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Credit: By Julo (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There can be time and financial-related costs to consider when it comes to pursuing certain investigative journalism projects, but there are also a number of ways to bring these costs down, and better manage the expense.

From crowdfunding investigations to using an array of digital tools to reduce the time spent bringing data together, delegates at the Polis conference today were given practical advice on how to limit the drain on resources.

1. Treat investigations like Lego

Journalism academic, and founder of Help Me Investigate, Paul Bradshaw started by challenging misconceptions about the field of investigative journalism.

There are a "number of mysteries around journalism", he said, and it is important to "dispel those myths".

"Investigations are not magic", he explained. The key to their success is "about leg work", and doing what you can to make that as manageable as possible.

He added that "breaking things down into pieces... makes it a lot easier to reduce the costs", highlighting how investigations he has been involved in have done that, by breaking down the necessary investigative tasks.

He also breaks down the team behind an investigation into five necessary roles: a data expert, a community manager, a multimedia journalist, a curator and an editor "to organise those elements and pull them together".

2. Make the most of digital tools

There are a number of tools available online for journalists which can be valuable in the process of an investigation, around data and notification systems to help them monitor specific developments.

Jonathan Stray, who teaches at Columbia University, outlined a platform he has been involved in called Overview, which helps journalists manage large collections of documents, and find key data within it.

"Overview is an easy to use, large document set analysis tool," he said, which lets users both search documents for terms and also build a "tree" of folders and sub-folders, organised by terms.

He said the result gives users a "picture that would be otherwise unavailable". The main strength of the platform is the time it helps to save, instead of searching pages of data.

"I hope that means more and better investigations", he added.

Bradshaw also highlighted a handful of other tools journalists should take note of.

This includes using Scraperwiki to scrape data from websites, which he described as a "tremendous tool for automating repetition".

He also pointed to Freedive as a useful platform if journalists wish to "publish data in a searchable database" and IFTTT (If This Then That) as a useful automation tool, which lets users set up certain actions to occur in specific, stated circumstances, such as requesting an email to be sent to you when a keyword is tweeted, or specific user tweets.

Here are 10 ideas for IFFTT 'recipes' which might be of use for journalists.

Bradshaw also flagged up as another useful tool, which helps users monitor any changes to a specific webpage.

3. Make it easy for sources to find you

Bradshaw outlined how news sites can encourage those with relevant stories to tell, to arrive at their door.

"Historically we had to go out and find all our sources," he said, but today, "people are searching for the same information as you".

He said in the example of Help Me Investigate's reporting around the Olympic torch relay, certain techniques were implemented to help connect its work with the right people.

This included ensuring posts were tagged with the names "of anyone mentioned", he said, which "led to one of the torchbearers to find us" and in the end was part of a case study included in the reporting.

They also published "lots of simple stories to boost search engine ranking against different terms" which they thought others may be typing into their search engines.

The key here is "persistence", he said. "You don’t build search engine ranking overnight".

4. Build a strong network

Building on her own experience of pursuing investigations, journalist Lyra McKee stressed the importance, and value, of cultivating a strong, dedicated network of readers who feel passionately about her work.

"Build a network, don’t go for a market", she said. "Talk to people. Bring them into the fold."

She said she knows "most of my readers", connecting with them both on social media and elsewhere online, as well as in real life.

And these connections have helped support her work on a financial basis. She discussed a recent crowdfunding campaign, which reached its target just last night, to help cover the costs of an investigation she has been trying to pursue for some time.

Those who backed her will get access to "short chapters" from her investigation, two years prior to the launch of a book on it, she said.

This approach makes her network "a part of the journey and they’re invested in the journey", she explained.

"Paying for journalism is an act of love. If they really like you, they will."

And the "lengths people will go to when they care about your work in incredible", adding that the "biggest boost" for her crowdfunding campaign was driven by "personal recommendations" by her network.

5. Consider crowdfunding to cover costs

Lyra McKee's decision to turn to crowdfunding, on the Beacon Reader website, came after having already explored different avenues around funding, from competitions to grants.

"I jokingly called this Plan B, it was actually more like Plan Z," she said.

Having hit her target this week, raising just under $6,000, she said this is the "first thing I've tried that actually worked". The funding will be used to help cover the necessary travel costs to complete her investigation.

And while she managed to reach her target, she stressed the value in having someone to hand who keeps pushing you forward, as such campaigns can look unattainable at stages.

"Don’t give up," she said, remembering advice she was once given: 'brick walls aren’t there to keep you out, they're there to see how badly you want it".

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