Tiny Pulitzer-Winning Newsroom May Be the Future of Journalism


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When you think of the Pulitzer Prize, you probably envision large news organizations with deep pockets running in-depth investigative series and being rewarded for them with the industry's most prestigious prize. But this year, you'd be wrong. A small company with just seven employees, only three of whom are full-time reporters, took home the prize, beating its better financed competitors.

The company, InsideClimate News, doesn't even have an office. It's a lean operation in which all three reporters work from different locations, reporting on climate stories they think are important. The winning entry was, "The Dilbit Disaster: Inside the Biggest Oil Spill You've Never Heard Of," which, according to The Wall Street Journal, began as a three-part series and expanded to seven additional stories about the spill and related regulatory issues.

This small company was able to outmaneuver the big boys, because it pays attention to just one area: the climate. It's worth noting that The New York Times closed its environmental desk earlier this year. Because large news organizations are letting news like this slip, the smaller organization with a laser-focus is able to fill the gap.

In fact, this is the pattern that disruptive companies typically follow. They find ways to run leaner using digital tools, and then they find an area of the market that bigger players haven't paid close attention to, and they exploit it. Whether it's software, steel, or news, the pattern is the same.

And what we're seeing here could represent a way for in-depth news to survive in the 21st century. Larger news organizations are working with shrinking budgets and looking for ways to focus on more local issues. For instance, in March, The Economist reported that the Los Angeles Times may be sold to local buyers, who could emphasize a more local focus after earning a reputation as a top national paper for many years.

One of the site's founders and principal reporters, David Sassoon, told Forbes it's still possible to do in-depth investigative work, but it could require a different way of approaching the problem, one that large organizations used to working with big budgets and huge staffs might not be able to grasp. "I think it's possible to do a lot of journalism on low budgets without necessarily feeling like you can't do the job you want to do. Maybe a lot of the newsrooms can do it more efficiently than they think they can. There are plenty of individuals, newsrooms, little ones here and there, that can do this kind of work," Sassoon told Forbes.

This could represent an opening that few people believed existed. The New York Times suggested that the reason the Pulitzer judges picked the plucky publication was because it wanted to make a statement that you don't have to be a big shot to be recognized-that there are ways to get the story out-and that today's digital tools open up a world of possibilities that we might not have imagined until now.

It could be ironic, in a way, that the internet-which disrupted the traditional news business model so completely-could also represent the answer to journalism's most pressing problem: How do we continue to cover news that matters? It's possible that small operations watching niche markets could change the news as much as craigslist, Google, online advertising, and instant access to news did to the traditional newsroom.

InsideClimate News has taken a different approach to financing its operation, looking at unusual ways to cover its operating costs. It has built a nonprofit organization and worked to find grants from organizations that don't traditionally finance news outlets. Certainly, winning a Pulitzer Prize brings with it a level of prestige that should help the organization to grow and thrive-and to get more money, whether it's from organizations recognizing its work, or by using its cache to crowdsource the cost of covering a particular story.

What InsideClimate News has shown more than anything, though, is that a small group of committed individuals can find ways to tell stories that truly matter without a ton of money. And that has always been the story of the internet. It has broken down barriers and given people with an idea the means to see it through without a ton of financial backing. And it might be that this little company could embody the future of investigative journalism: small, lean, and totally focused.