100Reporters INNovation Success Story

Success is often attributed to being being in the right place at the right time. For 100Reporters, capitalizing on its Washington, D.C., location was key to the success of the Investigative Film Festival — the first of its kind. It didn’t hurt that the festival secured the Washington, D.C., premiere of Spotlight, the movie portrayal of the Boston Globe’s investigation of child sex abuse by Catholic priests and 2015 Academy Award Best Picture winner.

For 100Reporters, the INNovation Fund award of $35,000 served as seed funding and gave credibility to the project. This money opened doors to other foundations to fully fund a sustainable festival.

Keep reading to learn about the innovative strategies that made 100Reporters an INNovation Success Story. Responses provided by 100Reporters co-founder and executive editor Diane Schemo.

Organization Name: 100Reporters

Project Title: Double Exposure – An Investigative Film Festival and Symposium

Focus: Intersection of investigative reporting and visual storytelling

What was your organization trying to achieve?

The initial goal, as for all INNovation Fund proposals, was to earn revenue, but there was a deeper motivation for this specific plan to earn revenue. In looking at the state of investigative journalism and the lack of a business model, I wondered why independent journalism couldn’t be supported by taxpayers ticking a box on their tax returns, similar to the option for citizens to fund political campaigns. Aside from the obvious objections to government funding of journalism and myriad political obstacles, a major problem was the disrepute much of the American public held for journalism and journalists. How to address the antipathy, misunderstanding and outright ignorance of much of the public about investigative journalism, particularly in an age when the audience for long-form, text-based reporting was diminishing? A film festival, I thought, would open people’s eyes to the urgency and importance of investigative reporting, through a medium with which they already engage. The Center for Investigative Journalism at Goldsmiths University of London, had already done an investigative film festival, geared more toward journalists and students than the general public, and I thought we could give this a try in the U.S. with good results.

What role did the INNovation Fund dollars play in the project?

Beyond providing seed funding, the INNovation Fund gave the project credibility that opened doors with other foundations, including the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Reva and David Logan Foundation, and the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. The funds further allowed us to hire an experienced associate director, Sky Sitney, at an early stage, whose track record and contacts added immeasurably to the film, speakers and fundraising we were able to attract for a new kind of festival in its inaugural year.

What were the key successes of the project?

The first success was introducing American audiences to a new cinematic genre–investigative films–that is raising awareness of the importance of investigative reporting for an informed democracy, and as a source of great visual storytelling.

Secondly, in starting out, before we even secured the INNovation Fund support, I had a  pipe dream that we would open with the movie Spotlight, which was only just being filmed at the time. To our surprise and delight, Double Exposure was able to secure the Washington, DC premiere of Spotlight as its Opening Night film–a perfect fit for the nation’s first investigative film festival. The post-screening program featured Tom McCarthy and screenwriter Joshua Singer–both of whom would go on to win Academy Awards for Spotlight–and members of the original Spotlight investigative team in conversation with David Simon, who waxed romantic about the allure of paper. Participant Media, which produced the film, also generously sponsored a lavish Opening Night Gala at the National Portrait Gallery’s glass-enclosed courtyard.

Beyond Spotlight, we secured seven additional new investigative films for the program, along with directors, journalists and subject- area experts.

Thirdly, on the basis of a listening tour we did at the start of the project, we expanded the initial idea for a festival to incorporate a companion symposium. If the festival was outward looking, making the case for investigative reporting to the general public, the symposium was geared to professionals. It was more about connecting two communities whose work was overlapping, but who seldom spoke to each other. In Double Exposure’s first year, it had 87 speakers, among them leading lights of investigative journalism and visual storytelling: the journalists James Risen, Lowell Bergman, Betty Medsger, Chuck Lewis, Mark Mazzetti, Walter “Robbie” Robinson, filmmakers Johanna Hamilton, Alex Gibney, Kirby Dick, Kirsten Johnson, Carrie Lozano and many more. Edward Snowden participated via Skype.

We also managed to get incredibly good press. Double Exposure was named a highlight of the year by the Washington City Paper, and its opening was covered local radio, the Washington Post, Roll Call, and a number of other outlets. This year, the festival itself made news, when it screened Betting on Zero, a documentary that portrays Herbalife, the nutritional supplement company, as a pyramid scheme. The Heather Podesta Group, a DC lobbying firm that represents Herbalife, secretly bought out half the theater in an effort to sabotage the screening. Reuters, Bloomberg, the Washington Post, and even Last Week Tonight with John Oliver reported on the ploy, which we exposed ahead of the screening.

We also managed to clear just over $26,400 in revenue from the event.

Perhaps the most significant success, however, is that we were able to lay the foundation for Double Exposure to become an annual event. Whenever we spoke about Double Exposure–whether with funders, filmmakers, journalists or the public–the enthusiasm was so strong for the idea, that the project practically begged for follow up.

What were the critical success factors (ex:market types, internal capacity) that made this work?

You need a local audience that is sufficiently educated, engaged and/or angry enough to come out for films related to current events. The proposal took into account DC’s unique demographic as the nation’s capital, and its highly educated, politically aware and affluent populace. It also took into account the fascination that Washington has for Hollywood, and vice versa.

It also helps to have local nonprofit organizations that can help you spread the word (and thus fill seats) for films related to their members’ area of interest. In addition, you need to have or hire the internal capacity to do considerable outreach, programming and follow-up.

What were the lessons learned?

  1. Don’t be afraid to aim high: Early on, we faced a choice: whether to do a small scale film series at community centers and local libraries using only the INNovation Fund grant, or whether to leverage the INNovation Fund grant to secure additional monies that would allow 100Reporters to showcase its vision for an Investigative Film Festival in all its fullness straight out of the gate. In sounding out funders, we found great receptivity and interest in an investigative film festival, and this allowed us to proceed with confidence toward a major event in our first year.
  2. Listen to your target audience: Our first step was market research- a listening tour. We contacted leading journalists and filmmakers, to hear about their challenges, triumphs and needs as they tackled investigative storytelling in a primarily visual medium. We looked at the work they were producing, and thought hard about the field. All of this research crystallized into the Double Exposure symposium, a meeting that ran concurrently with the festival, for filmmakers and investigative reporters. The goal of this meeting was to provide a unique space where filmmakers and visual storytellers could learn from each other, pick up skills and plant the seeds for future collaboration. In addition, it is a place where they can meet commissioning editors, producers, funders and others who could bring investigative films to fruition.
  3. Be flexible: Be responsive and ready to tweak your model quickly–to discard what doesn’t work and try something new. We discovered that scheduling film screenings during work hours was self-defeating, so in year two, we shifted the film schedule to Saturday, when more people would be free to attend. At the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery, we found that by simply setting up ticket sales by the entrance–instead of the out-of-the-way ticket office used in Year One–we attracted interest from the gallery’s considerable foot traffic.
  4. Give yourself ample lead time. Film selections are typically done very late in the process. Nevertheless, everything else that goes into making a festival–securing venues, speakers, sponsorships, foundation support, even publicity–will profit from time to prepare.

Would you recommend this revenue- or audience-building approach to other news organizations?  

Not necessarily as a festival, but perhaps as a film series–e.g., one investigative film a month, with post-screening discussion and reception. This would be easier to manage for most newsrooms, will become easier with repetition, and could lay the groundwork for an ongoing dialogue with your community about investigative reporting.

What insight would you offer anyone using or thinking of trying a similar approach?

Team up with someone who has done this before, trust your instincts and remember, at every step of the way, what it is that you are trying to accomplish.

And remember, always, to say thank you.

What was your general funding profile at that time?

We relied on foundation grants for roughly 87 percent of our funding and individual donations for the 10 percent. Earned income came entirely from syndication of stories, and accounted for about 3 percent of the total budget. Of concern, though, was that the market trend on fees for stories was declining.

What is the market/community that you serve?

100Reporters’ audience is interested in transparency, accountability and corruption, in the United States and around the world. Though 100Reporters is based in Washington, DC, we do not tend to do DC-specific stories, so this project for an investigative film festival raises the organization’s profile in the community where it operates, and draws new audiences for our journalistic work.