Scoop Foundation – how it could work

Alastair Thompson (left) with broadcaster Kim Hill

Alastair Thompson (left) with broadcaster Kim Hill

New media entrepreneur Alastair Thompson  and journalist Alison McCulloch were on Media3 last night outlining their plans for a public interest journalism venture – the Scoop Foundation.

This is an exciting development for journalism, though will be greeted with a measure of scepticism.

Respected journalist Bernard Hickey last year attempted a similar venture on a smaller scale, but it did not attract sufficient financial backing and failed to get off the ground.

The challenge for the Scoop Foundation‘s founders and supporters – of which I am one – is to get this thing over the line and operational – hopefully within a few months.

Here’s what the Scoop Foundation has in its favor:

- Support from a range of experienced journalists and people with online media experience.

- Ability to leverage off the Scoop infrastructure – from its offices, staff and technical resources to advertising on its website and potentially through the Scoop Cartel ad network. Scoop is providing $100,000 worth of in-kind services per annum.

- Established relationships with the likes of AUT University’s School of Communications Studies, the Pacific Media Centre and my own Science Media Centre.

- Nothing like this exists in New Zealand and there is a wealth of overseas experience to learn from and apply where appropriate.

What is Scoop Foundation?

Alastair and co-founders have given a general explanation here. But this quote from Alison McCulloch in the press release is key to describing what it is about:

“We have a strong agreement among the core team that the institution we create should be shaped by journalists, and work for journalists with a firm eye on the changing conditions under which journalism is being practised, and in the interests of creating a broader, stronger base for sustainable public interest journalism”.

I’ve joined the Scoop Foundation steering committee and will be attending my first meeting next week. But with my US Fulbright-Harkness visit to centres of public interest journalism fresh in mind, here are a few ideas I’ll be floating for how Scoop could be structured, funded and operated.

The essentials

For Scoop Foundation to work effectively it will need the following:

- Not-for-profit status – to reassure everyone that Alastair and co are not in this for the money, to lower its cost structure and to enable donors to receive tax benefits for contributing.

- A strong and credible governance structure that provides good oversight and maintains a rigid separation between funding activities and the editorial aspects of the investigations being funded. An independent editorial advisory board should also be formed to separately consider projects for funding.

- Partnerships with established media outlets which it can team up with to break stories that result from Scoop Foundation-funded investigations.

- A user-friendly way to donate to Scoop Foundation online – and to let others know of your worthy donation (think Kiva.org).

- A secure and trusted way for whistle blowers and concerned citizens to send story tips to Scoop Foundation.

Projects are everything

My visits to Propublica in New York and the Center for Public Integrity in Washington D.C. convinced me that a mini version of either of these great organisations will be hard to pull off in a tiny market like New Zealand.

Instead, we are going to have to go for a less resource-intensive, more grassroots start-up – at least initially.

Expecting foundations, philanthropists or the general public to chip in to fund a bunch of journalists to do worthy but unidentified journalism projects won’t work here where we don’t have billionaires willing to write out checks for millions of dollars in the name of quality public-interest journalism (ala Propublica).

What we do have are people that are willing to chip in to fund good journalist that has impact. Keith Ng proved this last year when his virtual tip jar quickly filled up following his revealing of serious security flaws in the Government’s Work and Income computer terminals.

Since then security breaches in government IT systems have been revealed on almost a weekly basis, showing systemic problems with how government departments store, access and share information.

Scoop Foundation will have to show its hand to gain support of the type Ng enjoyed. What are the issues that New Zealanders want to see journalists digging deeper into?

Is it environmental issues like fracking activity in New Zealand or the impact of industry on water quality? Is it the influence the hundreds of lobbyists in Wellington have on government, or the impact of powerful grocery or pay TV monopolies or duopolies in a small market? What are working conditions like in some of our more dangerous industries, such as forestry and manufacturing? How transparent and efficient are our councils in the way they operate?

The projects will need buy-in from the public to get off the ground, in the same way that Propublica’s high-impact projects attract foundation support – rather than Propublica in its own right.

Part Kickstarter, part Propublica

Once the projects are identified and hopefully, have attracted some funding support, the good stuff will start to flow to the journalists behind those projects. That’s pretty much how investigative journalism works.

You start off focusing on one area, and when people see that, they come out of the woodwork to give you information on related areas. That’s how Gerard Ryle, the director of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, broke last week’s massive global story revealing the extent to which powerful and rich people use offshore companies and tax havens to hide their wealth.

A hard drive containing 260 gigabytes of data turned up in the mail after he undertook an investigation into a company in Australia. The mother lode of data allowed him literally to go global with the project.

Freedom of the Press

We can only dream for that type of success and impact with the Scoop Foundation. Goals and outcomes will be more modest in the short term, but a model that is similar is the Freedom of the Press Foundation, which has been running for around five months in the US and has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for worthy journalism projects. What is it?

The Freedom of the Press Foundation is dedicated to helping promote and fund aggressive, public-interest journalism focused on exposing mismanagement, corruption, and law-breaking in government. We accept tax-deductible donations to a variety of journalism organizations that push for government transparency and accountability.

Every two months, the foundation selects four organisations and topics and seeks to raise money from the public to fund them. The current batch of projects include:

Screen Shot 2013-04-11 at 7.47.35 AM

This is a speculative “investment” on behalf of the people who chip into these projects. The investigations may come to nothing, or yield little in the way of scoops. But the way journalism works, as outlined above, means that identifying the general areas of focus will yield information and leads that will determine which directions the investigations go in.

Hopefully philanthropic and foundation funding will also be forthcoming that will allow Scoop to solicit ideas privately for more sensitive investigations that require absolute secrecy while they are being put together.

Opportunity for collaboration

It is great that Scoop has the tie-in with AUT University, where I studied journalism back in the late 1990s. As a student I would have loved the opportunity to work as an intern at an organisation such as Scoop Foundation. The relationship with AUT and other journalism schools will allow emerging journalists to assist with public interest journalism projects and see how they evolve from the inside.

Data journalists, statisticians, photographers, graphic artists and videographers will all be able to collaborate on projects funded by Scoop Foundation. The structure is ideally suited for freelance journalists who want to get their teeth into a big story for a few months at a time.

Crowd-sourcing ideas

The big focus for Alastair and the steering committee in the months ahead will be getting the structure of Scoop Foundation in place – but the more ideas we have from you in the meantime the better.

What are the investigations that need to happen, like, right now!? What technology or platforms should we use to handle financial contributions?  What is the best way to workflow manage projects?

Do you want to be involved?

Please, visit this page and submit any ideas to have to help this thing gain traction and achieve its noble goals…

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2 Responses to “Scoop Foundation – how it could work”

  1. Alastair Thompson (@althecat)

    Hi. Alastair Thompson here. Peter has done a magnificent job of explaining what we have in mind and his views on the challenges, opportunities and threats inherent in a project like this accord with my own very closely.

    If anyone has any feedback I will be keeping an eye on this post and am also happy to respond to any questions, observations and criticisms.

    Reply

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