This year’s list of Pulitzer Prize winners included a first for the prestigious award: a completely distributed news agency.
InsideClimate News, an online-only publication, won the National News Reporting category. The non-profit news agency is headquartered in Brooklyn, NY, but only publisher David Sassoon clocks in at their official office. Other reporters and editors are flung across the U.S. — even around the globe.
InsideClimate News was founded in 2006 by Sassoon to address what he saw as a hole in environmental journalism. Feeling that many mainstream news organizations didn't cover climate and energy stories with a lot of depth, he decided to try and fill the gap. Since that time, InsideClimate News has focused exclusively on this niche, seeking to uncover stories and provide perspective that are lacking elsewhere.
Though the organization has grown a bit from those early days, it is still likely the smallest and leanest news publication to receive journalism’s highest honor, with only seven full-time staff members and an operating budget of approximately $550,000. oDesk recently talked to Sassoon about the organization’s journey from a two-man blog to an award-winning investigative news site.
As a news startup, why did you choose the virtual-only model?
When we started in 2007, we had very little funding and just two of us on staff, so you might say the choice was made for us. We wanted to put all of our resources into journalism. So, even as we raised more funds, we weren't really looking to put funds into an office setting. That’s the beauty of working on the web — you can work virtually.
What was your plan for gaining an audience?
We decided we had to have world-class reporting. Part of the reason for that initially was that our distribution strategy was not based on Internet tricks, such as . Instead, we wanted to partner with major media organizations and have them carry our stories. We wanted them to use us almost like a wire service.
For that to work, we had to provide the type of journalism those organizations expect. For all kinds of reasons, we thought we needed to do things as good as anybody else. A few years ago, we had our first breakthrough: we became content partners with Reuters. Now Bloomberg, AP, the Guardian — they all carry our stories.
How did you find good reporters?
Every reporter on staff started working with us as a freelancer. Then if it was a fit we brought them on as staff. By first working with reporters as freelancers, we learned how well they worked on their own, how well they communicated, and how well they worked with a distributed team.
Our entire staff will get together in one place for the first time for the Pulitzer Prize ceremony. One of our reporters is in Tel Aviv. Another is in San Diego. And I’m in New York. We’re really spread out.
Does a virtual newsroom function differently than its office-based counterpart?
I don’t think we function any differently than the way a regular news agency does. We do everything a news organization does. We just happen to be spread out.
We do the reporting, the fact-checking, the editing. We have editorial meetings by phone. We haven’t done video and Skype or anything that would simulate being in the same room. We just use the phone, chat and e-mail. We talk to each other. That’s a really good technology.
Part of being a small and not-well-resourced organization means that we don’t travel as much as we’d like to, but when we know we’re on a big story, a reporter will go and make the contact. Having visited, we can report from a distance. Recently we covered the Arkansas Exxon oil spill. We were one of the few news organizations that showed up. Our reporter Lisa Song stayed a week, and we continue to report on it.
Do you think the virtual model you are pioneering will become more prevalent in journalism?
You’re not going to have newspapers for too much longer. You’re just not. Or it’s going to be a premium product. You’re going to have to pay a lot to get the newsprint.
I think we are helping journalism find a new home. The industry is in trouble. The economic model is not working. But the need we have for good journalism is greater than ever.
[Working virtually] keeps costs down and makes us very competitive. I think everyone who works for InsideClimate News has a good work/life balance. No one is looking over their shoulder. If they have an appointment, no one cares if they go to it in the middle of the day. What matters is if they get their work done. And they do! We can tell that.
Even now, a lot of newsrooms have more people working remotely. I talk to reporters and I’ll hear the dog and the baby in the background. That’s the way it is. People like it and need it with their lifestyles.