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June 20, 2011, 11 a.m.

Boston investigative nonprofit NECIR finds its path through thinking like a business

It’s telling that when Joe Bergantino talks about his job as co-director of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, he often references the time his father ran a restaurant.

Differences aside (hot meals vs. longform investigative journalism) — and maybe even similarities aside (herding wait staff vs. managing freelancers) — the connecting thread is the constant need to juggle, to wear multiple hats, and to spread yourself as close to thin as possible. In other words, you run a business.

“Any business, no matter what it is, requires you to do multiple tasks,” Bergantino said. And since Bergantino and co-director Maggie Mulvihill launched the center in 2009, they’ve set out to do as many of those tasks as possible, all in the name of investigative journalism.

In so doing, they’ve provided a counterpoint to two worries some people have had about investigative nonprofit news organizations: first, that they’d have trouble selling their work to cash-strapped news organizations and would have to give it away; and second, that they’d have trouble shifting away from a dependence on foundation and donor money.

This year NECIR expects to pull in almost $200,000 in revenue from sales of its stories and training workshops for journalists and students. That’s significant as a step towards a sustainable revenue model because it will likely equal (or, depending on the rest of the year, exceed) the foundation dollars they’ll receive this year.

While that’s good news, and their prospects for growth seem hopeful, Bergantino isn’t at the promised land just yet. The future of NECIR, Bergantino said, like many others in the new crop of journalism nonprofits, will probably still require some foundation support. What’s important, he said, is looking past your 501(c)3 status and thinking like business.

“To be successful you have to walk through the door and immediately think about how to make money,” he said.

Operating off an initial 3-year $650,000 grant from the Knight Foundation, as well as support from The McCormick Foundation and The Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, the center has developed dual revenue streams. It sells stories to news outlets, including through The Public Eye, a subscription service that provides monthly investigative stories, primarily to small and medium outlets. (The center also works with bigger players like The Boston Globe.)

On the training side they’ve developed an investigative reporting certificate program that attracts mid-careers and international journalists, as well as summer workshop for high school students. This year NECIR will gross at least $120,000 from training programs and as much as $70,000 through selling stories to news outlets, Bergantino said.

“We’re here to fill a void,” he said. “We’re here to ensure there is a future for investigative journalism in this state and this region.”

For an organization with two full-time staffers, working out of a basement on the Boston University campus, they’re not doing too bad. When I stopped by to talk with Bergantino, the office — with its stacks of file folders, assorted Post-it notes and recurring hum from a central cooling system — had the look of a scrappy startup. He says it “all goes back to thinking about this as a business.”

“A lot of journalists don’t like asking for money. I didn’t like it at first, but it’s gotten easier,” he said.

Bergantino now has no trouble running off the salient numbers to NECIR’s operation: They get around $60,000 in support from BU each year (mostly supplies and benefits), and they’re on track to have about $100,000 in individual donations by the end of the year. Altogether, that economic forecast seems good for NECIR to continue to grow methodically. They’re planning on bringing on part-time help for development (keeping an eye out for new donations) and training (to expand and plot out more workshops). One other improvement will likely be their website; Bergantino said that since most of the center’s stories are being published elsewhere, there was no immediate need at launch to make a site to showcase their content. That’s changing, he said.

How they’ll move forward, Bergantino hopes, is through trying to keep their receipts from selling stories and training work around $200,000, and make the balance through private donations and foundation money. And that brings us back again to the subject of foundation money, which has become a basic ingredient to new nonprofit models in journalism. With growth in the number of funding seekers outpacing the number of funding providers, sustainability is all the more important. This does not mean Bergantino sees a future where journalism nonprofits are running without the support of donors — just hopefully with less of it.

“The reality is any center, whether it’s us or any other center around the nation, is going to need donations or foundation support,” Bergantino said.

POSTED     June 20, 2011, 11 a.m.
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