A STUDY OF EUROPEAN
INVESTIGATIVE MEDIA
OPERATING MODELS
LOOKING FOR A PATH FORWARD:
ABOUT THIS PROJECT
The current project was born out of a series discussions held at MezhyhiryaFest, an annual investigative journalism conference organized by MDF. Each year the time spent looking at how to make investigative media sustainable grew, but the answers would keep leading back to a common problem – we are told to try everything but are limited by time and resources.

We looked for research on operating model effectiveness and how to prioritize efforts but didn't find much. That's why we decided to launch this study – working with media across Europe to understand how they work and what challenges they run into. We aim to build on it, diving deeper into the mechanics to truly understand how media can succeed in a digital world.
What this project is
This report is a first stab at defining how investigative media organize themselves, as well as how they position themselves within the larger media-civil society ecosystem
Contribute to body of knowledge about organization theory for investigative media
It aims to contribute to building a common European space within which to exchange experiences and learn both about what works and doesn't work
Finally – we hope – this project will be a source of inspiration and reflections on how to make the work of investigative media more effective, reducing the stresses of an
What this project is not
A definitive answer about how investigative media should or even do function, or a recipe book about how to set one up – rather it can be a starting point for reflection or debate
An attempt to compare media to see who is better or somehow rank performance – it aims to understand what drives various decisions (context, resources etc.) and how they play out
About MDF
The Media Development Foundation (MDF) is a Center of Excellence and a Media Expertise hub focused on empowering journalists and media organizations.

We believe free and vibrant media are critical to social, economic and political development.

The collapse of high-quality journalism due to the disintegration of the media revenue model, coupled with increased pressure media, is currently threatening that ecosystem. MDF works with newsrooms to help adopt innovative business models, notably via a series of media accelerator programs, and uses its wide network partner media to kick-start promising young journalists' careers, address skill gaps and share learnings from what works and what doesn't.

By building stronger media, we hope to build stronger societies.
EXECUTIVE SUMMARY
There are four archetypes
of investigative media
  • Investigative media fall into four broad organizational archetypes:

    Fully integrated: Define their mission as everything from reporting to advocacy and carry out all activities under a "single roof"
    Content producers: Focus on reporting and story-telling, with partners for distribution. Typically content producers see advocacy as beyond their core mission
    Local model: Involves significant use of volunteers for data gathering and local mobilization. Media organizations focus on the editorial and production tasks
    Competency-based: Balanced model involving professional and volunteer/ CSOs at different steps, based on pragmatic assessment of strengths and capabilities

  • Each has different advantages, limitations, capability requirements, and sustainable resourcing options – all critical elements in setting the path forward
Path forward to overcome joint and model-specific challenges
  • Looking further, investigative media need to address a combination of growing technical demands and story-telling ability, improve reader understanding (and thus analytical abilities), improve product quality all while facing a frantic competition for talent

  • In an overwhelming majority of cases, investigative media are sub-scale and hence unable to properly cover each step of the value chain (irrespective of model)

  • As a result, media strategy should involve one or a combination of the following: building partnerships with other organizations, integrating with larger media or pooling resources at a network level (note: this should also provide non editorial services)
Support should be matched to model type
  • Misalignment between strategy and model is a major source of challenges. Media often try to grow in all directions rather than focusing on key success factors (e.g., content producers focusing on building their own site rather than a distribution network)

  • Support for investigative media should consider choice of model and encourage the pursuit of sustainable monetization options suited to each type of media

  • Key success factors determine ability to succeed in a given model. They should be used to evaluate ability to deliver/ feasibility of plans for which support is requested
APPROACH AND METHODOLOGY
Media do not work in a vacuum. People need media because access to unbiased, verified information provides great social value. This is particularly true for investigative journalism as it uncovers the culprits behind many of the crimes and abuse that plague society.

Our thesis is that media thus are part of a value chain that delivers great social value. Such value chains exist in any industry and connect various activities (even when carried out by actors who barely know of each other). The media value chain goes from uncovering stories, through their formatting and distribution, and ends with some form of change.

This dynamic is particularly important for investigative journalism. By its nature, investigative journalism focuses on topics of high social relevance (e.g., corruption). People may value the work of the journalists, but the real kicker is in getting the corruption to cease.

Not all the job is or should be done by journalists. Indeed, many journalists feel uncomfortable about any form of activism. This report does not take a position on the long-standing debate, but simply acknowledges that each step needs to be carried out for the value chain to deliver impact. Our model identifies three types of actors (volunteers/ activists, media themselves, and commercial entities) as participants in the value chain. Understanding how these work together – where the handover points lie and where to "play" – lies at the very heart of defining of one's operating model and path for development.
Dimensions defining the operating model of investigative media
The value chain can be further broken down into concrete steps defined by specific skill/ capability requirements, as well as clear KPIs/ objectives (see appendix for details). Not all steps are consistently covered (i.e., product management and analytics tend to be neglected), but they are still included because of their importance for overall effectiveness and impact.
The "Journalism to Impact" value chain
can be furtherbroken down into specific steps
Materials and inputs used to compile this report were initially gathered via open-source research and in the course workshops and discussions held during the investigative journalism festival MezhyhiryaFest (Kyiv, June 2019). Experts from over 30 investigative and traditional media provided inputs, which were later followed by a survey and deep dive interviews with leadership of 9 media outlets selected for in-depth study
Collection of open-source data (media websites, annual reports) to build a preliminary understanding of the size of the media, spheres of work; content formats, business model etc.
Engaging Mezhyhiryafest participants (investigative conference) on impact, balancing journalism vs. activism, setting KPIs and operating models (all focused on investigative journalism)
Focused survey on different stages of content production (from planning to impact assessment). Questionnaire was filled by 1-3 journalist per media (depending on organization size)
1
2
3
Open-source research:
Discussions workshops:
Journalist survey:
4
Deep dive interviews:
Interviews with CEO/ Chief editors and financial or operational directors selected media to gain an in-depth understanding of the whole process of their media outlet's work
To dig deeper, we selected 9 leading, independent investigative media from across Europe
(see map below). The media were selected to ensure a diversity of contexts and backgrounds, allowing to compare the different solutions they implemented.

Thus, they represent diverse geographies (Western, Northern, Central and Eastern Europe),
diverse formats/ channels (pure-play digital, broadcast, events, print publications and even plays) or of different sizes (from just a handful to several dozen people)
and have diverse backgrounds and histories. They are also members of different networks –
for example, 5 are official members of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project.

Through deep-dive interviews with senior leadership, we drilled down to understand their operating models and how their choices impacted the development of their organizations.
Dimensions defining the operating model of investigative media
Preparations for this report include ddiscussions with 9 cases selected for deep dive analysis
(see map)
OPERATING MODEL ARCHETYPES
Key findings:
Investigative media tend to fall into one of four existing archetypes: fully-integrated, competency-based, local or content producer. Each has its specific strengths and weaknesses, critical success factors and monetization options. As with any model, individual media will have own solutions tailored to their specific context. Still, once can extract insights applicable to all.

The fully integrated model describes organizations that maintain 80-90% of activities in-house (usually keeping some cooperation with CSOs and technical solution providers). A key argument for this model is that keeping everything "under one roof" ensures quality, strong mission alignment, and delivery of impact. Such media typically define policy impact as part of their core mission, although models that draw a strict line at "call to action" also exist.
Fully integrated model
The main advantage of this model is full control over all parts of the process, making it particularly interesting for media in countries with few reliable partners (it also helps increase confidentiality). The public clearly links the media to impact, increasing opportunities for crowdfunding or subscription revenue.

However, managing such media, with very diverse sub-units (each with different KPIs) requires strong management skills. It also requires exceptional ability to attract and grow talent that can handle all the different functions – particularly comms and community management. As a result, this is also the most costly model, requiring significant resources to set up and run.
Competency-based model
The competency-based model emphasizes skills and capacity as the reason for who drives each step in the value chain. Typically, such investigative organizations have their own platform, but see other media as the main distributors of content. Similarly, they hand over advocacy to volunteers and CSOs, but stay involved so that audiences link them to potential impact(increasing brand perception and membership model potential).

Flexibility and the opportunity to match this model to the teams skillset are some of the main advantages of this model. It also allows to get the best of both worlds – providing the media with the image benefits of a fully-integrated model at a much lower cost. For this to work, however, it is important the media devote significant resources to communication and has excellent relationship management skills, as it is more dependent on partners.

An additional benefit is that, in addition to the crowdfunding/ microdonation and subscription potential of the fully integrated model, the competency based model allows for content sales as a potential revenue source. Given that such models typically need to have activism as part of their in-house activities (otherwise they lose the image of change-makers), they need to strike a balance to ensure their content is perceived as high-quality and objective so as not to drive away potential content buyers.
"Local" model
The "local" model is an innovative approach pioneered by The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (i.e., Bureau Local). It focuses on data-driven investigations with volunteers taking a leading or substantive role, particularly in data-gathering, local mobilization and policy impact monitoring/ follow-ups. Delivering impact, particularly at a local level, is a key component of the model, although the main driver of change may be the local community members (both those that participated in the reporting phase and just activists).

A unique feature and advantage of the "local" model is the immediate localization of stories – ensured during the data gathering phase – which makes the content created particularly relevant for local communities. This should help such media with crowdfunding – they have local supporters and a natural, large network of ambassadors. However, use of volunteers to create content makes the use of a paywall unlikely.

The "local" model is heavily dependent on database management skills (a valuable and pricy skillset) and needs exceptional community outreach capabilities to be successful. On the other hand, it produces a large amount of unique, localized content at a relatively low cost, making sale of content to local media a possibility (albeit potentially again running into the paywall issue). The model is still in its early days when it comes to monetization, but offers some intriguing possibilities – notably because it produces unique high-quality databases that could interest public entities, academia or even private sector buyers.
Content producer
The content producer model is used by media overwhelmingly focused on production of investigative content. Other media platforms are by design the main vehicles for distribution of content, while civil society partners help inform the selection of topics to investigate (however, this is typically a loose relationship). This model typically sees policy impact as outside the core mission of media organizations.

The most economical of models, content producers typically require the lowest upfront investment to launch and have lower operating costs. They are also operationally simple, with clear KPIs and fewer human resource challenges vs. the other models

However, content producers have generally lower revenue generation opportunities – subscriptions and paywalls are unlikely to succeed as the organization is often not associated with the content, let alone the potential impact. Moreover, content sales – arguably the main revenue driver – tend to be below the cost of running an investigation in most markets, and content producers can easily become dependent on partners to run their stories, limiting their control of the process.

Nonetheless, with strong relationship management and negotiation skills, content producers can produce a great impact on a given market by keeping the bar high for investigative materials and become effective centers of excellence sharing best practices.
SUCCESS FACTORS AND REVENUE MODELS
Key findings:
Success for a given model is dependent on specific criteria – key success factors – that play an oversized role in determining the outlet's prospects. For example, it is critical for "content producers" to have strong relationship management skills (including negotiations) to ensure distribution of the content they produce, and to sell content if the media in case of financial sustainability goals. Conversely, a "content producer" will not typically be troubled by a lack of people specializing in community outreach – this is not a relevant internal step in their model.
To be clear, the existence of key success factors does not mean that other skills can be ignored. For example, all media require managerial ability or the know-how to produce quality content. Rather, one can think of these as factors – should they be lacking – that will most quickly damage the organization's ability to operate or the media's image. For example, failing to properly manage databases will almost immediately cause "local" investigations to collapse.

Key success factors can also help guide media in allocating resources. It is worth noting that the minimum to allocate will vary by model and any break in the chain (or at least in key links) will reverberate across the organization. Hence, for example, "fully integrated" players are the most exposed and at risk in case of any shortages of both staff and funding.
Make or break success factors for investigative media models
Different models present different opportunities to build sustainable revenue streams. As previously noted, given the bespoke situation of most media, revenue generating opportunities will also be dependent on individual context. However, it is possible to identify monetization strategies that are more or less likely to succeed depending on the model selected.

This is most clearly visible for content producers. Because they rely on other media to distribute content and have a less visible public brand, they are less likely to rely on microdonations – people simply don't associate them with the impact of their work. Conversely, they are best positioned to monetize the sale of their content by building partnerships with other media. Providing technical services will depend on where their role cut's off – typically it is before production and product management steps, making the sale of expertise less likely.

Subscriptions and microdonations are the main potential drivers of revenue for both competency-based and fully integrated models, as their brand and association to impact is highly visible. Paywalls, at least, will be more difficult for the "local" model – given dependence on volunteers, making people pay for access can be a hard sell (although it does not limit voluntary contributions, particularly given the wide community network this model is based on).

Note: The "local" model is still very young – findings are prospective and highly preliminary
Revenue stream potential by organizational archetype
Shared challenges
Key findings:
All investigative media surveyed for this report share a common problem: they operate on a scale too small to be sustainable. The demands of successful digital newsroom – technical specialists, engagement managers, content production tools – are constantly growing. Gone are the days when a few reporters could do the job – if they ever existed, as in the past many investigative units were part of larger media and leveraged their resources. It is worth noting that no media felt comfortable with their level of product management and analytics.

Outlets are sub-scale, struggling to attract, grow and fund new staff. As a result, they need to explore new paths to fill the gaps. These include pooling resources in networks (note these should emphasize technical and product-related functions, not just editorial support), partnering with larger organizations, or (re)integrating into larger media, thus going full circle.
Key implications of investigative media scale challenges
Demands of a digital landscape
  • Digital media require significant technical skills (multiple platforms, analytical and computing tools), and hence a large and diverse team

  • This is far beyond the reach of most investigative units (typically, content producers have 3-7 full-time staff, competency-based have 12-18 and fully integrated have 20+). However, even lean media with a full range of capabilities (e.g., Texas Tribune) have 80+ FTEs.
    Staffing shortages
    • Investigative journalism is highly stressful, demanding in terms of experience and technical skills and with limited financial rewards

    • As a result, media struggle to hire or grow qualified workers (given small organization size there are also limited specialists to learn "on the job" from). Often competition for limited specialists is very high

    • Media are stuck, unable to grow and specialize, and hence struggle to improve their product to boost readership engagement/ monetize
      Addressing challenges
      • To overcome the challenges of increasing technical requirements and staffing challenges, media
        face three potential solutions:

        Building partnerships
        (all) to outsource challenging steps

        Joining a larger organization (esp. for local model) formally or informally integrating to leverage broader set of resources

        Pooling resources (all): investigative networks can serve to pool resources (not just editorial but analytical/ product related)
        Media surveyed as part of the research focus on so-called heavy investigative topics (see word cloud of priority topics on the left), such as financial and political crime. While of paramount social importance, such topics tend to be very demanding of readers and hence require significant graphic/ storytelling resources to ensure readers can comprehend them.

        Furthermore, it appears there is a gap in regards to so-called social investigations, which tend to generate broader audience reactions. The examples cited by media interviewed involved such topics consumer goods (notably bad quality meat), scams on phones or investigations into real estate markets.

        Hence, media that need broad community engagement for their model to succeed should also look to the topics they cover.
        Word cloud of investigation topics submitted via survey and in materials created by selected investigative media.
        Journalists and editors tend to be bogged down in reporting and storytelling work – leaving precious little time for promotion, community engagement or other activities. While there is often no way around this, it still ends up hurting the media's efforts e.g. promoting stories to ensure maximum reach or doing community outreach.

        In particular, it is worth noting that 85% of journalists claim data and source availability are the biggest obstacles in their daily work and hence often represent the biggest time sinks. In order to maintain strong promotion, about 40% of media work with specialized external or internal SMM and/ or communication managers on promotion.

        Journalists also have limited exposure to impact tracking – roughly a third are involved in this, with another 25% of media using separate team members for this role
        of journalists time is spent on: planning, data gathering and production
        88%
        is spent on promotion and impact assessment
        12%
        GENERAL RECOMMENDATIONS
        A | Define your media's goals and
        adapt decisions accordingly

        • Reflect on goals and ambitions – is it raising the bar on what is good investigative journalism or delivering policy impact

        • Check if your goals match your team's current skillset, the allocation of resources, and the broader operating/ revenue model
            B | Spend time analyzing your specific ecosystem
            • Map out your markets to understand who are the players at each step of the value chain and how your media's operating models fits in

            • Try to look for partners in unexpected areas and look for opportunities to turn current players in your ecosystem into potential partners
                C | Keep the reader at the heart of things
                • Commit to distribution and promotion planning early in the process ("how will the reader consume this?")

                • Invest in product management and analytics to ensure content delivery is aligned to reader preferences, identified usingin-depth analytics

                • Experiment with different topics
                  D | Don't hesitate to "hand over" activities
                  • Wherever possible, outsource activities to specialists and retain only key functions in house

                  • Confidentiality or mission alignment may outweigh the need to specialize for integrated players, but even then limited activities can be spun out
                    E | Build scale wherever possible
                    • Drive scale by working/ partnering with larger organizations to share complex or expensive activities across a wider pool

                    • Encourage networks (e.g. Vsquare, OCCRP) to support functions like product management, analytics or production where talent, security or lack of partners are a hurdle at the national level
                      MODEL-SPECIFIC RECOMMENDATIONS
                      In addition to general recommendations, insights derived from specific models suggests a one-size fits all approach is not optimal and can even be detrimental to certain archetypes. For example, fully integrated models need a lot of help in building managerial skills and designing business processes. Conversely, content producers should be supported (and encouraged) to build commercial relations with partner media – potentially via a subsidy to sales.

                      Investigative media should also reflect on where their model falls – as well as where and why it differs from the archetype – as this will help improve understanding of needs.
                      Fully integrated
                      Over-invest in building up senior managers (with split between areas of activity) and supporting business process organization

                      Emphasis on developing product management and analytics – typically critical weak link

                      Strong push on media developing membership model to generate sustainable revenues
                      Competency based
                      Encourage private sector partnerships and ensure finance admin has required flexibility

                      Strong push on media developing membership model to generate sustainable revenues

                      Push for specific KPIs for each step to ensure partners work toward overarching objectives
                      "Local" model
                      Support experimental monetization models (e.g., sale of data to academia, government) by funding business development staff

                      Encourage the "local" investigation unit to work with largerorganizations or network (connecting to other media as needed)to ensure scale
                      Content-producer
                      Push for media to secure agreements with major contentdistributors – potentially modelling financial support as a subsidy

                      In mid- to long-term, support should allow sale of exclusive rights for distributors to monetize and build a market for investigative content
                      Appendix I: Value chain breakdown
                      Appendix II: Monetization opportunities
                      Subscription:
                      membership/
                      paywall
                      Crowdfunding and
                      micro-donations
                      Content sales/
                      licenses
                      Events
                      Technical
                      service provision
                      Trainings
                      Publications (e.g.,
                      books, comics, films)
                      Other (e.g., data
                      sales, market intel)
                      Control of distribution

                      Strong brand visibility and perceived connection to impact
                      Some control of distribution

                      Strong brand visibility and perceived connection to impact
                      Volunteers produce content

                      Likely low content flow from reader perspective (lots of parallel local stories)
                      Media not main content distributor, hence paywall is technically unlikely.

                      Also lack of brand awareness
                      Fully integrated
                      Competency based
                      " Local" model
                      Content-producer
                      Perceived link to impact/ activism increase donation potential

                      Strong brand visibility
                      Perceived link to impact/ activism increase donation potential

                      Strong brand visibility
                      Volunteers/ community leaders act as ambassadors

                      Local dimension increases relevance, boosting donations
                      Low brand visibility limits donation potential

                      Limited activism, which typically drives donations
                      Fully integrated
                      Competency based
                      " Local" model
                      Content-producer
                      Own platform is main distribution platform – hence sales of content are unlikely (except e.g., documentaries)
                      Potential sale of content to partners

                      Some challenge around rights – need to balance own site vs. partners
                      Potential to sell localized versions of stories to local media at low cost (relatively low effort to produce versions)
                      Main potential revenue driver

                      Orgs can even sign over exclusivity (no conflict with own platform)
                      Fully integrated
                      Competency based
                      " Local" model
                      Content-producer
                      Strong visibility/ brand can translate into event monetization opportunities
                      Strong visibility/ brand can translate into event monetization opportunities
                      Lots of community events, but focus on volunteer help and activism – tough to monetize
                      Low brand visibility

                      Typically lean team structure – hence lack of capacity to run events
                      Fully integrated
                      Competency based
                      " Local" model
                      Content-producer
                      Media typically need to develop broad (full-spectrum) skill-set, allowing to provide technical services
                      Competency based media typically outsources technical tasks – less likely they have capacity to provide services
                      Expertise in database design and management can be provided on contract basis
                      Not a core area of operation for media, hence limited experience

                      Teams typically lack tech specialists
                      Fully integrated
                      Competency based
                      " Local" model
                      Content-producer
                      Better to keep staff on core activities vs. trainings which can distract
                      Better to keep staff on core activities vs. trainings which can distract (limited capabilities)
                      Model-specific and database management trainings present significant potential revenue source
                      Major potential source

                      Focus on reporting/ editorial
                      trainings – for both newsrooms and journalists
                      Fully integrated
                      Competency based
                      " Local" model
                      Content-producer
                      Content can be repackaged into alternative formats

                      Strong brand and distribution supports publishing
                      Content can be repackaged into alternative formats

                      Strong brand and some distribution supports publishing
                      Investigations are distributed rather than sequenced, so more challenging to compile intopublication
                      Low brand visibility – reporters typically prefer to publish under home media/ personal brand
                      Fully integrated
                      Competency based
                      " Local" model
                      Content-producer
                      Limited opportunities (activism increases likelihood of real and perceived conflicts of interest)
                      Limited opportunities (activism increases likelihood of real and perceived conflicts of interest)
                      Potential sale of data to local government/ academia or others
                      Expertise in reporting translates well to business/ market intel provision (but need to manage conflicts)
                      Fully integrated
                      Competency based
                      " Local" model
                      Content-producer
                      Main revenue source
                      Potentially significant
                      Limited/ minor source
                      Very unlikely
                      Significance of potential revenue sources by model
                      TEAM
                      Jakub Parusinski
                      Managing partner of Jnomics, Lecturer at Stockholm School of Economics in Riga
                      Ievgeniia Oliinyk
                      PhD, Media Expert, Head of Research at Media Development Foundation
                      Dariia Orlova
                      PhD, Deputy Director for Research, Mohyla School of Journalism
                      Iryna Hoiuk
                      Project Managerat MDF, Bachelor of Journalism at Ostroh Academy National University

                      PUBLISHER
                      Media Development Foundation
                      39 Pushkinska Street, office 43
                      Kyiv Ukraine
                      +380 (067) 551-6544