Going the Distance
Is nonprofit-funded investigative reporting sustainable?
Posted: Mon, April 11, 2011
By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (firstname.lastname@example.org) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.
Barbara Laker was doing an interview for what turned out to be a Pulitzer-winning series for the Philadelphia Daily News when things went terribly wrong.
The daughter of the interview subject overheard the conversation and didn't like the way things were going. She stormed downstairs, slapped Laker twice across her face, grabbed her notebook and tossed it across the room.
The startled reporter wisely decided it was time to go. She rushed out of the house – but not before retrieving her notebook.
As she raced to her car, she called her reporting partner on the project, Wendy Ruderman, to tell her about the unsettling development. But she also was quick to reassure her. "Don't worry," Laker said. "I got the notebook."
Laker and Ruderman discussed their project, on rogue cops in Philly, on a panel over the weekend at the fifth annual Reva and David Logan Investigative Reporting Symposium. The event, put on by the Investigative Reporting Program at the University of California, Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism, was simply one of the best events of its kind I've ever attended. Props to noted investigative reporter Lowell Bergman, who runs the program, and his deputy, Marlena Telvick, for putting on a first-rate conference.
Laker and Ruderman were on a panel called "True Grit: When the Story Bites Back," about the consequences that hard-hitting reporting can have for the people who do it. Their appearance was a high point for me because it perfectly reflected the passion and courage that journalists bring to this important work, and because these two do that work not for a media behemoth but for a woefully understaffed big city tabloid.
But there was no shortage of highlights. There were panels on big picture topics like WikiLeaks (including Mr. Julian Assange via Skype) and 9/11 10 years later. One of the strengths of these discussions was that they included a wide range of points of view, including that of law enforcement. It wasn't just preaching to the converted.
Perhaps the most germane event of the weekend was the finale Sunday morning, on the state of nonprofit investigative reporting. As battered legacy news outlets have cut back, one of the major casualties has been investigative journalism, a costly and time-consuming – and critically important – enterprise. One of the bright spots in recent years has been the dramatic expansion of philanthropy-funded accountability reporting, ranging from well-endowed newcomers like ProPublica to beefed-up veterans like the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Center for Public Integrity to an array of small, locally focused operations.
They are doing important work. They are a source of hope. But can they go the distance? As my friend Edward Wasserman, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, pointed out at a similar session in the same room at the same conference three years ago, "Going to rich people periodically asking for money isn't a real business model."
Robert Rosenthal, executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting, was basking in the glow of his outfit's 19-month project, "On Shaky Ground," on lax enforcement of earthquake safety standards for California public schools. The report was picked up by a wide variety of news organizations on a wide variety of platforms.
"There's no question we can do great journalism," Rosenthal said, referring not just to his own outfit but the world of nonprofit investigative journalism in general. But that, he added, is no guarantee of survival.
Rosenthal's center doesn't rely only on philanthropy; it has a number of, you should forgive the expression, revenue streams. For example, the center charges for-profit enterprises for using its work. But the money that brings in is a small fraction of the cost of the reporting.
"I can't sit here and tell you this is sustainable," he said. "It's going to take everyone in this room to figure it out."
Representing the benefactors on the panel was Calvin Sims, a former New York Times reporter who is now a program officer at the Ford Foundation. "My hand is out," Bergman said as he introduced Sims. "There are a lot of hands out here," Sims replied.
And Ford can't deposit big checks in all of those hands. As it distributes its largesse, Sims said, the foundation looks for "big influence and impact," for the "value added of the content you produce."
Bullish on the future was Richard Tofel, the general manager of ProPublica. Tofel seemed to argue that, Wasserman to the contrary, asking rich people for money was a business model. He said flat-out that philanthropy was the key to how the nonprofits will endure.
The key question, he said, is do people see the need? And it's clear to him that they do. Tofel said there has been a "market failure" as far as producing some vital types of journalism is concerned. And there is a recognition that investigative journalism has to be funded as a public good, like art museums and ballet companies.
That doesn't mean, of course, that all of the nonprofits will make it. But in Tofel's view, many of them will.
Let's hope he's right.