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June 13, 2024

Bureau of Investigative Journalism in drive to diversify grant-led funding model

CEO and editor-in-chief Rozina Breen has warned of £250,000 funding shortfall.

By Charlotte Tobitt

The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) is on a mission to diversify its revenue away from relying on foundations as “tectonic plates are moving” in the world of philanthropic funding for news.

Rozina Breen, who has just passed two years as chief executive and editor-in-chief at the non-profit, said the time in which foundation funding was “really plentiful” has passed.

Currently it makes up 95% of TBIJ’s funding, with the remaining 5% coming from smaller individual donations, meaning “in order to sustain, we need to be diversifying our revenue streams”, Breen told Press Gazette.

In response TBIJ has launched paid membership community Bureau Insiders and is exploring other commercial revenue streams (with one major deal understood to have been signed).

Both are “transformational things for the Bureau”, Breen said, “because we weren’t in that place a few years ago”. She added that “there is a way to go, but we’ve certainly now got more than a toe in the water”.

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Breen said she was working on “a business model that would help the Bureau for the years to come, because we’ve kind of gone through a period where foundation funding was really plentiful, and the tectonic plates are moving.

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“So funders are either changing their strategies to move away from journalism, some of them are moving away from the UK funding space to the global south, and everybody is compromised economically so some of those pots are getting smaller and you may have more newsrooms going for the same sort of funders.”

TBIJ’s current editorial focuses include global health, big tech, environment, antibiotic resistance and a strand called The Enablers about “how UK executives, lawyers and advisors are enabling oligarchs, dictators and criminals around the world”. Its recent investigations have been co-published by the likes of The Guardian, the i, ITV News, Le Monde and The Hindu.

Aim to have 1,000 paying TBIJ members by 2025

In 2019, the latest detailed figures published by TBIJ , the organisation had expenditure of £1.3m and an income of £1.4m of which 44% came from project grants, 41% from organisational grants and 11% from major gifts. This income was up from £490,000 in 2014 and £1m in 2017.

In November, with the launch of Bureau Insiders, Breen told readers it costs about £2.7m each year to run TBIJ and it was facing a funding shortfall. She said: “To keep going in 2024, we currently need to find £450,000.”

After new grant funding coming in, the shortfall has now reduced to about £250,000.

Open Democracy, another largely grant-funded UK journalism outlet, had to cut costs by 40% this year in response to falling revenue.

Breen told Press Gazette: “I’ve been actively adapting or pivoting our business model in order to reduce our reliance, overreliance on foundations.

“Foundations will still be hugely important to us, we’re never going to stop foundation funding, but we also need to look at other ways of making money, like many other newsrooms have, in order to keep great talent with us, in order to keep doing what we’re doing, in order to invest in new roles around innovation or telling the story or fundraising or data visualisation, for example.”

She said that, while keeping in mind the Bureau’s mission and mandate to have tangible impact in the world, she was “bringing in almost a commercial community revenue lens into a world that isn’t really used to that”.

Bureau Insiders currently has around 250 members paying a monthly contribution of their choice. Breen said the target is to increase this four-fold to 1,000 members by the start of 2025.

Breen said it was “quite an internal and external shift”, both in terms of feeling comfortable talking about funding challenges and in shouting about the Bureau’s work in a way it had rarely done before as its own visibility was often lost when its work was co-published with other news organisations.

They were also initially unsure about what their membership value proposition would be as “we didn’t have any extra product to give anybody. Our resources are really stretched.”

Current subscribers do not receive add perks, but simply pay to support the TBIJ’s work – a similar discovery to US investigative news outlet The Lever.

Breen added: “Our deep dive testing told us that audiences just really care about deep public interest journalism, the David versus Goliath type of scenario, good over bad, and that’s what they actually would support. A bit like The Guardian’s reader revenue, people want to support good investigative journalism.”

The messaging for Bureau Insiders currently highlights times it has “exposed injustice and sparked change” such as revealing “how Qatar hacked the World Cup; uncovered rogue businessmen taking millions from ordinary taxpayers; and exposed useless child cancer drugs spreading across the globe”.

Breen added: “It’s really taught us that people care about what we do.”

TBIJ has also been forced to spend more on fighting legal threats. Its leadership including Breen has repeatedly joined calls for legislation to crack down on strategic litigation against public participation, or SLAPPs, which are essentially lawsuits designed to intimidate and silence journalists.

The Bureau gets around 20 to 30 legal letters a year, Breen said. It currently has one ongoing libel case, alongside Open Democracy and The Telegraph, brought by an organisation linked to Kazakhstan’s former dictator Nursultan Nazarbayev over stories about his alleged use of a UK company to protect his assets.

Breen said: “We’re having to up the amount that we put aside for legal letters because what we are doing is so deep and often goes up against powerful people so it’s definitely a pressure and a stress point and takes time and energy.”

Rozina Breen: TBIJ impact model means we wants to engage audiences anywhere

Alongside the financial diversification, Breen’s aim has also been to diversify the content and platforms on which TBIJ was publishing as well as to democratise its work.

Since her arrival TBIJ has “refired” its Linkedin (now on 15,000 followers) and Instagram (3,600) accounts and launched on Tiktok (683), telling its stories in different ways to make them more accessible.

TBIJ’s funding model means it does not have to drive people to its own website for advertising or subscriptions revenue. Instead its key metric is having impact – aligning with its tagline of “sparking change through exposing injustice” – meaning it wants the total reach of its work to be as big as possible, whether on social media, other publishers’ websites, or its own pages.

Its content “will always be free to access,” Breen said. “That is a deep philosophical point… our work is in the public interest. It should be for the public and alongside the public for all the public, not just a group of people who may be super-served by some news content or output.”

Community-led projects key for ‘democratisation’

TBIJ launched a community-led pilot project last year testing out a new approach to investigative journalism.

One example of this was the Hot Homes project, described as a collaboration between south London residents, TBIJ and the University of Glasgow’s Urban Big Data Centre. It saw 40 homes in Southwark fitted with temperature sensors and residents gather at a community centre to discuss the impact climate change is having on how they live.

Hot Homes also acted as a step up on internal collaboration within TBIJ, involving the global health, environment and Bureau Local teams, with Breen crediting it for “agility, adaptability, deepening our subject specialism and working in a more intersectional world”.

This was followed this year by Trans+ Voices aiming to discover the impact of political discourse on trans and non-binary communities including through listening events held in partnership with trans-led organisations.

Breen said they wanted to find out “what would an investigation look like if you went, built trust within a certain community, understood from them what they wanted to investigate, commissioned through their lens, newsgathered through their lens, storytold through their lens, and essentially came out with the same sort of product, which is an investigation that is relevant to wider audiences, but was more inclusive, was more diverse, arguably felt more relevant to some of those communities”.

Breen connected this aim to her own background, which she described as being working class raised by a single parent in North London with free school meals – as well as being a woman of colour.

“I’ve come through a non-traditional route, I feel a non-traditional candidate in journalism anyway, let alone a position of leadership,” Breen said. “And understanding that you can still inspire, motivate, inform, have a publisher-audience relationship with anybody if you invest a bit of time in getting to know them, so building a community, was really important to me.”

Before joining TBIJ, Breen was head of North of England for the BBC and previously head of news at 5 Live. She made the switch away from the daily news agenda to longer-form deep dive journalism – but keeping the public service ethos of the BBC – in part because she felt there is “little space” for work holding people to account and understanding policy. “Everything feels quite short-termism.”

This similarly is a reason she feels TBIJ will survive the age of generative AI: because its work “is so human-led and meticulous and deep and long, and we’re not informed by a daily news agenda. I would argue that the value of our work has increased over time. There are not a huge amount of people doing what we do.”

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