Sitting Down With Jim Heaney and the Investigative Post
by Jackie Orchard
Eight years ago, Jim Heaney was a frustrated reporter at The Buffalo News. He wasn’t able to spend the time he wanted on the stories that he felt mattered most. He wanted to investigate corruption. There was not enough room for that at a daily newspaper. So he started his own.
The Investigative Post was created by Jim Heaney’s dreams - and his credit card – in 2012.
“It was born of my frustration,” Heaney says. “I had ideas on how I wanted to practice journalism that really didn’t have a place in a daily newspaper.”
As a business, a daily newspaper needs to worry about publishing content that readers will pay for, in order to create revenue.
“Daily newspapers are in a death spiral,” Heaney says. “It’s a matter of survival. And that’s not the best environment to do great journalism in. I had to have my own vehicle.”
Photo Credit: Jackie Orchard (Jim Heaney sits on journalism panel at the Museum of Political Corruption's Nellie Bly award ceremony.)
This is why The Investigative Post is a not-for-profit business, powered solely by donors.
Now seven years strong, The Investigative Post has received 19 journalism awards and Heaney himself most recently won the Nellie Bly Award for Investigative Reporting from the Museum of Political Corruption.
Heaney says his success is due to the confidence people have in his work. If you visit The Investigative Post website, the message is clear: They get stuff done.
“Our brand is kick-ass, investigative reporting,” Heaney says. “When you do high-quality work and you get in front of a large audience – good things can happen.”
But Heaney says fundraising for the cause is not always easy.
“Raising money for investigative journalism is challenging because while a lot of people recognize the value of it, they don’t necessarily want their name or money associated with it, Heaney says. “Because you’re going after the powerful.”
Heaney says the reputation of the Investigative Post comes from the work they do every day.
“The primary way you promote it is just by going out and doing good journalism,” Heaney says. “You let the stories speak for themselves.”
Heaney’s stories speak on multiple platforms.
“We do work for the NBC affiliate, TV work, we do radio work for the NPR affiliate. As well as Capital Pressroom,” Heaney says. “We’ve got a large reach. We can reach up to a quarter of a million people per story.”
Heaney says, for television, they reach anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 viewers per story. For radio it’s about 30,000 for WBFO in Buffalo. Capital Pressroom is up to 100,000.
“You add all those up,” Heaney says, “We have a broader reach than any news organization in all of upstate New York.”
When asked about the term “watchdog journalism,” Heaney smirks.
“Our TV partner - their brand is accountability journalism,” Heaney says. “They like to tell people: ‘We ask the tough questions.’ And we do ask the tough questions, but it’s not so much a marketing move on our part, it’s just the way you practice good journalism.”
As important as the donations are, Heaney says no amount of money will protect you if he’s investigating you.
Just ask one of his major corporate donors whose president is now headed for prison because of the Buffalo Billions scandal Heaney exposed.
“Whenever anybody wants to accuse me ‘Well people give you money and then you leave them alone,’ Well... No. Actually, Louis Ciminelli is headed to federal prison. And he gave me money,” Heaney says.
The Investigative Post follows two simple rules when considering taking on a case.
“One- Can we expose wrong-doing or injustice? Two- Can we explain a complicated issue that isn’t being explained by the local media outlets? If we do that, do we have a fighting chance at effecting change,” Heaney says. “Ideally, it needs to be both. Exposing the bad guys in a way that will effect change.”
Heaney says successful journalism starts with the person in charge, it takes a leader.
Photo Credit: Bailey Cummings (left: Jim Heaney right: Jackie Orchard)
“I’m trying to build an organization that reflects my values and my techniques,” Heaney says. “Those values include being very thorough and being very aggressive.”
Heaney says that when they call a subject, there’s a large gulp at the end of the phone call. He likes that.
“Our elevator pitch is, in part, ‘The only news organization in Western New York dedicated exclusively to watchdog journalism,’” Heaney says. “So yeah, we kick ass and take names.”
Part of why the Investigative Post is succeeding where daily newspapers are failing, is that they make it known that they want to restore the relationship between the public and the media. Their online video ends with, “Help us tell the stories that need to be told.”
Heaney has no plans to slow down.
“Right now we’re a $300,000 a year operation,” Heaney says. “Five years from now, I want to be a $1 million operation with a newsroom staff of ten people and more staff working on fundraising. There’s a lot of potential.”
Heaney offers some advice to young journalists - focus on results. And be feared.
“I’ve never suffered from the need to be liked,” Heaney says. “You don’t have to be liked. You have to be respected. And to be respected you have to be fair-minded and do your homework.”
Parts of journalism, like the daily newspapers, may be dying. But if you ask Heaney, watchdog journalism has new life - and the public is hungry for more.