InvestigateWest is localizing investigative journalism

When InvestigateWest journalists say they are invested in community stories, they mean it.

Since the Seattle investigative newsroom’s founding in 2009, they’ve built an audience with their local approach to investigative journalism in Cascadia and the Pacific Northwest.

The newsroom has built a non-profit model for public-service journalism, publishing stories that reach over one million people every year. It has also partnered with bigger magazines and papers, such as The Atlantic, the New York Times and Salon.

“Our main goal is to not replicate good work being done elsewhere, but to look for gaps that are left behind by shrinking media across the Northwest,” said InvestigateWest’s executive director Jacob Fries. “We’re in no way trying to be a news organization that records everything that’s happening in the community, but to pick critical areas where we feel like we can have an impact and make a difference.”

“For the past 12 years, that’s kind of been our mission. We want to do big, long in-depth stories in hopes of shaping dialogue about where the community is headed,” Fries added.

Today, InvestigateWest is made up of four reporters based in various places across the Pacific Northwest and Cascadia. Even with a tiny team, the newsroom puts out ambitious work. Recently, the Voting Rights Project at the University of California’s Los Angeles campus (UCLA) used InvestigateWest’s reporting as part of their lawsuit against three Washington counties.

“Local stories are the windows to things that become much bigger,” said Fries. “Having an eye on our communities and these issues helps us tell stories that are important.”

And this focus on local investigations is paying off. InvestigateWest’s reporters must have a strong connection to the area, which helps forge relationships with community members. He is also looking to expand his team – the newsroom is looking for a new investigative reporter to join the editorial team in January.

Working towards more diversity and equity in reporting

As part of InvestigateWest’s mission statement, there is a diversity, inclusion, equity and accessibility section that highlights the newsroom’s dedication to building authentic and trusting relationships in the community.

These relationships can be seen in InvestigateWest’s published stories. One of the newsroom’s most promoted stories in November is about a Black family navigating a broken childcare system. In April, Investigate West published a story about Sang Nguyen, a Vietnamese nursing home social worker trying to prevent his family from getting infected by COVID-19.

The newsroom is also trying to hire more BIPOC staff to join its editorial team. Fries said he is trying to bring in racialized editors to track the newsroom’s reporting and content. He also said he is hiring an investigative reporter with a “strong emphasis on having better BIPOC representation.”

“It’s still a work in progress for us,” said Fries.

A strict funding regime

InvestigateWest has strict financial policies to make sure it maintains its editorial independence while still being financially viable. The policy is organized around three types of support: support for investigative journalism in general, support for broad topical coverage and support for specific reporting projects.

“We’re emphasizing the need for journalists in our communities and how the loss of journalism impacts the health of our community and our democracy,” said Fries.

These funds often come from individual donors and foundations. More than 170 people financially contributed to InvestigateWest in 2020. The newsroom also receives funding from foundations and news partners such as the Ethics and Excellence Journalism Foundation, the Bullitt Foundation and the Sustainable Path Foundation, among others.

Most importantly, InvestigateWest’s financial supporters have no voice in editorial decisions and they try to be as transparent as possible.

“I do think nonprofit, small news organizations are also tapping into the folks who want to support journalism but are involved in their local communities. Earlier this month, we were able to announce a six-figure donation from two local philanthropists in Seattle. This helps us to keep doing what we do,” Fries said. 

What is topical authority?

Topical authority is SEO jargon for subject matter expertise. According to Search Engine Journal, it is the “perceived authority over a niche or broad idea set, as opposed to authority over a singular idea or term.” It’s one measure for the overall quality of a site and a contributing ranking factor.

  • Sportsnet or TSN are likely to have topical authority for CFL trade news, where Grist or The Narwhal may be considered expert sources for policy questions that emerge during the COP26 climate conference
In this example: News that the Edmonton Elks, a football team in Canada’s football league (yes, we have one! Oldest trophy in North America!) traded their quarterback Trevor Harris to the Montreal Alouettes. As expected, publications who frequently cover the CFL or the Edmonton Elks rank highest in SERPs, followed by another, even more niche publication ( covers CFL and Canadian football exclusively). 

Google is smart enough to map out topics (the CFL) and how ideas or concepts within these topics (the CFL draft, a specific athlete being drafted) interact with one another. 

The search engines understand these sites to be more knowledgeable in the overarching topics, and therefore are more likely to rank articles from those sites higher in a search result over competitors who do not write in depth on the subject. 

  • Imagine if Google were a bookstore. It’s the difference between the store having one great book on Trevor Harris vs. an entire CFL section. The entire section shows your store has expertise in a topic. 

Instead of individual keywords or keyword groups, topical authority is your depth of expertise on an overall topic.  Google cares more about topical authority now

In 2018, Google changed its algorithm, putting more emphasis on the topical authority of a website. Instead of major news publishers ranking for any topic on the strength of their site’s authority, ranking focuses more on a niche or the expertise of a site.

  • Where previously a national news organization could rank for some random sports team winning a trophy (your Stanleys, your Larrys, your Heismans etc); now Google is more likely to put a sports-focused outlet in the Top Stories slots for that event. 

What that means: Now, your national news outlet based in Toronto with a focus on politics and business is more likely to rank for stories on a federal cabinet shuffle or major telecom acquisition, but may be less likely to show up when Tampa Bay wins the Super Bowl. Most likely, Google will know to feature coverage from the Tampa Bay Times or the Athletic – regional and niche outlets. 

  • The bad: It’s unlikely publishers will rank easily for any and every topic. 
  • The good: You can focus search efforts on stories that are core to your brand. 

Two related topics: Page authority and domain authority 

Domain authority, page authority and topical authority are similar, related SEO topics. Think of them as more or less granular concepts. 

  • Domain authority refers to the search power of your overall website ( or Metrics used to measure your site’s authority is not related to a specific keyword or set of keywords, but the overall health of the site.
    • Domain authority is a metric, developed by Moz, to help understand the strength of authority of another site, but does not always correlate to page rank.
  • Page authority is a metric that considers how a specific page will rank in search results. Pages with low quality content (very little text, no service to the reader, have spammy links or are clearly written by a computer) should not see high authority scores. 

Together, these three topics help understand the landscape on the topics you’re focused on and help create quality content. 

Read more: Barry Adams includes an explanation of topical authority in the role of SEO in news issue of his newsletter SEO For Google News.


Understanding your authority

You have to be considered an authoritative source on a topic. (Is that inverting the phrase to explain the phrase? A bit! But that’s the gist.) 

You must write quality content over a period of time on a subject to be understood by search algorithms as a source of expertise reporting.

  • Obviously, you are already doing much of this work. You are writing E.A.T. content that answers the questions readers are actively asking in search in a specific area. 
  • We know our audiences benefit from clear, trustworthy answers to their pressing queries (fulfilling a search intent). Writing those stories or compiling those explainers benefits your readers, and potentially your search rankings.  

But remember: When considering topical authority, we can narrow our focus on what topics we put extra search energy behind. Build topical authority for the key areas your publication cares about (the NFL, the climate crisis, etc.) most to get the most bang for your SEO buck. 

How do you do this? Revisit your mission, vision and values – it’s likely you’ll understand what your main expertise is from your publication’s stated objective(s). 

  • If you’re a local publication, it may be local news in your specific area (i.e., The Independent in Newfoundland and Labrador is a community-powered newspaper focusing on municipal affairs in the province. This is their expertise.);
  • If you’re a national publication, which sections or topics do you tend to lean into for your audience? (i.e., The Globe and Mail on Canadian business news and political analysis.);
  • If you’re a niche publication around lifestyle, sports or tech: which topics tend to have your readers always coming back for more?

What data can be used to decide what topics to focus on?

Look at the keywords that you are already ranking for and stories that consistently do well in search results (look at your Google Search Console data or another SEO tool). Aggregate these into coherent topics. Identify the overlap between existing search interest, a coherent topic and editorial priorities: these are the topics to focus your search efforts on. 

Then consider other SEO metrics:

  • Search volume: The number of times a keyword is searched, on average, in a month. The number fluctuates and isn’t a clear predictor of search traffic – but it can be used to identify story opportunities or trends; 
  • Keyword difficulty: This is a measure of how much effort will be required to rank for a keyword (the higher the score, the more effort required); 
  • Search intent: When reviewing keywords already sending you traffic, ensure the intent of a query informational. Any new stories you write should directly align with the purpose of the search;
  • Content volume: The topics you focus on should be areas your newsroom has the resources to cover often. Think in terms of reporter beats: topics that warrant the focus of a reporter (or reporters) are likely topics your newsroom considers important, and should be considered; 
  • News value/editorial mission: Consider the long-term editorial value in developing expertise that is too nice. Authority in passing news moments or trending queries is unlikely to help long-term goals. Will this topic still be relevant in six months or a year? If the answer is no, zoom out and consider the broader topic and determine if that’s a more useful topic to explore. 
    • There is always interest in something from search. It’s our job to find where the interest is and where it goes.

Remember that search readers are a valuable new top-of-the-funnel audience. They are actively seeking out information or the answer to a question. Put your SEO energy behind content that will draw in readers who are valuable to wider newsroom goals.

How to build topical authority 

After you understand which topics you want to focus on, consider the content you will create and how it will all link together on your site. 

  • Are you surprised to learn that keyword research is the first step!? Hopefully not! Identifying questions readers are asking and topics they’re interested in is the beginning of most of our work. Understand the range of questions readers want answered, then develop content to respond to that interest. 
  • Once content is created, review your checklist for on-page SEO. Clear headlines, meta descriptions, URLs, optimized images and a clear page structure will all help the likelihood a specific page will perform well in search. 
  • Look for opportunities to snag a Rich Snippet (aka Rich Result) in SERPs using structured data where applicable. 
  • Execute your internal linking and backlink strategies. Clearly defined topics connect to clear internal linking opportunities (helpful for the robots and your readers). Cross-linking takes readers further into your site, and deeper in the audience funnel (as in: get closer to converting to paid subscription ).
  • Consider aggregating existing (perhaps evergreen) content into content pillars and topic cluster pages. Well-organized content pillars and topic clusters can be useful not just for readers, but the search engines as well. 

The bottom line: No publication can be an expert in every topic. Pick your moments – and align your search efforts with wider editorial priorities for a winning strategy. 


Start with your publication’s core mission and existing search data. Where is there editorial and search overlap? Those are the topics you want to focus on to try to build topical authority.

  • To build topical authority, begin with keyword research, review the checklist for on-page SEO, look at internal linking/building backlinks and consider content pillars or topic cluster pages. 

This post is reprinted from WTF is SEO?

Indiegraf announces $1 million initiative help partner publishers achieve sustainability

VANCOUVER — Indiegraf is accepting expressions of interest for a new round of Indie Capital, a $1 million program for publishers committed to growing their audience and revenue on the path to long-term sustainability. Indie Capital will provide up to $50,000 in funding to help independent community news publishers grow and diversify their revenue.

“Since launching in 2020, Indiegraf has been focused on developing a proven pathway for small digital news outlets to achieve sustainability by filling local news gaps,” says Erin Millar, CEO and co-founder of Indiegraf. “Our publishers are making an impact and achieving strong revenue growth by providing high-quality community journalism. But most are not yet sustainable. We believe, with targeted funding and support, they will pioneer new pathways to sustainability for journalist-entrepreneurs.”

This initiative represents the expansion of Indie Capital, Indiegraf’s program to provide funding to small local news publishers that are pioneering new business models using the Indiegraf platform. Previous recipients of Indie Capital funds include Peterborough Currents, Palm Springs Post, Inside Waterloo, Cold Tea Collective, Bushwick Daily and others.

Since its founding, Indiegraf has helped over 50 established and startup publishers across North America grow their audience and revenue. Using Indiegraf’s platform, publishers such as IndigiNews, Shasta Scout, The Breach and many more have attracted tens of thousands of email subscribers and generated hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue from readers.

These news organizations are part of a movement of small, independent publishers emerging to fill community news gaps. The number of independent local news outlets in North America has grown to 700 in the past five years, but only one in five consider themselves sustainable, according to the Project Oasis Report. The majority of independent publishers cited in the report bring in less than $100,000 per year and rely heavily on a single revenue source.  Most used personal savings for seed capital to get off the ground.

Publishers based in the United States and Canada are eligible to apply. Publishers that are not currently part of Indiegraf are invited to apply if they are interested in joining Indiegraf. Indiegraf is seeking independent publishers providing quality journalism to communities underserved by other media outlets, that have a track record of audience and revenue traction and equitable coverage. Special consideration will be given to news outlets owned or led by Black, Indigenous and people of colour journalists.

Read about the full program details, criteria and selection process here. If you are interested in learning more, contact Indiegraf’s publisher success manager Joe Lanane.

Submit an expression of interest by December 23. Shortlisted candidates will be invited to submit a full application before January 30.

This round of Indie Capital is made possible by the Meta Journalism Project and Indiegraf funders including New Media Ventures, Spring, Marigold Capital and others.

This new funding program is the latest investments Indiegraf is making in Indie Capital. In 2022, Indie Capital plans to roll out other funding opportunities for community news publishers across North America that are committed to providing equitable coverage in communities experiencing news poverty. If you’re not eligible for this first program, but you’d like to express your interest in future opportunities, sign up for Indie Publisher.

Media contact: H.G. Watson, [email protected]

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