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Because unless journalists come up with new tools and ways to connect with readers, investigative reporting could wither on the vine.

By Lorena O'Neil

It is no secret that in the constantly changing global media landscape, one of the greatest losses has been investigative journalism. Many investigative journalism departments at major U.S. newspapers have slimmed down, if not closed down completely, and there are fewer investigative reporting submissions to the Pulitzer Prize. Now new media organizations are throwing their hats in the ring to try to solve the problem.

Enter Indie Journalism and its young founders, Breno Costa, Fernando Mello, Andrei Netto, Marc Sangarne and Felipe Seligman — four from Brazil, one from France, all determined to change how investigative journalism is made and read.

Indie Journalism will be part publishing platform and part social networking site. On the journalism side, the platform will allow reporters to publish long-form investigative work combined with multimedia elements like infographics, video and audio. (Think The New York Times’ Snow Fall). Twenty-four stories a year will be produced in-house by Indie, plus more will be self-published by independent journalists. Readers can either pay per article or buy a monthly subscription.

Three of Indie’s founders — Breno Costa, Fernando Mello and Felipe Seligman — worked together at Folha, Brazil’s most widely distributed newspaper. They often found themselves lamenting investigative journalism’s decline. Costa and Mello, both 31, are investigative political reporters, and Seligman, 30, focuses on judicial reporting. Last year, Seligman met Andrei Netto, the Paris correspondent for Brazilian newspaper Estadão, in Rome, and they too shared their frustrations with the future of investigative reporting. The four journalists decided to start their own platform, and joined with Paris businessman Marc Sangarne —  a friend of Netto — to formulate a business plan for Indie.

We are going to be this bridge for producers of content and people who want to read this content.

— Fernando Mello

The five founders pooled together their money and put $100,000 toward funding the platform and applications. One family member is an angel investor, funding the commercial launch and Indie’s operations with an undisclosed amount until the end of 2014. After launch, they will turn to professional investors to fund 2015.

2 men looking at desktop computer as if reading what's on monitor

The Band of Brazilians out to save investigative journalism

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Indie isn’t the first publication to try to save the world of investigative reporting. Many nonprofit newsrooms have sprung up in recent years with a similar focus, including the highly regarded ProPublica. And eBay founder Pierre Omidyar teamed up with journalist Glenn Greenwald to launch First Look Media, which promotes the work of independent journalists. Sangarne says he sees these other ventures as “co-petition,” not “competition.” He adds that there is still an “untapped potential of good stories” for Indie to explore.

Indie is betting that that there are readers out there willing to pay…

Indie is, however, tipping its hat to fellow long-form publishers. Its interface will resemble a combination of the sleek, white format that long-form site Medium boasts, as well as the multimedia aspects that The Atavist site is known for. They plan to launch their product after this year’s World Cup ends in July. (What good, intelligent Brazilian would think to compete with futebol, amirite?)

The founders are not looking to restrict Indie to Brazil. “This is an intiative that was born in a digital way, without borders,” says Costa. Netto says their current reporting projects involve stories in the U.S., Brazil, Central America and Africa. The reports will be published mainly in English, with a Portuguese translation available for select articles. In the future, they’d like to provide translations in other languages as well. Their current themes are urban violence, immigration, homophobia, the mafia and its international connections and dictatorship.

Connections are the groundwork for investigation

The other half of Indie Journalism’s mission is social networking for journalists, a characteristic which sets it apart from similar ventures. Indie will provide a free professional social network similar to Facebook, LinkedIn and online portfolio site Behance: It’s a dedicated professional collaboration tool that simply doesn’t exist elsewhere for journalists. Reporters, photographers, filmmakers and other “content producers” will be able to publish a profile with links and PDFs to their work. It will also be open to the public. Users can assess each other’s work and search for each other by city and expertise. For example, a reporter working on a disaster relief story in the United States can contact someone who reported on post-tsunami efforts in Thailand and produce a long-form report together.

It’s the toughest kind of journalism to do.

— David E. Kaplan, executive director of the Global Investigative Journalism Network

Investigative reporting has led to watershed discoveries — look at Watergate, the Pentagon Papers, Snowden, etc. Yesterday, The Guardian and Washington Post were awarded a Pulitzer for public service reporting. Think of how powerful investigative reporting could be if journalists from around the world could quickly combine their resources, saving time and money.

“My dream is to enable independent journalists to find their own markets,” says Seligman. Mello adds, “Hopefully, we are going to be this bridge for producers of content and people who want to read this content.”

And here lies Indie’s biggest risk. Indie is betting that there are readers out there willing to pay for these investigations. They are not planning on running advertising on the site. “Our bet is entirely on paid content,” says Sangarne. Indie is also thinking about partnering with traditional media outlets to sell them the use of their multimedia platform for their own publications.

The trouble is, investigative journalism is expensive. How much are readers willing to pay for these stories, and will the writers be able to hold out and pay for the investigations themselves, waiting to see if they’ll be reimbursed post-publishing?

”It’s the toughest kind of journalism to do,” says David E. Kaplan, executive director of the Global Investigative Journalism Network. He cites common issues with investigative journalism — including legal issues, resource issues, and the tough job of following money, people, and accountability across borders.

”That’s the bad news,” he says. “The good news is that there are lots of exciting experiments out there, and I count what Indie Journalism is doing as one of them.” 

“Both parts of their mission are really smart,” says Douglas Foster, a professor at Medill who has worked extensively in both long-form journalism and investigative reporting. “The natural inclination of investigative reporters anyway is to share. There’s always more work to be done than any group can do. This provides a meeting place for people who might not have one degree of separation from someone doing similar work somewhere else.”

This provides a meeting place for people … doing similar work somewhere else.

— Douglas Foster, a professor at Medill 

Foster adds that a big difficulty for Indie will be determining who is going to provide the resources for the journalists working on stories that haven’t yet been published. Since journalists aren’t paid until after publication, they will have to pay for their own investigative reporting, which can lead journalists into ethically muddy waters. 

Sangarne acknowledges the issue and says that at least upon initial launch, there won’t be advance payments for self-published stories. Independent journalists who work on “in-house” stories for Indie may be provided advance payments on a case-by-case basis.

All five founders, in independent interviews, repeatedly stated they were not creating Indie to “become millionaires” or even to turn a profit. They hope to make enough money to keep Indie sustainable, and grow the network to reach multiple countries.

Costa and Seligman left Folha and are freelancing while working on Indie, and Mello is getting his masters in government at Georgetown University. Netto, 37, is still working at Estadão in Paris and Sangarne, 38, just moved to Rio de Janeiro and is working full-time on Indie. Since the five men live in different cities, they meet multiple times a week via Google Hangouts. All five have yet to meet in person together. But their commitment is anything but virtual.

”This is really an investment for us — this is not an adventure. We want the company to succeed because it is our dream,” says Costa. “Indie is not just a job for us — it’s a bet on our lives.” 

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