To Answer Your Question…
Here's How, And Why, I Created The Reporters Inc.
BY MARK SAXENMEYER
“So, what’s The Reporters Inc. all about, anyway?”
I get that question a lot, so I thought it was high time that I put the answer(s) into one neatly wrapped, easily understandable and entertainingly informative column!
I can actually pinpoint the exact moment when the idea of The Reporters Inc. was birthed. I was in the living room of my Chicago apartment in 2004, talking with friends. I’d just finished reporting and producing a multi-part TV news series about the difficulties some heterosexuals have when it comes to accepting and understanding homosexuals. We called it Experiment: Gay and Straight and it was a sequel, of sorts, to a similar project we had created a year earlier that examined race relations, The Experiment in Black and White.
The multi-part black/white Experiment news series was edited into an hour-long documentary, aired on the Chicago FOX affiliate I worked for, and won a national Emmy award (among other honors). The gay/straight Experiment news series had also been well-received, and I just assumed that the bosses would green-light a documentary version, too.
Well, I assumed wrong. I was told there weren’t any open slots on the local schedule, that the network wouldn’t allow any of its shows to be pre-empted for the program, that there wasn’t enough advertiser interest. I was told a lot of things, all of which amounted to a big fat “NO.”
Undeterred, I asked if I could edit the project into a documentary on my own time, on my own dime. That request was approved and we were allowed to show the documentary on a local cable access channel, which we did. We were also allowed to enter it into film festivals, which we also did. Experiment: Gay and Straight was accepted into more than two dozen festivals around the world, from L.A. to D.C., Montreal to Mexico City, Brussels to Cape Town. It won several jury and audience prizes.
Then came the calls from distributors. There was interest in airing the program on several cable networks, DVD in-home entertainment deals, ovations from several countries!
But that’s where the excitement stopped. My TV news bosses said “no” again, to all of it. I distinctly recall being told, “We own the rights to this project. Why should we sell it to someone else?”
Yet they wouldn’t air it themselves.
That was more than a decade ago so I’ve stopped trying to figure out the logic, though obviously I have plenty of hunches.
Bottom line, when you work for someone else, you gotta do what they say, what they want, what they need–or you won’t have a job for very long. When you work for someone else, you’re being paid to fulfill their mission, their goals, their interests. For me, I was at a crossroads.
How would I keep my nice, big-city TV news reporting gig yet still be able to create the kind of journalistic programming that they didn’t particularly want–work that I felt needed to be seen? How would I, a life-long news guy (not a businessman, not an entrepreneur, not schooled in nonprofits) create an entity that would provide substantive, compelling, original, in-depth programming, find adequate funding for it, get it to the audiences that want to see it, and not fall flat on my face in the process?
So many questions. I’ll get to all of the hurdles and obstacles and setbacks and naysayers that have stood in the way of making The Reporters Inc. an actual reality, in just a moment. But back in 2004, in my living room, I decided I should create my own documentary production company, and nothing was going to stop me!
Ah, the folly of youth. (Well, I was 38 in 2004 but youthful enough.)
I started applying for grants (mind you, these were the days when the economy was still in decent shape and money was flowing fairly freely) but was told the same thing from each funder—we’d love to help you but unless you’re a 501(c)(3) we can’t do it. Unless you have nonprofit status from the IRS, you’re out of luck.
So, I applied for nonprofit status, deciding on the name The Reporters Inc. in the application only after realizing that my original preference, “Bridging the Gap Productions” had already been taken. In hindsight, The Reporters Inc. seems like the only obvious choice anyway—after all, I am a reporter. Always have been. Always will be.
The Reporters Inc. was granted nonprofit status in 2005, after a lengthy approval process. Our bylaws clearly state that our “specific objective and purpose” is to create and produce educational, historical, cultural and current events documentaries for the purpose of raising social awareness. They explain that our aim is to emphasize the world’s ever-increasing global interconnectedness (the bylaws were written at a time when the Internet and everything connected with it had begun to take over daily life), and that we would focus on subject matter, issues, stories and people who have either been overlooked or inadequately examined by the mainstream media.
The bylaws also say that we were established to create a documentary product that goes beyond the traditional or the commercial. They state that The Reporters Inc. will make substantive, contemporary and thought-provoking documentaries–all of them designed to evoke compassion, tolerance and acceptance.
Yet a funny thing (or two, or three, or…) happened on the way to making The Reporters Inc. a fully functioning journalistic production house. First, there was something called a “conflict of interest” clause in my big-city-TV-news-gig contract. Then something called the Great Recession. As we all know, money dried up. Money disappeared.
In 2011, my big city TV news gig also disappeared. 16 on-air reporters and anchors, and dozens of behind-the-scenes staffers, were unceremoniously shown the door. After 17 years in the news biz at this particular TV news station, I was suddenly yesterday’s news.
This was, of course, the perfect opportunity to focus my full attention on The Reporters Inc. But again, the economy was stagnant at best. Organizations that fed starving children were struggling for funding. How was I going to establish my utopian journalism nonprofit in that kind of environment?
The years 2011 to 2013 were not good ones, not at all. I took several jobs I shouldn’t have, panicked (like many people) that everything I had worked for was slipping through my fingers. Bad choices. Bad decisions. Lots and lots of stress, anxiety, depression.
2014 was a rebuilding year. Thanks to our incredible Board of Directors and Advisory Committee (41 in all)–a talented and devoted group of staunch believers in The Reporters Inc.–we have fine-tuned our mission and purpose and set a course that will enable us to continue to grow and succeed.
We’re now a member of the Institute for Nonprofit News, the Minnesota Council of Nonprofits, and the International Documentary Association. We’re a Gold Star Member of Guide Star, and we meet all the standards of the Charities Review Council.
Getting to this point has taken a lot of work, as you might imagine. The learning curve has been steep at times. Financially, this is about the furthest one can get from the paycheck of a big city TV news gig.
Yet if I’ve learned anything (cliché alerts!) you can’t let fear drive you from your dreams. Life’s too short to wake up every morning and dread the job you’re about to go to. You can’t find meaning in the world unless you’re doing something that feeds your soul. If I were to give up on The Reporters Inc., I’d die with regret, plain and simple.
Which brings us to today. We’re in the homestretch of our IndieGoGo Crowdfunding Campaign for our new documentary about wrongful convictions, The Innocent Convicts. This is one of three feature-length films we’re currently in the process of producing. We’re also busy publishing online investigations, features, commentaries, book excerpts and essays, like this month’s piece about Redefining the American Dream by Jerry Huffman. And we produce newsmagazine-style marketing videos for other nonprofits, causes and organizations with missions of social justice, much like our own.
I know that there are thousands of causes and worthy organizations that need, and ask for, your help. I know there are still plenty of nonprofits requesting your hard-earned money to help feed starving children, to cure diseases, or to house victims of natural disasters. But I also hope—I also know—that plenty of you share my belief that independent media is necessary for true journalistic work to thrive and prosper in the 21st century. There are plenty of you who want to help us produce the kind of reporting and programming that goes missing from your TVs, is absent in the theaters, and can’t be found on your computers.
Feels like yesterday, truly, when I had that lightbulb moment, that flash of an idea for The Reporters Inc. in the living room of my Chicago apartment. That was four homes and eleven years ago, and that light has dimmed at times, and nearly flickered out. But I’m happy to say that today, it’s never beamed more brightly. The Reporters Inc., I can definitively state, is here to stay.
And I hope that answers your question(s)! If not, feel free to ask me more.
Mark Saxenmeyer can be reached at email@example.com.
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