Small newsrooms often have extremely limited resources. This makes it difficult to make the organization sustainable and successful. But it’s not impossible, as journalists working at small newspapers and magazines around the world explained during a panel at the 11th Global Investigative Journalism Conference. “We wanted to make a point that journalism can have a business model,” said Sylke Gruhnwald, reporter at Swiss digital magazine Republik.
Here are some tips the panelists shared for thriving as a small newsroom.
If you’re a small newsroom, chances are you are dealing with quite a small budget. Try to collaborate with other newsrooms or individual reporters. Of course, this requires a lot of planning, so here are some tips on how to go about it.
Network: Conferences are excellent opportunities to find like-minded people. Think about the form of collaboration you want: Loose networks to exchange information? An open collaboration for anyone to chime in? Assistance from a reporter to your organization? Or a closed collaboration in which only approved members can take part? Build trust, put in time, and talk about financing and legal support.
Build a team: Be as diverse as possible. Include journalists from different religions; make sure you have both men and women on board; and if you are doing a cross-border collaboration, include team members with different languages. Make sure you team up with people with diverse skill sets, sources, and networks. Decide who takes the team lead, which language you’ll use as a team, and what methods you’ll use. Make a plan for your security — both on- and offline. Agree on a date of publication. Talk about finances and decide who brings what to the table.
Build and maintain the collaboration: Meet in person as much as possible. Communicate regularly and over secure lines. Joint project management apps can help you keep track of what everyone is doing.
Investigate and report: While reporting, define and agree on journalistic standards. For example, it’s harder to use hidden cameras in Germany than in Switzerland. Agree on the methods you want to use and ethical standards you adhere to.
Publish: Storytelling traditions vary widely from country to country. “What might be considered a soap opera in one country is considered a newsworthy piece in another,” Gruhnwald said. Decide on how you want to handle fact-checking.
Keep on digging: The story is not over once you publish it. “Keep enough breath that you continue reporting,” Gruhnwald said.
Go for Quality, Not Quantity
As a small newsroom, you have to manage your resources wisely. Specialize in a topic and get to know your audience really well, then target your stories to them. Be persistent and strategic in choosing the stories you’re taking on. “You have to learn how to say no,” Gruhnwald said.
Identify the Right Moment to Publish
Timing is crucial if you want to have an impact as a small newsroom. Sometimes it is better to dig deeper instead of trying to be faster than other (potentially bigger) news outlets.
Carla Minet, executive director of the Center for Investigative Journalism in Puerto Rico, said perseverance is key. Her team published a story on leaked chats between high-ranking officials that ultimately forced Puerto Rico’s governor to resign.
“We had the patience to work with the source to get it,” she said. “The story was read by more than a million people in the first week. The same day, people started protesting on the streets,” she said.
Train Your Newsroom
Small newsrooms need to really excel at what they’re doing if they want to compete with big news outlets. This means that you have to invest in your staff. “You have to be very good at what you do, so you better train your team,” Minet said.
Prepare for Push-Back
If you’re doing stories that matter, expect push-back, denials, and attacks on your credibility. As a small newsroom, you are more exposed to threats and attacks than big media organizations. Romina Mella, investigative journalist at IDL-Reporteros in Peru, said that her organization teaches self-defense and digital security training. You may want to get a lawyer on board. And find allies when publishing a story: The more outlets publish it, the safer you will be. Consider publishing the story under a creative commons license, which allows for free republication of the story.
Leonie Kijewski is a freelance reporter based in Cambodia. Her work has appeared in The Guardian, Al Jazeera, Voice of America, and various other publications. She speaks German, English, French, and Dutch. She previously worked for the Phnom Penh Post in Cambodia as a sub-editor and reporter. Leonie holds a master’s degree in International Law.