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.