Q&A: I-News Network’s Laura Frank

Laura Frank is one of the founding members of INN, and she is also a veteran investigative journalist running a vibrant collaborative news organization called I-News.

Laura shares her journey toward sustainability, her take on the membership benefits of the Investigative News Network, and how she views editorial collaboration as essential to the success of the network.

Cater: We all share the same mandate within the network to serve the public and affect change…we have an opportunity among the members to compare notes and learn from each other.  Can you start by describing your journey so far (with Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network) toward sustainability?

Laura:   Our journey started off at I-News when we were able to get off the ground by using some creative financing…I got a fellowship at the University of Colorado through the Scripps program.  That was a terrific fellowship where you came with a project, and I-News was my project.  So I was funded for a year while we got I-News up and running through this Ted Scripps fellowship, and it was a terrific program and helped get I-News off the ground.

Cater:  Since then, you’ve done even more creative fundraising.  Congratulations on your Knight Foundation grant, which we’ve highlighted on the INN website.  What did you learn?

Laura:  Our first major funding at I-News came from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.  That was a $100,000 grant in February of this year.  And then we joined with the Community Foundation serving Boulder County to apply for a Knight Challenge grant.  And with the agreement of the Boulder Foundation, and Knight, and Ethics and Excellence, we were able to use that initial $100,000 from EEJF as the matching money from Knight, which they then went on to triple, to our great delight.

Cater:  Let’s talk about partnerships. You are distributing content through many different channels.  What are your biggest challenges in reaching the widest audience possible?

Laura:  That’s our goal is to reach the widest audience possible, because what we’re really trying to do is immediately bridge the gap in in-depth and investigative reporting.  To do that, we felt like we didn’t have time to create a site and train people to come to it to get the information.  We wanted to get our production out as widely distributed as possible.  A great example occurred this week.  The Census Bureau released an enormous amount of data, and I-News is fortunate enough to have Burt Hubbard, who is a census data expert, on board.  Starting at six o’clock in the morning with the beginning of the release, we were able to analyze the data and get it out to our media partners around the state by midday, so that they could tell the story of how the recession had impacted the way Coloradans work and live based on the changes we saw in the data.  So I-News was able to help seven different media outlets across Colorado tell that story to their audiences.

Cater:  Talk about editorial collaborations within the network.  You were part of the “Campus Assault” series…can you talk about the opportunities you see for other projects like that for network members?

Laura:  In a nutshell, that one worked exactly the way we wanted it to.  It was kind of a test case.  We took the national story that the Center for Public Integrity and National Public Radio had been working on – and five state-level centers, I-News and four others, literally from coast to coast from Boston to Seattle – went in-depth on this topic of sexual assault on college campuses.   We were able to not only give each of our audiences the national perspective, but to go in-depth locally which benefited both our local audiences and everybody else looking at these issues.

Cater:  Finally, as an INN Board member, tell us what you think the biggest benefits are to membership.

Laura: They are really two-pronged.  We’ve just talked about the benefits of collaborating, and those are widespread because each center tends to have different kinds of expertise on staff so working together benefits everyone.  The power of the whole is a very real thing.

On the other side, the benefits of membership are the ability to negotiate together.  We are looking at several initiatives that are very exciting…if these come through, then the reach of INN will really increase dramatically.  And our ability to do the kinds of research-based articles that we do is also going to be increased.   I’m very excited about the opportunities.

Cater:  Please go ahead and plug your product…what exciting projects are you working on?

Laura:  We are analyzing more census data here, because there are any number of stories coming out of the census data for our local partners.  We have a terrific series of stories about what really happens to electronic waste, old computers and cell phones. Several more, some health care coverage, without divulging all of them…stay tuned, they’re going to be good!