In 2015, InsideClimate News broke the story of how Exxon Corporation spent decades researching climate change, then issued misinformation on climate change and thwarted any efforts to curtail its effects.
Reporters at InsideClimate News spent months combing through corporate documents, external reports, data and speeches to painstakingly stitch together their investigation.
While their story did not begin with an U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission filing, the required reports to the federal oversight agency were a large part of their research.
During that same year at the Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting, our idea for a searchable database bringing together just this kind of information was in its infancy.
The center, based in Champaign, Illinois, is a nonprofit, nonpartisan online newsroom and offers investigative and enterprise coverage of agribusiness and related issues. Some of the world’s largest agriculture companies are based in our region.
Consistent, in-depth coverage of agribusiness has declined as newsrooms over the past two decades have suffered significant budget and staff cutbacks. Too often, issues are often covered through news releases or one-time investigative pieces.
In addition, there is little overall collation of the risk assessments done by agribusiness corporations, their regulators, or those that study these corporations and the resulting strategies that impact food, energy and the environment. So we looked into how we could make it easier to access information and connections that spur critical coverage.
We also started exploring funding models. Like other small, nonprofit newsrooms (check out the Institute for Nonprofit News for a comprehensive example), our main source of funding stems from major foundations. And like other newsrooms, we knew we had to diversify our revenue sources.
Our fellowship project for the Reynolds Journalism Institute, RiskMiner, addresses the need for constant, in-depth information and news while at the same time explores a business model to sustain that coverage.
RiskMiner — an online data tool — will make it easier to find and analyze multinational agribusiness corporation documents, regulatory documents and studies, and data on risk that are public, but seldom collected, collated and curated in an easily searchable database that allows for insight and analysis.
This approach will allow journalists and the public to cut through the rhetoric and see corporations’ and regulators’ own fact-based assessments of risks and how the corporations plan to deal with those risks.
Once fully developed, RiskMiner will offer a subscription model to help increase revenue, including a paid newsletter digest of information and analysis.
RiskMiner also will use natural language processing and topic modeling to recognize patterns and outliers in the documents and data.
If RiskMiner is successful, it can be used as a model for other nonprofit newsrooms interested in launching similar platforms.
We don’t expect to easily solve the ongoing challenge of quickly accessing critical information while at the same time providing additional revenue to newsrooms like ours, but we think RiskMiner is a step in the right direction.