Revenue Central: NECIR’s Summer Camp for Aspiring Investigative Reporters

Revenue Central is a practical guide to entrepreneurship and sustainability for nonprofit news organizations. Many thanks to Joe Bergantino of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting for writing this guest column about NECIR’s summer investigative reporting workshop for high school students.  Our goal is to highlight INN member programs that are both innovative and inspiring from an entrepreneurial standpoint in  investigative and  public interest journalism, and generating revenue for non-profit news organizations.

Assessing the exact impact of an investigative reporting project can sometimes be a challenge. But when you teach high school students investigative journalism, the students themselves provide immediate feedback.  They’ll tell you when they’re inspired and when they’re not; what they’ve learned and what else they want to learn.

For the past two summers, The New England Center for Investigative Reporting has offered an investigative reporting workshop for high school students from around the nation and the globe.  By any measure, it has been a great success.

“It changed my life,” one student told us when this summer’s workshop was over.  That’s a phrase that will bring a smile to the face of even the most cynical journalist.

The idea for the workshop came from a few members of our advisory board in the spring of 2009. It seemed like a perfect fit for us.  One of our primary goals, in addition to boosting the quantity and quality of investigative reporting in our region, is to train a new generation of investigative journalists.

From the moment we opened our doors in January 2009, our goal has been to include high school students in our training. We immediately put in place an internship program for kids from inner-city high schools in Boston.  A summer training program seemed like a perfect extension of that program.  We’re committed to educating students of all ages about the importance of investigative journalism, about its crucial role in our society and about the nuts and bolts of actually doing it. A summer workshop also seemed like a perfect way to raise revenue for our Center.

The first summer, we enrolled 24 students mostly from the Boston area.  This past summer, that number almost doubled. By offering students the option of living on the Boston University campus, where we’re based, we opened up our program to young men and women from several different states and countries.  Many of those students will be applying to Boston University for admission next fall.  Many of those students, we hope, will end up as interns at our Center.

The high school workshop wouldn’t be possible without the help of some key individuals including Helen Smith, a now retired high school journalism teacher from Newton, MA who also teaches in Columbia University’s high school program.  Pulitzer Prize-winning reporters Lisa Chedekel and Rochelle Sharpe are also on our faculty.   NECIR’s associate director Maggie Mulvihill, along with Lisa and Rochelle, teach the computer-assisted reporting sections of our workshop.

The results have been dramatic.  This past summer, each student wrote an in-depth, data-driven investigative report.  They returned to their high schools inspired by the power of investigative reporting and its potential impact on the world around them. They now have the basic training which they can apply to stories for their high school papers and carry with them as they pursue careers in journalism.

A warning of sorts for those of you who might consider launching a summer workshop program—it requires an incredible amount of work.  Consider hiring an administrator who can manage the information flow during the application process.  Experienced, committed faculty members will be the key to your success.

While we grossed almost $50,000 from this past summer’s session, our net profit is much smaller than that.  If we included the weeks of our time spent preparing for and administering the program it’s probably a net loser financially but that’s not how we’re evaluating the success of the workshop.  We are truly training a new generation of investigative reporters—inspiring them just as someone once inspired us.