape inside the office:

Correctiv’s investigative journalism is largely foundation-funded, with about €3 million (approximately USD $3.4 million) promised over the next three years from the Brost Foundation. Other support includes, for instance, money from the Rudolf Augstein foundation1 and a grant from a Dutch foundation to further Correctiv’s ongoing coverage of drug-resistant bacteria.

In the long run, though, Correctiv hopes to be member-supported. One-time donations are of course appreciated, but sustaining memberships are €10 a month and unlock access to a special community section of the Correctiv site where members can contact reporters directly, access some additional publications, and even get help filing their own freedom of information act requests.

Correctiv set a lofty goal of 5,000 members by the end of 2015 and so far has brought on just 596 members (though the campaign for members started in earnest a few months ago, after it had time to get its name out and build a reputation).

“From my point of view, it is most important to create different and stable streams of income that empower us to investigate any big stories,” Correctiv founder and publisher David Schraven emailed me later when I asked him what was most difficult about running a nonprofit investigative news outfit. “When you’ve got big stories, you find partners and your name gets out. It is about money, then stories. Success follows.”

I let the word “small” slip a few times in referring to the size of Correctiv’s team compared to its outsized ambitions, but the staffers were unfazed.

“In Germany, we are not small! We are actually regarded now as something sustainable and big,” said copy chief Ariel Hauptmeier, who was also one of the founders of Reporter Forum, a German journalism initiative.

Foundations in Germany are starting to come around to the idea of funding quality journalism, though generally the money is doled out on a much smaller scale than it is in the U.S. Public broadcasting is relatively healthy and well-funded, and larger newsrooms are still putting money into their investigative units, though cracks have appeared in the last few years, according to Stephan Weichert, academic director of the graduate school for digital journalism at Hamburg Media School, who also helped founded a media startup called VOCER.

“I think there’s a need for a kind of substitution, especially because the smaller newspapers are really suffering. They aren’t able to do any deep research on an original level,” Weichert said. “This is the blind spot in Germany right now, especially for the regional and local news outfits.”

Reporting collaborations, such as Correctiv’s lengthy investigation with Der Spiegel and the Dutch paper Algemeen Dagblad trying to confirm who shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17, are momentarily good for exposure, and even better for homepage traffic. Correctiv’s version of the story got 2.5 million views, with half those views coming from Reddit, where the story was prominently featured.

But Correctiv wants to become better known in its own right. Its MH17 piece is accompanied not just by multiple translations, maps, and interactives, but also by a mini graphic novel illustrating the reporting process. A collaboration with a big media partner like Der Spiegel gets Correctiv a mention “in a small box on the magazine page somewhere, but doesn’t lead to any transfer,” said Correctiv’s editor-in-chief Markus Grill (who came to Correctiv this year from Spiegel).

graphic-feature-slide-mh17-spiegel-correctiv

“This is the tradeoff. Do you do these big landmine investigations that hit the Reddit front page, and then you get one-off views?” Drepper said. “Or do you do the types of things that are services for your readers, and they’re able to come back and look up what they want to know, and maybe they become a member, because they like what we do?

“Most Reddit users won’t become a member of Correctiv,” he added. But someone who has benefited directly from the other services that Correctiv provides might.

Take, for example, Correctiv’s in-house TV studio. On its stage, just a few days before my visit, Correctiv held a discussion, open to the public and hosted by two of its own journalists, to address what it saw as a deeply problematic lack of transparency in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership negotiations between the E.U. and the U.S. (The American media hasn’t covered those negotiations much, but in Germany, it’s a fraught subject.) In the hot seat at Correctiv’s mini-studio was Richard Kühnel, a spokesperson of the European Commission who would be grilled on questions of transparency. Upwards of 70 people packed into the office for the free event, according to Grill, many of whom had stumbled across Correctiv through social media.

Correctiv had been publishing leaked documents around the TTIP negotiations, and also offers a dropbox online where anyone can anonymously upload relevant TTIP documents. (It also employs two journalists dedicated solely to TTIP reporting.)

“I think the German parliament, when they hear Correctiv, they know: Those are the guys who leaked those documents,” Drepper said, somewhat sheepishly but also proudly.

Another packed public event included journalists from the German-language political and tech news site Netzpolitik.org, which German federal prosecutors investigated for treason after it published secret government documents. (The treason inquiry was dropped a month later.) That event was also streamed on YouTube.

Correctiv is incredibly earnest about its watchdog role. When Netzpolitik was being investigated, Correctiv posted the secret documents in question and reported itself to Germany’s prosecutor general.

Through funding support from Germany’s Bundeszentrale für Politische Bildung (Federal Agency for Civic Education), Correctiv staffers have also traveled around Germany conducting FOIA workshops. A Correctiv staffer might travel to a regional paper and run a daytime session with the paper’s staff, then run a second session in the evening for readers who are curious about which public documents and information they might have the right to access. Attendance at the workshops varies, and the traveling can be tiring, but it’s yet another channel of exposure for Correctiv.

“We get funding for this, and we really believe in FOIA,” Drepper said. “It’s a chance for us to bond with regional papers and people who might not have seen our work.” These smaller regional papers benefit from getting ready-to-print stories from Correctiv that they wouldn’t otherwise have the resources to cover. Correctiv also approaches papers with data relevant to the regions, as it did in the case of its bacteria investigation.

With all its dedication to the public and its obsessiveness about data-driven reporting, Correctiv is not completely immune to criticism, whether it comes in the form of those poking at its reporting or questioning some elements of its model or what it choses to cover. But for the most part, its collaborations have been working, and more are on the way.

For instance, Correctiv is hosting short-term data fellows who are funded through the Augstein Foundation and embed in Correctiv’s newsroom. The fellows work Correctiv’s team to produce data-driven research projects with a focus on regional or local reporting. One fellow, for instance, investigated a county that had been promising young people jobs and found that official statistics had been distorted.

“Traditional newsrooms in Germany are still behind on this,” Drepper said. “The whole computer-assisted reporting, data-driven reporting, is not where it could be.”

Correctiv has collaborated with the German TV station RTL, which ran a long segment (RTL does news programs, but is not exactly known for hard investigations). Its graphic novel of an investigation into a terrorist group has been touring as an exhibition across Germany. In its online shop, it sells the graphic novel, Correctiv-branded notebooks, and book versions of some investigations; money from those sales will go to the newsroom for more investigations, according to Grill. (Other things that came up in my discussions with Correctiv: designing news games, producing a stage play, and releasing a documentary.)

Ultimately, Correctiv hopes to become a go-to, data-and-documents-backed resource for other newsrooms and for curious members of the public. (More developers — and more money to hire the best developers — would be a boon to the mission, all of the staffers agree.) The team is working on a couple of national-level data stories. For a piece on the state of nursing homes throughout Germany, they hope to publish a searchable platform (much like ProPublica’s Dollars for Docs) where readers can look up specific residences. Correctiv also hopes to turn to readers for an investigation into all of Germany’s public banks, with citizens helping look into their local banks.

“You have to have as many entry points into your investigation as possible,” Drepper said. “We don’t care for clicks, exactly, but we care to have more people involved with our investigation. The more people, the more likely there will be outrage, the more likely something will be changed.”

Photo from CORRECT!V.

Notes
  1. Rudolpf Augstein was the founder and once part-time owner of Der Spiegel. See: the Spiegel Scandal.
POSTED     Oct. 16, 2015, 2:01 p.m.
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