The Contently Foundation: Our Story and Mission
When it was founded by Contently’s Sam Slaughter and Shane Snow in 2014, the New York-based Contently Foundation had two goals: empower those new to enterprise reporting, especially contributors far from the nation’s big media centers, where support is hard to come by and important public service stories often go untold; and produce high-quality, long-form investigative stories to be co-published with digital news partners and other media.
The reporting was to rely on fundamentals of the form: data, documents, analysis, independent studies, first-hand observations and exclusive interviews. There would be an emphasis on dramatic storytelling and the creation of an authentic voice to resonate with younger readers.
We saw a big gap in the marketplace, which is dominated by first-rate outlets like the Center for Investigative Reporting and ProPublica, non-profits that have large staffs and budgets but rarely write for or reach the millennial audience we wanted to engage. What’s more, it is extremely difficult for young reporters or those inexperienced at enterprise journalism to find a way into this type of work on their own.
That’s why we crafted the Contently Foundation mission around providing those journalists with the tools and support they need to advance their skills and develop stories with impact. We did so with a distinctive combination of mentoring and financial support, coupled with exposure to digital technology to enhance their work, and to bring their pieces to a wide audience through other emerging new media publishers.
Two years into the project, the foundation has worked hard to fulfill this mission, and we are proud of our achievements.
Operating with only two part-time editors and an annual budget less than what top reporters earn in a year, we have published eight stories, each by a contributor with no previous long-form experience, won a national award for investigative reporting, and forged successful partnerships with leading media companies. Those connections have led to tremendous exposure for our reporters.
We’ve also launched an education program for freelance journalists that stresses exhaustive information gathering, proper research, public record acquisition and good writing.
Reporter Dan Patterson’s story “Angels of Death,” about the role that young women play in illegal handgun trafficking, won the 2015 Donald Robinson Award for Investigative Journalism, given by the American Society of Journalists and Authors. The prize, started in 1991, is “an annual monetary award to a writer who has published a freelance article that represents exceptional skill in writing and most notably, in investigative reporting or expose.” Past recipients include Katherine Eban for her “Fast and Furious” probe in Fortune magazine and Alexandra Owens, who wrote for Washingtonian magazine about a battle among hospitals involving prematurely born babies.
Each of our stories has been published on this web site, Contently.org, and simultaneously through a selected media partner, including
the Guardian newspaper and the New York Post, where Contently editor-in-chief Brad Hamilton previously led the newspaper’s first desk for investigative reporting. We’ve worked with Fusion and Medium, and in conjunction with groups that represent independent writers, including the Online News Association, the Freelancers Union and the Society of Professional Journalists.
We have a number of ambitious projects that are currently being developed. We’ve been looking into an environmental scandal in Pennsylvania; financial frauds that target the elderly; abuses by the big pharmaceutical industry; and the demographics of public employees across the country. We’re also investigating problems related to education, policing, global warming and veterans.
Additionally, we’ve formed a team of volunteers who work for the Contently company, including founder Shane Snow, an accomplished author and journalist. These are young people who want to learn the basics of investigative work and contribute their free time to reporting.
To date, our stories have reached millions of readers through our media partners and our own site, and they have affected positive change. In the wake of our judicial misconduct piece, statewide review panels are increasingly scrutinizing the personal finances of judges and other links that could impinge on their impartiality. Our story on the College of Faith has encouraged new legislation that would more tightly regulate for-profit and religious-based schools. In June, for example, the U.S. Department of Education proposed sweeping reforms aimed at reducing fraud and abuse in the sector.
Another element of the foundation’s education program involves a collaboration with LexisNexis.
Many independent journalists do not have access to industry-level research tools. To help level the playing field, Hamilton struck a deal with LexisNexis so that freelancers could get access to its information at a 75 percent discount, while he and a team from LexisNexis provide free training. The instruction, through webinars and individual coaching, shows reporters to how to best use these archives to develop stories and complete assignments. The foundation covers the cost of the $240 yearly subscription for any contributor working for the foundation.
The Columbia Journalism School has embraced the LexisNexis project, with the school’s associate director, Gina Boubion, calling it “incredible…a valuable benefit.” Said Allen Salkin, best-selling author and former New York Times reporter, “This deal is a public service to those of us still scrivening.”
Today Contently is supporting the foundation solely with proceeds from our business, and we will continue to do that. However, we have embarked on a major fundraising campaign, asking for support from other foundations so that we can extend our journalism work. We also seek to expand our educational program and hire a small full-time staff, including Hamilton, who has devoted his career to investigative journalism and to teaching.