It’s said that “desperate times call for desperate measures.” There are few desperate times more urgent than the loss of one’s job and the immediacy of the grim financial and psychological outlook that carries. But when investigative reporter Dan Christensen was laid off in 2009, he didn’t act out of desperation. Rather, he acted on instinct (and, by his own admission, “necessity”) to start the non-profit investigative website Broward Bulldog, essentially covering his former beat in Florida’s Broward County. He has a solid understanding of his craft as an investigator, [b]having won the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation’s Eugene S. Pulliam First Amendment Award in 2004 for reporting on secret court cases in a U.S. District Court in Miami. Now he’s taking that experience navigating the legal complexity of federal and state courts into a new venture that requires him to master legal and business minutia — not just as a reporter but as an editor, publisher and entrepreneur.
How did Broward Bulldog come about?
Necessity is the mother of invention. I was laid off after 30 years in the business. Most recently I was at the Miami Herald. Previously I worked at the Miami News then worked for 16 years at the Daily Business Review. Then I jumped to the Herald and was hired as an investigative reporter. And they decided they wouldn’t have an investigative reporter in Broward County and I was laid off in April 2009. It came about right away. I had heard of other non-profit news sites, notably the Voice of San Diego. And I knew there were no jobs for journalists in South Florida. (My wife and I) didn’t want to move.
What gap did it fill and will that gap continue to widen? What’s your strategy for expanding and being able to fill the hole?
We don’t have the capacity to (completely fill the gap) at the moment. The local papers have laid off dozens, and there’s probably more to come. The emphasis at local papers seems to be on breaking news, almost like television. There’s a lot of other stuff going on that needs to be covered. There’s no great secret (for expansion). I’m trying to follow the Voice of San Diego model. I’ve applied for foundation grants, and I’d like to have the same mix of funding that VOSD does: corporate sponsorship, foundation, advertising. I’ve got several other people working on this, and none of us are making any money at the moment. The question is — how long can we hold out? There’s only so long that you can do this without making a decent living.
Why was it important or necessary to obtain non-profit status?
VOSD has built their base, and their budget is well over a million. I went non-profit because it seemed the only way to make it work in the beginning.
But why not consider the for-profit route?
I wanted to go for-profit, but right now that model does not seem to exist. It was out of necessity. (As a downside) it took nine months to get our status from the IRS. There’s a process, and it’s not immediate.
What’s been the most challenging part of branching out on your own?
I refer to myself as a reluctant entrepreneur. Before, all I had to worry about was finding and reporting stories. Now I have to worry about the business side. I wish years ago that I had learned the business side in school.
The most rewarding?
Being able to continue being a reporter, keeping tabs.
One of your early stories about a wrongful driver’s license suspension for a 78-year-old woman made national headlines and attracted a lot of attention. But that’s probably not a regular occurrence for localized sites, even investigative ones. How, if at all, does the prospect of national attention drive your local reporting?
That story even made “The Wanda Sykes Show.” Our audience is up, and our page views are up almost 60 percent, our unique IPs are up almost 80 percent. I suppose it’s in the back of my mind, but primarily I just look for a good, interesting story, and it’s going to attract readers. The reason we’ll continue is because we write real stories that matter to people. We’ve seen an accompanying growth in traffic to the website. Locals want stories of significant matters, like zoning questions. There’s benefit there.
Looking back, is there anything you would have done differently in the first several months?
We incorporated June 1, 2009, but didn’t go online until that October. I wish I could get the IRS to move faster. Going from submission to determination of non-profit status took nine months.
What advice would you give to fellow journalists — those leaving established media outlets and thinking of starting their own ventures?
They need to “lawyer-up” right away. They spent a lot of time filling out forms and helping us incorporate. It was really fundamental in the creation of Broward Bulldog. I’ve laid out several thousand of my own dollars on this. There’s incorporation costs. There’s a number of costs. I was willing to invest some money. I found, too, that lawyers, particularly First Amendment ones, are sensitive to the importance of what we’re doing here. It’s important to find people in the community who are not only willing to help, but able to help, and understand the importance.
Also, as you apply for foundation grants, you need to explain to the foundations why you need money to go out and report the news. There is an art to this grant situation, which I’m beginning to learn. That’s another course that universities should offer students. Foundations are going to continue to be there.
Did you think about leaving journalism? What made you stay?
No. Never. Newspapers and journalism are so intertwined that it’s hard to unwind them in our minds. But the market for journalism and reporting is alive. It’s just a question of whether we can find a way to make a living. There are more and more students getting into journalism; there’s going to be jobs there. Journalism was never about making a lot of money. Reporters make adequate salaries, but I’m not willing to forgo that, and I don’t think people should forgo that. I don’t think journalists should become second rate. There’s skill involved, and it should be reflected in wages down the line.