The Tiny News Startup That Crashed the Pulitzer Prizes
by Jeff Bercovici at Forbes
16 April 2013
On the 12th floor of a none-too-modern office building in downtown Brooklyn are the offices of the law firm Kornblau & Kornblau. Tucked away deep in this warren of dim rooms is the brain center of InsideClimate News, the newest member of the elite fraternity of Pulitzer Prize winners.
How small an operation is InsideClimate News? Well, when I visited publisher and founder David Sassoon there Tuesday afternoon, I doubled the occupancy rate. The five-year-old nonprofit has seven employees total, but the other six are scattered across the Western Hemisphere, from Tel Aviv to San Diego. “If we get somebody in Hawaii or Australia or Japan, we’ll have the globe covered,” Sassoon says.
In winning the Pulitzer for national reporting for a series on the poor regulation of oil pipelines, ICN beat out the Boston Globe and the Washington Post, two newspapers with around 900 journalists between them — not to mention all the news organizations that didn’t make it to the finalists’ circle. How could a crew of seven beat behemoths that live for Pulitzer day?
“When you do have huge operations, you’re being pulled in lots of directions,” says Sassoon. “We’re covering one thing. We’ve been doing this 24/7 for five years.”
A small budget is only a handicap if you’re trying to attack the problem in the same way as news organizations with big budgets, he says:
“I don’t know why it has to be that expensive. We probably spent 10% of what a big, well-endowed newsroom would spend, and that’s in terms of salaries and everything. We didn’t do a lot of traveling. We didn’t have the money, so we didn’t think about it. We were just figuring out out how do we get the story. 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.”
That said, ICN wants to be a slightly larger news organization. “We think to do our job fully, we need to be 20 to 25 people,” says Sassoon. “As we work out our plan, I want to have a newsroom in New York. We need a hub.”
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