Arianna Huffington saves journalism

My Guardian column this week, under that headline, comes out of an interview I did with Huffington for the first edition of the Guardian Media Talk USA podcast (which you can listen to now; follow the link). The column got trimmed for print, so I’ll paste my draft after the jump.

It has come to this: Arianna Huffington is saving journalism. In all the mourning and mewling over the impending death of newspapers, the oft-heard cry is that without them, there will be no investigative reporting, no one to dog the powerful. But now the indefatigable founder of The Huffington Post comes riding to the rescue with a new, not-for-profit arm to fund investigative journalism out of foundation and public donations. It starts with $1.75 million.

“In the two biggest stories of our recent time—the war in Iraq and our financial meltdown—investigative journalism did not fulfill its mission,” Huffington told me in an interview for the inaugural Guardian Media Talk USA podcast. “We all have a real stake in not only preserving what investigative journalism is but in making it better.” No one can accuse Huffington of a lack of ambition.

She said the organization’s first target would be the economic crisis—for example, asking what became of the U.S. government monitor who had been watching toxic insurance giant AIG since January 2005, without apparent attention or effect. “There are stories in the newspaper every day that warrant further investigation,” Huffington said. “And there are very many talented journalists who are out of a job. So we are bringing together supply and demand.”

Among the advantages of online, she argues, is that “we can stay with a story until it breaks through the static.” Huffington has long argued that mainstream media suffer from attention deficit disorder while bloggers are afflicted with obsessive compulsive disorder. Online, she promises, small stories can turn into big ones with help from crowdsourcing—that is, contributions of effort, not just money. And thanks to the internet, distribution is instantaneous and worldwide; as soon as they are released, Huffington’s stories will be available on an open-source basis to any news outlets.

Is Huffington’s move a sign of surrender in the hunt for a sustainable business model for journalism? I don’t think so. Some dream of foundations taking over papers—as the Guardian is sustained by the Scott Trust—but I say that is an empty hope for white knights to save news from inevitable change and business reality.

Yet I do believe that contributions from foundations and the public will help support vital investigative journalism. Surviving news organizations would be wise to continue investigations themselves, for it is by creating unique value that one can stand out in a world of search and links. But now that reporting can be supplemented by efforts like Huffington’s; the foundation-backed Pro Publica (which has already contributed stories to The New York Times—a form of subsidy itself); and Spot.US, a platform that enables individuals to pledge support to reporters for specific stories.

Keep in mind, too, that the resources devoted to investigations today are but a thin sliver of the overall spending that goes into news—from politics to sports to fluff. If we were to audit that spending across print, broadcast, and online in a city, I’d bet we’d find that less then a percent goes to investigations. So it is not hard to imagine foundations and the public being able to fund at least as much—possibly much more.

This, I believe, is how journalism will get money directly from readers—not through subscriptions, micropayments, and pay walls but from the generous contributions of the few who pay for efforts that benefit the many. That is the 1 percent rule behind Wikipedia: 1 percent of its readers write it. And that is how public broadcasting is supported today in the U.S. I can’t imagine the public wanting to pay to buoy the sinking Titanics of old-media failures; I don’t want to contribute to failed newspapers anymore than I want my tax money going to failed banks and auto companies. But I can imagine readers contributing to assure that government is watched.

Is there a danger of this sort of support—that donors will influence coverage? Perhaps. Almost as soon as it was announced, conservative commenters online fretted that Huffington would have attack dogs, not merely watchdogs, to go after the right and not the left. “I don’t see investigative journalism as advocacy,” she responded. “Investigative journalism is first of all truth-seeking.”

In any case, we are seeing the torch of journalism pass from newspapers that, in America, declared themselves objective to new players who’ll report for new reasons.

  • zywotkowitz

    “I don’t see investigative journalism as advocacy,” she responded. “Investigative journalism is first of all truth-seeking.”

    As if we haven’t heard that before from Dan Rather, Bill Keller, etc. etc.

    Huffington and co. aren’t even aware that are substantive perspectives outside of the narrow “left-to-further-left” spectrum of their bicoastal clique…. where Krugman is the only notable critic of Obama, where Rush Limbaugh is to obviously to blame for the actions of neo-Nazis.

    That total absence of self-awareness on the part of Huff and Co. is the dangerous part of it.

    • Jimmy

      If readers feel Huffington leans to far to the left there’s nothing stopping a more Conservative or ring-wing group from doing the same thing. In fact, they already have those outlets at sites like FoxNews.com, the Drudge Report, NRO, and Newsmax. Are you saying there’s no bias there? If you are, your “awareness” is a little skewed, as well.

      It comes down to this: we’re all intelligent human beings. We can decide what is or isn’t biased. We’re able to figure out when someone is pushing an agenda. I applaud “Huff and Co.” for taking up the important role newspapers gave up on a long time ago.

  • http://www.digidave.org David Cohn

    “Is there a danger of this sort of support—that donors will influence coverage? Perhaps.”

    In working on Spot.Us I have been asked this question more times than I can shake a stick at.

    And you know what…. I’m still not convinced it is a problem. I have so many responses I don’t know where to start. But the bottom line it comes down to this.

    …. There is NO such thing as clean money.

    You find me clean money… I’ll find you fairy dust and we will do a trade.

    Money from advertising isn’t clean.
    Even money from foundations isn’t clean.

    The best we can do is be transparent.

    By being transparent and making sure we are diverse in public money – we stand to have more accountable journalism than that which is supported by advertising (one big source of money and only semi-transparent).

    • http://licht.detlefcordes.org/ Detlef Cordes

      Trying to define “clean money”: money without the obligation to generate a return on investment. But: if that expected return would be “I want to know what really happened”?

      If there exists a species like naked, unbiased fact, I would consider money invested into its presentation as “clean”. But OK, that species might well be “fairy dust”.

      • Andy Freeman

        > Trying to define “clean money”: money without the obligation to generate a return on investment.

        “obligation” is too strong. Expectation is about right.

        However, the big problem is “return”. All money is spent with the expectation of a “return” so the question becomes “what kind of return is ‘clean'”.

  • Zywotkowitz

    there’s nothing stopping a more Conservative … group from doing the same thing.

    Indeed. But then there is no common ground anymore … and it becomes trivially easy for a public figure to dismiss any type of investigative reporting as simply a partisan hitjob.

    • Danno

      I’m not sure common ground ever existed, but the major news institutions today are transparently partisan. The idea that Arianna Huffington is funding a non-partisan, investigative reporting operation is as laughable as Rush Limbaugh doing the same.

      What Jarvis and others fail to recognize is the shift to digital is only part of the changing news media landscape. Political and social bias in news reporting is both accepted and firmly established, and most consumers of news only frequent the sources that support their own ideology.

      Let’s face it, unbiased news organizations no longer exist.

    • http://www.biznik.com Christian Jacobsen

      If the Conservative Right is really so concerned that the financing of this foundation will skew the neutrality of the foundations’ investigative reporting, then the right should just donate a larger sum.

      It’s pretty simple, really. The foundation started with 1.75 million. So put together a consortium of deep pockets on the right, and have them donate 2 million.

      Then they have to either own up to the fact that they have been tilting at straw men (whining about funding sources), or they wholeheartedly support the investigative journalism of the foundation, regardless of the results of the investigations.

    • Rick

      Actually I think what we’re just now waking up from is a long pipe dream of “common ground.” As @Danno remarked, “political and social bias in news reporting is both accepted and firmly established.” However I would go a step further and say that unbiased news has NEVER existed. People like Rupert Murdoch and William Randolph Hearst have held the puppet strings of mainstream media for quite some time now. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

  • http://www.christopherwink.com Christopher Wink

    Jeff:
    I can understand your point about the Huffington Post coming to rescue of “investigative journalism,” but I’m a little uneasy about the site being the savior. With a business model that depends on unpaid contributors, I think something is lacking. As a young freelancer, I’m troubled by the prospect of for-profit entities squeezing citizen journalism and free submissions at the expense of professional work. The market dictates, yes, but in a time of unrest, folks are willing to give up more than they should, I think.
    -cgw

  • jdoran

    Arianna Huffington is not saving Journalism, she is shifting ownership of it from public companies that pay people wages for performing the tasks of a journalist to the monied elite who can afford to do it for nothing — such as herself.
    In much the same way that newspaper groups and the news wires contributed to their own commercial decline by making their material available for free online, Huffington has taken the process one step further and removed all economic value form journalism. I am a freelance with 15 years experience as a staffer on top international newspapers. I now make a living finding and breaking exclusive news stories and features (mainly for The Guardian by the way). I think this is the “investigative journalism” to which you refer. I like to call it reporting. Anyway, Huffington frequently copies great chunks of my work without any attribution. here is the latest one from Sunday — http://www.huffingtonpost.com/ian-welsh/elizabeth-warren-finally_b_183291.html
    I complain to her about this, yet she continues to trade off material that cost me money to produce. If she continues putting reporters out of business in this way her well connected friends will having nothing to opine about, because they sure as hell have no idea how to actually break the news. I’ve discussed this with David Simon, creator of The Wire and former Baltimore Sun crime reporter who shares my view that this approach to journalism has reduced the value of reporting to a level where it is virtually worthless. Arianna Huffington is killing journalism.

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  • jon

    What about the report (Gawker… http://gawker.com/5199661/whos-ghost-writing-arianna-huffingtons-twitter) that she does not write her own Twitter tweets and Huffington Post columns. If true, is that the “new journalism”?

  • http://www.projecthappilyeverafter.com Alisa Bowman

    I agree with others who wrote that they basically felt kicked in the gut by the phrase “Arianna Huffington saves journalism.” The woman doesn’t pay her contributors a cent. Not a cent. I worked for a newspaper many years ago, and I did not get paid much. But at least I could earn a living. I don’t write for HuffPo on principle, and many of my freelance friends do the same. If she’s actually going to PAY journalists to investigate, that’s one thing. But I think this is just yet another way for a rich person to get richer, which is what’s wrong with our economy in the first place.

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  • http://spap-oop.blogspot.com Tish Grier

    Jeff…sounds like there’s a crowdsourcing component to the type of investigative journalism that HufPo wants to do. Having done some work in that arena, it’s a good thing to have and will certainly help. But I’m not sure that the small successes that have come about thru the use of crowdsourced content, including HufPo’s own Off-the-Bus should be counted as what is going to exactly “save” investigative journalism. It’s not that I don’t believe in the power of the community to create journalism–I do. But how the economy impacts people’s lives may make large-scale crowdsourcing of the parts of investigative journalism without some kind of reward for the contributors, tough to sustain. There has to be some pay-off for the contributors. I’d say to look less at Wikipedia and more at what a multitude of businesses are doing with crowdsourcing.

  • James

    Your question of whether donors will influence coverage is a good one. It’s really no different from editors at news organizations. However, donors could also act like PBS, who gets a lot of donors but still has outstanding investigative journalism.

  • http://hightalk.wordpress.com/ George Snell

    Jeff, I think you’re overstating it a bit. NPR and PBS in the United States have been doing non-profit investigative journalism for an awful long time – and doing it quite well. The Huffington Post is part of the problem with the news industry today – using content generated by others as the foundation for its own content creation – mostly reactionary and opinionated. That isn’t journalism. It’s punditry.

    That’s not to say there isn’t a place for the Huffington Post, but let’s not confuse the content with that of the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal. And while I admire Arianna’s drive and enjoy reading the HuffPost – I take the content (and the opinions) with a grain of salt.

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  • http://www.ivandylko.blogspot.com ivan dylko

    The real problem, which neither Huff Post, nor other big foundations seem to be addressing is the “local” investigative journalism. Papers have played an important role on the local level – and as they go bankrupt, no one fills that vacuum as of right now. That’s the real danger and that should be the biggest concern for those concerned with the future of journalism and democracy.

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