Paying for investigative journalism

Paul Steiger, outgoing editor of the Wall Street Journal, announced today that he is heading Pro Publica, a foundation-backed, nonprofit organization that will perform investigative journalism and place it in established media organizations.

Is this how investigative journalism will be supported in the future, with journalistic organizations shrinking inexorably?

I have been dubious about foundation support for journalism. Rich people with good intentions are often held out there as the great hope for reporting: foundations and moguls that save news and newsrooms from the ravages of the marketplace. I’ve warned against thinking that there is or should be any such white knight who will save news organizations from change and let newsrooms operate exactly as they have. We must find ways to make journalism sustainable in the new marketplace. Indeed, we must find ways to expand it (thus the Networked Journalism Summit).

But supporting independent investigative journalism may be another matter.

Having heard about Pro Publica last week, I was thinking about the ecosystem of news today and I’m working on a post about trying to do a zero-based analysis of news. That is, how much of news is really investigative? How much is beat reporting? How much is about a news event? How much is crime? How much is hyperlocal? How much is opinion? How much is entertainment? Where should each kind of journalism come from: staff, citizens, links? And how can each be supported?

Whenever news people complain about cutbacks, someone in the room will argue that if another job is lost, it will be the end of investigative journalism. But I, obnoxious fellow that I am, always ask why that one job couldn’t be that of the golf columnist or movie critic or wire rewriteman. Who says that shrinking news organizations — and finding efficiencies — should hamper investigation? Well, some argue that in atomized news, investigative journalism brings no inherent advertising, so it may not be supported by the market. Or one could argue back that investigative journalism is precisely what makes news organizations valuable to their communities and those communities know that. So how will they support it?

I think that if we analyze the staffing and production devoted to investigation in American journalism, we’ll find that it’s a pretty damned small proportion of news budgets. And I suspect we’ll find that if it is not supported by large media organizations, it could be supported by foundations and public donation. That could come from independent organizations like Pro Publica and others (in its list of comparables, the Times misses the Center for Public Integrity). It also could come from independent journalists like Josh Marshall.

There is one caution to this: These organizations can be backed by and run by people with axes to grind. And so we may find an imbalance in investigation. That’s why the role of the editor, the journalist upholding public standards, remains important. Jay Rosen saw that when he started New Assignment and initially planned on having the public assign the stories (which I hope he still does); the editor stood in the way of the axes. And at Pro Publica, I have every confidence in its independence and intellectual honesty because it has Paul Steiger at its helm. It’s hard to name a more respected editor in this country.

No, foundations are not the salvation of newsrooms as we knew them. But this one could demonstrate that we could save — even expand — the scope of investigative journalism. I’ll be eager to watch.

  • http://www.thefutureofnews.com Steve Boriss

    Jeff, This to me is an example of what I call “Plug ‘n Play” journalism. It’s completely self-supporting and it’s an entity that ultimately is going to want to place its stories everywhere it can, not just at mainstream outlets. It’s a structure that undermines traditional vertically-integrated news organizations in which reporters and editors work for the same organization. There are going to be a lot of them, and many are going to be highly partisan. But the good news is that news will be transformed into a multitude of voices competing in a freewheeling marketplace of ideas, just like Thomas Jefferson envisioned. (Steve Boriss, http://www.thefutureofnews.com)

  • http://jburg.typepad.com/future jon burg

    It’s certainly an interesting proposition, but isn’t much of professional journalism supposed to be about authenticity, professionalism and reliability? How would outsourcing investigative journalism pollute what is supposed to be a pristine and reliable news source?

  • Cooler Heads

    why does investigative journalism belong in its own silo? Like, no one else can do investigative journalism except “investigative” journalists? If so, what are all the other journalists doing–transcribing, taking dictation?

    The “silo” organization of news organizations is what got them in trouble of the first place. Instead of having all reporters become multi-skilled, able to take on all the different tasks of doing the work–from covering a press conference, to writing analysis, to investigaing–news organizations pidgeon-holed reporters by content area (read: beat) and by function (read: investigation, or something else). It’s an organizational structure that used to guide the assembly line in auto factories, and one that’s not holding up well in the information age.

    I think Steiger is clinging to some sad nostalgia for the good-old-days….days that never really were.

  • Andy Freeman

    > It’s certainly an interesting proposition, but isn’t much of professional journalism supposed to be about authenticity, professionalism and reliability?

    And why would explicitly paid journalism be any different?

    > How would outsourcing investigative journalism pollute what is supposed to be a pristine and reliable news source?

    We’d know who was pissing in the barrels of toxic waste.

  • http://www.blognetnews.com Dave Mastio

    It would be really, really nice if the funding of this didn’t play right into one of the media’s credibility problems. Even Steiger will have a hard time getting past the fact that his main source of funding is also a big source of funding for the Democratic Party.

    At the very least, it allows the people or organizations he investigates to blow a lot of smoke about hidden agendas. It doesn’t really matter whether they exist or not.

  • Veteran journo

    I partially agree with Cooler Heads. Having separate so-called investigative journalists makes no sense. A colleague of mine used to describe the investigative unit as “people who do one story a year.”

    Most of the time those who are best equipped to do investigative reporting are beat reporters with good sources who really know their subject matter.

    Also, there’s a disconnect between what journalists and readers see as investigative. For journalists investigative tends to mean a page one gotcha piece whereas for readers it means new relevant information.

  • http://cabdrollery.blogspot.com Ruth

    Investigative journalism detached from the need to please advertisers has a lot of appeal. When Katie Couric recounted having a critical email passed on to her, it confirmed what a lot of people have seen happening increasingly in media coverage. The bottom line is too much a part of reporting presently, and noncorporate funding very much an improvement over selling the goods advertised in the paper. (Like real estate.)

  • http://adrianmonck.blogspot.com Adrian Monck

    If you look at cutting edge investigative journalism it needs an investment in time and training that many news organizations aren’t resourced to provide. Plus they frequently fall down. Plus they often need long-term support to generate and sustain public interest. Plus they need strength of purpose on the part of the journalists themselves.

    At City University, we’ve just started an MA in Investigative Journalism to equip grads with some of those skills, and to create a community of journalists interested in championing this kind of journalism through their careers.

    What I’d prefer is a grant-based system where existing journalists could get additional support for investigative projects, but the reality is that investigations also need to build communities/audiences around the issues they’re uncovering. Those communities/audiences used to come ready-built in the form of newspapers and magazines.

    Now traditional media is unbundling are we going to find that investigative journalism was just something journalists admired as the supreme example of their professional virtue, but that the public really weren’t prepared to pay for?

  • http://www.futureforecast.com/dansdiner Dan Pacheco

    I understand the concern about private / foundation-funded journalism and family-owned companies possibly having an axe to grind.

    At the same time, I work for a family-owned newspaper company (The Bakersfield Californian) that has always been and continues to be dedicated to the truth and is always supportive of new ways of doing things. Our publisher Ginger Moorhouse even once authorized an investigative story that included her own brother, the former publisher (see http://ww2.bakersfield.com/2003/lords/)

    I also know that some publicly owned companies have people at the top have axes to grind. And shareholders at publicly owned companies can also sometimes exert pressure.

    I also know plenty of really bad family-owned newspapers where the families interfere in the news on a regular basis, usually motivated by appeasing certain advertisers.

    My point is that you can’t really make a blanket statement about how ALL privately-funded journalism is tainted or not, just as you can’t say that about journalism from publicly owned companies. It depends on which family, who’s in that family abd what their values are, which company, what are their financial interests, etc.

    But I do agree with you that journalists shouldn’t be waiting for some rich individual or trust to come save them.

  • Mike Wendling

    Any institution or organization can at times fail to live up to the standards that people expect, and this doesn’t necessarily have to do with the ownership – look at the NY Times reporting of the Duke lacrosse team, for instance. As a general rule, the more people looking at stories and doing investigative journalism, the better. And as far as the silo goes … I would be more worried about Pro Publica being a silo for *print* reporters and thus not maximizing the impact of its output by being across online, radio, TV. I haven’t seen much mention of multimedia in coverage but perhaps this is built into their plan.

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  • http://www.thefutureofnews.com Steve Boriss

    Jeff, After thinking about it, I think this is an absolutely terrible idea, consistent with your first instincts. See my post “Hillary Clinton’s political operation is accelerating the collapse of mainstream media” at TheFutureOfNews.com

  • http://www.thepublishingspot.com Jason Boog

    As a staff writer for an online investigative publication (Judicial Reports), I have to go back to what Jeff said in this post: “the editor stood in the way of the axes.”

    Even though we aren’t a traditional media organization, I pitch and edit my stories with my editor, not some boardroom backer. As long as these organizations choose strong, independent editors to work on the ground with reporters, I think it is a useful new model.

    There are plenty of ethical issues to sort out, but I think these smaller outfits will necessarily have to exist in an economy where most newspapers can’t support a fully staffed investigative unit.

  • Limor Peer

    Jeff, You ask how much of the news is really investigative. We recently finished a study of local TV news in Chicago and found that only about 9% of the stories on the late night news programs are initiated by the local stations, and only about 22% of those qualify as investigative stories. Most everything else is either coverage of events or feeds from elsewhere. See http://mediamanagementcenter.org/localTV/localTV.pdf

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