Scales and money
Credit: Image by Images_of_Money on Flickr. Some rights reserved

Investigative journalism is expensive. Journalists may spend months working on a story, travelling around the world to speak to key sources. Some lines of enquiry may lead to dead ends, and others result in legal costs once published.

Few would dispute the importance of ensuring such stories are told, but can digital platforms, which can be notoriously difficult places to make journalism pay, support such costly ventures?

Some investigative journalism sites, such as not-for-profit ProPublica, are funded largely through philanthropic donations, but what revenue streams have potential for those without generous donors with deep pockets? And can businesses become sustainable and make a profit when the product is investigative journalism?

Here we look at 10 different revenue streams tried and tested by four investigative journalism start-ups, each launched within the past two years.

Meet the four investigative journalism startups
  • Matter
Matter offers long-form articles on science and technology. After successfully raising $140,000 on Kickstarter, the start-up produces one long-form article a month, and charges readers $0.99. It has also brought in revenue through syndication. Earlier this year Matter was acquired by blogging platform Medium.
  • Exaro
Exaro had some funding to get it going and, until a fortnight ago, had a paywall. That was pulled down and the aim is now to make money through providing add-on data services to City businesses. Like Matter, Exaro has also had some success with syndication. It has had a number of big scoops since it launched in November 2011, including the story of a secret recording of Rupert Murdoch in which he intimated he had knowledge of the practice of his journalists paying for information.
  • ThaiPublica
Inspired by US Pulitzer-winning non-profit ProPublica, ThaiPublica focuses on business investigations in Thailand. It got started with some grant funding and now brings in the majority of its revenue through hosting sponsor-supported conferences. It also hosts banner ads on its website and has grant funding for specific projects, such as the creation of interactives.
  • The Muckraker
The Muckraker reports on untold stories in Northern Ireland and operates a freemium model: the blog offers taster extracts while long-form investigations are available through digital magazine The Muckracker Report for £3. The launch issue was published this summer. Stories are all written by Lyra McKee so this could be seen as a freelance journalist funding her investigations.

10 revenue streams

1. Reader-funded

Matter and The Muckracker both look to readers for revenue. Matter charges $0.99 per long-form story; The Muckraker Report digital magazine is priced at £3. Readers can also take out annual subscriptions.

Both publications have opted for a micropayment system for digital access, and Matter is also available on Amazon as an ebook and via Audible as an audio edition.

And the maths? Matter charges $0.99 per article and each story costs between $12,000 and $15,000 to produce, estimates Bobbie Johnson, Matter's co-founder. Johnson told us Matter has not yet at broken even but they are making progress and subscriber numbers are growing.

Articles are a minimum of 5,000 words and the journalist gets a flat fee of $7,500 per article, which works out at $1.50 a word, and pays for two or three months of hard work. Writers retain the the copyright, with Matter licensing the story. In addition to the journalist's fee, there are travel costs, plus the cost of a freelance editor and copy editor.

The Muckracker Report is a much smaller enterprise than Matter, being the sole work of 23 year old Lyra McKee. McKee said she opted for a 100 per cent reader-funded business model to avoid potential conflicts with advertisers.

She makes £2.69 from every issue sold. The first issue raised nearly £200 – which was donated to a Northern Ireland rape crisis centre, the subject of the first issue.

2. Crowd-funded

Crowdfunding is how Matter got going. It raised an impressive $140,000 on Kickstarter, which was enough to prove there was an interest in such a publication being brought into fruition.

The Muckracker is also planning a crowdfunding exercise. But rather than taking to Kickstarter or another platform, it is asking for £3 per person for a monthly subscription. The idea is not unlike how social platform was crowdfunded, gathering $50 from early backers in return for an account.

3. Ad-funded

Anyone with experience in digital journalism will know that it is a challenge to make banners and buttons on websites provide sufficient revenue to fund the journalism they publish.

ThaiPublica does host digital ads, and although it brings in some revenue this way, the majority of income comes from other sources.

4. Paywall

Until last month Exaro had a paywall, primarily aimed at corporates buying multiple licenses for employee access rather than individuals.

That was pulled down in August so the newly-appointed commercial director could focus on selling data services rather than subscriptions.

In theory both Matter and The Muckraker Report have sites with paywalls, charging readers and offering the content in return. In practice both are more like buying an individual publication, with many readers reading on a tablet device, which are well-suited to long-form articles.

5. Conferences

Conferences are how ThaiPublica brings in the majority of its revenue. The site has created what it calls ThaiPublica Forum. It hosts a conference every three or four months around "important topics that are in the public interest", founder of the Thai site Sarinee Achavanuntakul told us.

The conferences are sponsored, and the journalists use their connections to arrange speakers. They are also attended by reporters from other outlets, with the resulting press attention an appeal for sponsors.

6. Syndication

Syndication does not raise enough revenue to cover the costs of what is expensive journalism, but it makes a significant contribution to itMark Watts, Exaro
Matter and Exaro have had some successes in selling editorial content. Matter has syndicated excerpts and stories to a number of publishers.

Johnson told us they are "particularly finding foreign syndication deals are successful and more palatable to publishers," explaining that some UK and US publisher feel that they would be competing with Matter.

Mark Watts, editor-in-chief of Exaro, told us "syndication does not raise enough revenue to cover the costs of what is expensive journalism, but it makes a significant contribution to it".

7. Data services

After pulling down the paywall, the monetisation strategy for Exaro is via add-on data services.

These services make use of underlying data Exaro tracks and collects. For example, Exaro's insolvency index could be a valuable data service for City businesses, as Watts explains in this article.

"We are doing a form of data journalism," Watts said, "and that underlying data has value to certain areas of business."

8. Grant-funded

Although ThaiPublica is building a business model around the forum, it is also receiving some grant funding to pay for the creation of interactives.

Conferences and advertising pay the fixed costs, such as salaries, "but we don't have money left over to invest in transforming journalists", Achavanuntakul explained.

Lyra McKee from The Muckraker is also applying for a grant to allow her to carry out a specific investigation. She has applied to the Arthur Guinness Project for a grant to allow her the time and travel funds to investigate the death of a Northern Ireland MP murdered in 1981.

9. Philanthropy

Philanthropic donations are another option for investigative news sites and non-profit outlets. ProPublica has found success in this form of donation, as has the Texas Tribune, which also attracts some grant funding. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism in the UK, "where philanthropically-funded journalism is rare", as it states on its site, also has such donors.

ThaiPublica relied on funding from "patrons" who enabled the site to launch.

10. Acquisition

Not a revenue stream per se, but this development relates to Matter, which was acquired by Medium earlier this year.

The acquisition has allowed Matter to focus on its "long-term security", Johnson told us.

"It allows us to focus on the future rather than on the day-to-day; they are helping us carry out our plan, but what we are no longer doing is operating on the breadline."

Before the acquisition "each story would generate revenue that would pay for the next story, now we have a war chest that allows us to think a bit further ahead", he said.

And that investment means Matter will soon be hiring a couple of full-time staff, potentially leaning less on freelance editors.

There is more on Matter here, more on ThaiPublica here, more on Exaro and more on The MuckRacker Report.

To hear more from the four start-ups listen to this podcast on business models for investigative journalism.

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