Muckraking a path to a career in journalism

Newspapers are in decline, broadcasters are cutting budgets, online doesn’t pay, so who’d be a journalist these days? Despite the black clouds hanging over the industry there seems to be no shortage of would be journalists willing to give it a go. 23-year-old Belfast native, Lyra McKee, was bitten by the journalist but at an early age, and with the job market tightening has decided to take matters into her own hands and start her own magazine.

Belfast native Lyra McKee, creator of The Muckraker Report

Belfast native Lyra McKee, creator of The Muckraker Report

The Muckraker Report, launched earlier this month, is an online magazine featuring investigative journalism dedicated to holding the powerful in Northern Ireland to account. The first issue addresses the story of Northern Ireland’s only Rape Crisis Centre and how its government funding was dramatically stopped in 2006 and the battle the centre’s founders have been waging ever since. The time required to investigate this story (five years) and the length of the article (3,300 words), mean it would be virtually impossible for a newspaper journalist to produce this kind of investigative piece but McKee believes there is a demand for long-form investigative journalism and with the price of publishing plummeting thinks there is a sustainable online business model.

I realised that if I wanted to do this I had to create my own job

McKee’s love affair with journalism began when aged 14 she started a newspaper at her school in the Ardoyne area of Belfast, although it was probably doomed to failure from the start. “Staring a newspaper at a school where a lot of people are illiterate probably wasn’t a great idea,” she admits, but her interest piqued. In 2006 she won the Sky News Young Journalist of the Year award for an investigation into suicide in North Belfast and has been writing ever since. “One of the early stories I wrote was about a photography exhibition in Jordanstown University called ‘Positive Lives’”, says McKee. “At the event a HIV survivor said that ‘a fight against HIV and AIDS is a fight for the hearts and minds of the community’. I remember the hairs on the back of my neck stood up and I just couldn’t wait to write those quotes up.” She immediately knew she wanted to do this for the rest of her life but the career path was unclear. Her local newspaper told her at a careers day that they don’t hire investigative reporters anymore. “I realised that if I wanted to do this I had to create my own job.”

Muckraker blog

Muckraker blog logo

Her first entrepreneurial foray was an ill-fated auction website for investigative stories which she ran for just over a year between 2009 and 2011, where she ended up working on the business side instead of pursuing her real passion which was investigating. Luckily she was able to pursue this in the guise of a job for US website where she works to this day, and then in December 2011 she started the Muckraker blog. “It ended up taking off, which really shocked me”, said McKee. “I wrote a big story that had just fallen into my lap and it was picked up by GigaOm and CNN and from there things really took off.” The story was an expose of a convicted fraudster who was posing as a venture capitalist. He had an elaborate scam to con start-ups out of £10,000 by wrongly charging them a break-off fee. The Muckraker blog gained further prominence in October 2012 when a post exposed gross inefficiencies in the government job creation organisation Invest NI.

The blog was beginning to get so popular that McKee knew she needed another publishing forum. “The magazine really came because the cost of the site and the investigations were going up,” she says. “Investigations had become much bigger than just requesting an FOI (Freedom of Information) and revealing some embarrassing figures, it was a lot deeper. I needed to find a way of offering something premium, a way of funding the site.”

Lean-back experience

The idea for the magazine had been evolving in her head for four or five years but the conditions hadn’t been right until now. Now that people have tablets there’s more of an appetite for long reads online where people can take their time to consume content. “When you’re not at your desktop, when you’re leaning back and reading something, the experience is totally different. Investigative and news journalism can be very boring, we’re not very good at telling stories and I don’t think that works for the web anymore, so I really wanted to experiment with narrative journalism and create a lean-back experience.”

The availability of cheap online publishing tools has allowed McKee to create her magazine relatively quickly and for a small amount of money, something that would have been impossible just a few years ago. “You can produce something that looks pretty good fairly easily now, where a few years ago you would have had to hire a designer. Also nobody was thinking about online magazines, it’s really only with sites like Longreads, Matter and Grantland where we’ve started to consider this.”

The Muckraker report issue one (available here for just £3) looks pretty well though Lyra insists production values will be going up for the next issue and she also wants to try serialised investigative reports. “We’re aiming to publish every two months and I want to experiment with serialised investigative journalism. You’re only going to have so many answers at the end of two months so with serialised pieces I’m hoping to take the reader on the investigative journey with me.”

All revenues from the first issue went to the Belfast Rape Crisis Centre  and 10 per cent of future revenues will still go to charity but the rest will be put towards investigative expenses. McKee still earns her living from the two days a week she edits Mediagazer but believes that Muckraker could eventually turn a profit and is exploring new revenue models: “Next month we’re launching crowdfunding. It’s going to be crowdfunding by subscription. I’m aiming to get to 700 subscriptions where the money (£3) will be deducted every two months when the magazine is published. “

Arthur Guinness Project
McKee is writing a book about the murder of UUP politician Reverend Robert Bradford (pictured)

McKee is writing a book about the murder of UUP politician Reverend Robert Bradford (pictured)

As if she wasn’t busy enough, McKee is also writing a book and is currently competing for a €50,000 bursary from the Arthur Guinness Project to help fund the enterprise. The book is about the last few months of Reverend Robert Bradford’s life, a UUP MP who was murdered in 1981. The book will attempt to clarify some of the unanswered questions about his death. It was a murder that had no logic to it, he wasn’t a hate figure at the time in the way some other politicians were.

She came about the story when a former journalist friend who had family in the UUP brought the details to her attention. The Arthur Guinness Project winners will receive €50,000 which will fund the writing of the book but also by proxy will help her to continue to write the blog and magazine. You can vote for the project here.

McKee is committed to this project of investigative journalism and promises to see it through. When asked if she would go work for the New York Times or The Guardian if the call came, she said that of course she’d be tempted but would feel that she was letting people down if she abandoned the work. Lyra says that newspapers are no longer run by journalists but run by short term thinkers who are worried more worried about government funded job ads than the importance of investigative journalism and therefore it’s left to sites like Muckraker to carry the baton. The second issue of The Muckraker Report is due to be published on October 31st.

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