Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Emerging Investigative News Networks

An Emerging Investigative News Network

June 29, 2009

According to a May 2009 report written by Jan Schaffer, executive director of J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism (“New Media Makers ”), “since 2005, 180 foundations, large and small, have contributed nearly $128 million to U.S. news and information projects.” And that excludes the substantial funding given annually to public broadcasting.

These surprising numbers reflect the precise extent of the philanthropic response to the current crisis in journalism and the widening perception that America faces a larger, civic crisis as well, for local communities and for the nation. For without information, without an informed citizenry, how can citizens hold their elected officials accountable in a representative democracy?

Roughly half of that philanthropic support has gone to support investigative journalism, and more than $56 million went to three nonprofit organizations: the Center for Investigative Reporting, begun in 1977, the Center for Public Integrity, founded in 1989, and ProPublica, which started in 2008. But more broadly, and in direct response to the commercial news media meltdown, something historically stunning has been occurring – nonprofit investigative reporting centers are proliferating throughout the nation, a new entrepreneurialism brought about largely by the diaspora of working journalists simply searching for a hospitable milieu in which to do their important work.

Increasingly, the most ambitious reporting projects will emanate from the public realm, not from private, commercial outlets. And if present trends continue, which appears likely, by 2010 the amount of nonprofit journalism funding annually supporting “public service journalism” via these centers may rival and possibly even exceed what America’s newspapers spent on investigative reporting “I-teams” in the apogee of print journalism. And that is a historically significant, tectonic shift in the working dynamics of investigative reporting in the United States.

Robert Rosenthal, executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting, and Bill Buzenberg, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, recently initiated unprecedented conversations about the growing need for collaboration among the nonprofit investigative centers. These efforts were applauded by the Columbia Journalism Review (“All Together Now,” May/June 2009): “Collaboration needs to become central to journalism’s mission – and the mainstream press needs to get on board. From foreign capitals to U.S. statehouses, it is a way to extend our shrinking newsrooms, begin to rebuild public trust, and ensure that the standards of the professional press help shape the development of new journalistic endeavors.”

On June 11, at the national Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) conference in Baltimore, the founders and directors of several nonprofit investigative reporting centers met and talked over roughly 11 hours at a special session organized by Brant Houston, Knight professor at the University of Illinois and former IRE executive director, and Mark Horvit, IRE’s current executive director. Never before in the more than 30-year history of IRE national conferences have nonprofit investigative news publishers ever met for a day-long program of discussion panels and conversation. The special session [Special track: Building investigative journalism centers and funding your own projects ] was made possible by the Knight Foundation. Officials from the Ethics and Excellence Foundation and the McCormick Foundation also participated.
Historic Pocantico meeting brings nonprofits together

On June 29, 2009, roughly three dozen people including the leaders of 20 U.S. nonprofit news organizations began meeting over three days at the Pocantico Conference Center at the Rockefeller estate north of New York City. The co-organizers of this remarkable event were Buzenberg and Rosenthal, with Houston and yours truly also comprising the de facto “steering committee” for the conference and its agenda, and it was all made possible by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, the Surdna Foundation and the William Penn Foundation.

The setting for the historic meeting could hardly have been more ironic – the 120-acre estate created by John D. Rockefeller a century earlier, America’s richest man whose company was famously skewered by investigative reporter Ida Tarbell in her classic work, The History of the Standard Oil Company . With a conference website for participants auspiciously entitled “Building an Investigative News Network ,” not-for-profit muckrakers mulled over how to enlarge the public space for serious journalism. Several groups and individuals wanted to attend and participate in the conversation but could not because of the strict meeting space limitations of the Pocantico Conference Center – obviously there will be many more, larger discussions in the future.

Can the new collectivization but also increasing editorial, financial, operational collaboration of these nonprofit journalistic organizations result in greater dissemination and public impact? Can a new Investigative News Network platform provide creative new ways to generate earned, shared revenue which will improve the financial sturdiness and self-sustainability of these respectable, well-intentioned enterprises? That is certainly the hope.

Of course, the impulse toward organizing news outlets, into a news-sharing, not-for-profit cooperative is hardly new. It should be noted that some of our largest, oldest and most venerable media institutions in the U.S. are nonprofit corporations, such as the Associated Press (which began as a cooperative syndication service among a few newspapers in 1846), National Public Radio, the Public Broadcasting System (including the longest-running television documentary program Frontline ), National Geographic , Consumer Reports , Mother Jones , Foreign Affairs , Harper’s , the Christian Science Monitor and numerous other newspapers. The two largest, most respected nonprofit news organizations, AP and NPR, while certainly honored over many decades for the consistently high quality of their daily reporting, do not devote substantial resources to investigative journalism. Nonetheless, they and other major news outlets are becoming increasingly aware of the changing landscape of nonprofit, investigative news content.

For example, on June 13, 2009, the Associated Press announced that beginning in July, it will make investigative stories from four nonprofit news organizations – the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Center for Public Integrity, the Investigative Reporting Workshop and ProPublica – available to its member newspapers. That came six months after the December 8, 2008 announcement that the Pulitzer Prizes , for the first time since their inception in 1917, may be awarded not just to newspapers, but other news organizations that publish only on the Internet, which are “primarily dedicated to original news reporting and coverage of ongoing stories;” and that adhere to “the highest journalistic principles.” These two seismic events are a direct response to the incredible shrinking newspaper industry crisis and the new emerging ecosystem. What does it mean? That in the foreseeable future, more investigative content from more respected nonprofit news organizations will likely be added by the AP to its wire service offerings. And a story or series of stories published by a nonprofit investigative news organization will win a Pulitzer Prize.
Outlines of an Investigative News Network

One thing that is quite obvious from the recent months of exciting ferment is that there is confusion and ambiguity over exactly what an Investigative News Network ought to be and which organizations ought to be included. Some news organizations obviously are much more investigative-minded than others, for one thing – how and where is the line exactly drawn, and is that even possible or a good idea? After all, it has never really been done in traditional, commercial journalism. We are present at the creation of something significant and auspicious, yet in our nanosecond, warp-speed world, its precise definition is still unclear and cannot be glibly explained in a clever tweet. There is a public need to identify the most notable nonprofit news publishers operating today in the United States, some large, well-funded and established, some quite small and only just begun, some hard-core muckrakers to the exclusion of all other forms of journalism, winners of numerous national investigative reporting awards, some in just their first year of operation or only occasional publishers of investigative stories.

The epidemiology of quality investigative information from its original sources to its release into the major national news stream has not been precisely studied by anyone, yet. Some of the organizations included here are predominantly data, documents and research-oriented, their illuminative information made available online or in studies or books, sometimes making national or international news. Others also rely on primary source documents but also then contact and interview people who can shed additional light on the subject at hand, all combined into a written news story. Some publish investigative historical accounts, revealing insightful, contextual, longitudinal information going back decades to today. Others almost entirely do daily reporting, locally, regionally or nationally.

The media platforms for the content, along with the exact subject matter and even the inherent quality of the reporting and writing, vary as they always do from journalist to journalist, publisher to publisher. But all of the organizations represented at Pocantico and beyond are quite capable of producing serious, high quality journalism, and they thus represent an oasis in the growing desert of hollowed out newsrooms and facts-deficient, blogosphere blather.

Besides nonprofit legal and tax exempt status (directly or indirectly) and a serious, circumspect modus operandi to produce substantive research and reporting, all of the organizations which might presumably comprise a new, extraordinary Investigative News Network were founded or co-founded and are led by professional journalists, responsible for overseeing the editorial process from the very beginning, from the story idea and assignment stage to publication. None of the groups is an advocacy organization or a 501(c) (4) lobbying entity. And all of the member organizations would disclose their major sources of funding online.

As this new nonprofit investigative journalism world continues to develop, so too will its collective, de facto sensibilities become clearer, about building credibility and ensuring public trust overall, about the importance of basic organizational transparency and “best practices,” editorial independence and exacting standards regarding the newsgathering process.

However tangible and constructive the outcome of the Pocantico conference and its afterglow towards journalistic collaboration, whether or not an Investigative News Network of public service news publishers actually comes to pass, the Investigative Reporting Workshop will, at the very least, monitor, analyze and chronicle this fascinating evolution, in the United States and around the world. What else happens, and what precise leadership role the Workshop itself might play in helping to establish and develop this new model for investigative reporting, will become much clearer in the months ahead.