Slices of a new journalism pie

The AP reports that Huffington Post is going to announce tomorrow the creation of a $1.75 million fund with various donors to pay for investigative reporting. First target: the economy.

This, I’ve long held, is where foundation and public support will enter into the new ecosystem of journalism: not by taking over newspapers but by funding investigations and other slices of a new journalistic pie.

I’ve been hoping to get the resources to preform an audit of the current resource allocation in journalism: Take a town, add up all the journalistic spending there (paper, TV, radio, magazine) and then see how much is spent on investigative reporting (I’ll wager it will be tiny; a fraction of a percent of the total) as well as the beat reporting that feeds it – and judge the value of the results.

When we see that number, I predict, it will be feasible to imagine support from foundations and the public (that is, in the NPR and Spot.US models) to pay for investigative journalism. Indeed, I’ll bet that we could multiply the amount spent on and the output of investigative reporting today. This is how to subsidize news. It’s happening now, as Pro Publica stories run in The New York Times. That is a form of subsidy.

Now to touch the third rail in the debate over the future of news: This is how paid content will work, how news will get money from its public — not by putting content behind walls and charging all readers (the few who’ll remain) to see it but instead by setting up systems to take advantage of the 1 percent rule online that decrees you need only a limited number of contributors (of money or effort) to support great things in a gift economy. See: Wikipedia and NPR. But the public’s contributions won’t go to lifting the sinking Titanics of the old-media failures; I don’t want to contribute to failed newspapers anymore than I want my tax money to go to failed banks and their dividends and salaries. Instead, contributions will need to go directly to supporting work people care about.

The future of journalism is not about some single new-fangled product and company taking over from the old-fangled and monopolistic predecessor. News come from a broad ecosystem with many players adding in under many models for many reasons. News organizations will organize news in this diverse new framework, aggregating, curating, organizing. Laid-off journalists are starting blogs, alongside other bloggers. Some people will volunteer, podcasting their school-board meetings, just because they care. When we demand transparency from government as a default, data will become part of the news ecosystem we can all examine. Some of this will be supported by advertising, some by contributions from foundations, some by contributions from individuals, some by volunteer effort. And it will all add up to a new pie, one slice of which will be efforts such as the one HuffPo is about to announce.

: Huffpo’s announcement:

Work that the journalists produce will be available for any publication or Web site to use at the same time it is posted on The Huffington Post, she said. . . . She hopes to draw from the ranks of laid-off journalists for the venture. “All of us increasingly have to look at different ways to save investigative journalism,” she said. . . . The HuffPost also promises to give a higher profile to work produced by other reporting groups, such as The Center for Public Integrity and The Institute for Justice and Journalism.

: LATER: Here‘s Jay Rosen’s post about the project. He’s an adviser.

It is important to stress that the new Investigative Fund is separate from the Huffington Post as both a legal entity and an editorial producer. It is a new non-profit, and so the announcement of its birth, along with the $1.75 million starter budget, is really the launch of a new Internet-based news organization with a focus on original reporting. You might say the operating principle is: “report once, run anywhere” because work the Fund produces will be available for any publication or Web site to publish at the same time it is posted on The Huffington Post. (Probably through a Creative Commons license, but this has not been decided.)

Much about how the fund will operate has yet to be determined, but mostly what the money is for is to pay journalists and the costs of investigations. Some of those journalists will work for the fund as staff, some will be contracted for as freelancers on a story-by-story basis. Some of the money will, I hope, be used for innovative projects that move in a more open source or pro-am direction. That is one of the reasons I am joining up, to advise on that portion. I also think the Fund is an important and public-spirited thing to do; I want to see it come out right, and gain more resources than it has at the moment. . . .

One of the reasons I signed on with the project is to find ways of supporting that more innovative work. But I also counseled Nick and Arianna (who will help raise money for the fund, and find partners for it) that the best approach is to have no orthodoxy and to support very traditional investigative reporting by paid pros who are good at it, as well as teams of pros and amateurs, students working with masters of the craft, crowdsourced investigations, and perhaps other methods. They were already there with an ecumenical approach, combining old and new.

  • I hope you are right about a new way to support investigative journalism, but being funded by charities seems at variance with your basically free enterprise view of business.

    Still unanswered is if there is a way for a for-profit company to make money doing investigative reporting. Many of the small weekly and monthly political magazines don’t get enough revenue from advertising and depend upon donations to keep going.

    On the other side there are almost unlimited resources from enterprises that want to obscure shady dealings, this ranges from the vast number of PR firms they employ, to astro-turf front groups and even biased think tanks. There is no serious reporting in this country about labor matters, for example.

    I still think that we need the equivalent of a CBC or BBC, that is a news organization which has a guaranteed source of revenue. I understand that getting this from the government is not ideal, although it works reasonably well for these two countries. As recent history has shown the success of PBS and NPR at remaining independent from political pressure is not possible, so a different mechanism is needed.

    The problem with charities is that they can’t be relied upon. If they lose interest in a project, or get offended or even see their endowments shrink then a beneficiary can quickly be left out in the cold.

    I don’t have a solution, but this needs further discussion, otherwise the investigative journalism may remain small and not influential. We have seen the results of that when the present corporate media got too cozy with business and government. and they had the resources if they had chosen to use them.

    • Andy Freeman

      > I still think that we need the equivalent of a CBC or BBC, that is a news organization which has a guaranteed source of revenue.


      Be a “guaranteed source” of news and you’ll get revenue for as long as you deliver.

    • Andy Freeman

      > I hope you are right about a new way to support investigative journalism, but being funded by charities seems at variance with your basically free enterprise view of business.

      There’s no conflict between “funded by charities” and free enterprise. They’re both choices by individuals as to how they want to spend their resources.

    • Andy Freeman

      > On the other side there are almost unlimited resources from enterprises that want to obscure shady dealings, this ranges from the vast number of PR firms they employ, to astro-turf front groups and even biased think tanks.

      Also govts that give access in return for ….

      The press’ response to the above has been cooperation.

      I think that people will pay for news. However, I will admit that that is an untested proposition because they haven’t been given the opportunity.

      • cliff barney

        in fact people have paid for news all along, from rothschild’s pigeons to the kiplinger report to the wsj on the web.

  • I think this is a valuable step forward in the birth of new business models.
    @robertdfeinman perhaps transient funding is less of a problem than you think. As far as consumers of information are concerned, output and reliability matter. Much of the funding for journalism in print media comes from advertising. We don’t worry too much which companies are advertising as long as there’s enough income. Same with charitable funding.

    @Jeff you say:

    When we demand transparency from government as a default, data will become part of the news ecosystem we can all examine.

    You are spoiled for government information in the US. I write a blog about biofuels, I’m based in the UK and I write mostly about the US,why? Because that’s where I can get information from government agencies. Sure I can access stuff in the UK, but it seems to me that there’s much more avalable in the US.

  • Walter Abbott

    Government funding will equal government control. And that applies whether it is in the form of direct tax subsidies or tax breaks or special laws. It has been that way since the days of scriptors putting out the Party Line for the Roman Catholic Church.

    You all who are tempted to take the King’s Shilling will have sold your independence for pottage.

    If you don’t know this, you are too stupid to be a news reporter.

  • Ted

    I just wonder if talented investigative journalists can survive in this new model, or are we expecting laid-off journalists cobbling together investigative pieces as the sideline to the paying gig somewhere (that I assume they would need in order to feed and clothe themselves) to carry the investigative workload.

    I realize that there are people doing good work through places like ProPublica – but whether we can build a successful investigative funding system, particularly at the local level, remains to be seen. How does will be a great bellwether, better than NPR in that I’m not sure anyone else can provide the same successful “begging machine” that NPR has created.

    I like the idea, Jeff, of the different slices of the pie coming together – I just hope they can in a way that ensures a quality (dare I say, *higher* quality) content for a willing reader to donate toward.

  • pmorlan

    Great idea! It will be wonderful to have access to the good investigative journalism pieces the corporations have prevented us from knowing about. If this effort is successful – our status quo protecting, establishment journalists better start looking for new jobs because their days of selling snake oil will be numbered.

  • JCinOBX

    Investigative journalism?!

    What the f*&k is that?!! I never heard o’ such a thing!

    And the Huffing gas Post conducting “investigative” journalism…now I f*&king heard it all!

    There are entirely too many meth/crack/PCP abusers with access to the internet.

    • JohnB

      Hmmm… and JCinOBX has just proven his own point.

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  • Jeff:

    While I’ve never turned down an investigative pitch in my career as an editor or manager, and am proud that our newsroom continues to develop great ideas of its own initiative, I have wondered if the immense agenda of staged information has served as the largest damper on enterprising journalism in the craft.

    When it is relatively easy to fill pages and broadcasts with material from staged events — material that almost always delivers some sort of conventionally framed story — I wonder if some operations retreat into that instead of risking the dry well in digging for something else.

    The publicity seekers have gotten very smart in learning how to frame their stories for market. For many newsrooms, it’s a safety net.

    Kirk LaPointe,
    Managing Editor,
    The Vancouver Sun.

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  • zywotkowitz

    What’s likely to happen is that it will be a Soros operation that turns into project to dig dirt on Republicans and conservatives. HuffPo would never investigate one of their friends or consider the possibility of corruption or incompetence in the Obama/Reid/Pelosi govt.

    Of course, Murdoch can fund a similar project, but there would be no shortage of legal obstacles put up to disrupt it.

    • The Bruce

      Right on Z. The world of journalism has certainly changed since the days of Woodward and Bernstein. Undoubtedly this story will be headlined on CNBC with Rachael slobbering all over it. The good news is that most of us “get it” that true independent (and investigative) journalism is dead and that there is typically someone’s or some corporate agenda behind every story. The bad news is that apparently Mr. Jarvis apparently does not understand that this announcement is indeed just a front for left wing sponsored character assignation. Sure, the same could be said for a Murdoch sponsored initiative as well. As my dad always told me “don’t believe anything you read and believe only half of what you see”.. has finally come to roost.

      • “character assignation.”

        Right, an orgy. But a secret one.

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  • The very idea of throwing a wad of money at “investigative” reporters goes counter to many principles I learned as an editor and reporter.

    As a news veteran of the days of apartheid South Africa, I cannot imagine what the results would’ve been had opposition reporters been dependent on foundation handouts to do their job.

    Sure, everything costs money today and lots of it. In my experience, most investigative pieces were uncovered by newspaper journalists doing the job for which they were paid – investigating. (And, one should add, often paid abysmally.)

  • The most powerful model(s) will be one(s) that move toward self-sustainability. If the one-percent can, ultimately, sustain the journalism without foundation input or control, great. Mixed revenue models– without the need to call on the generosity of benefactors — are surely the best (advertising, subscription, products, events, etc.) The one-percent rule many ways isn’t all that different from marketing — one percent or fewer of people who see a marketing message will take action that justifies the marketing spend. A key difference in this instance is the product, itself, is its own marketing message. There is not a need for a separate marketing budget or PR spend (see Fred Wilson’s recent post on Twitter and Etsy getting on CBS TV without PR agencies). I’ll post a touch more on this at

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  • One model I think is hopeful is the one we see at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the New England Center for Investigative Reporting (at Boston University). You could imagine many more of these, and ultimately a 50-state network of philanthropy-supported investigative reporting centers, somewhat in the mold of the state Freedom of Information operations.

    You can also see opportunity in the growing number of community news sites — such as the muckraking Voice of San Diego, which just one an IRE award. Some of them may choose to make muckraking their mission.

    The problem isn’t so much “replacing” the work of I-teams. It’s the much larger category of watchdog journalism, which is a more pervasive kind of reporting that provides regular checks on power. I don’t buy the argument that this is a tiny fraction. But I do agree there’s ultimately much promise in the digital world to, one way or another, uncover information somebody does want the world to know.

    Will it prove a better way than what we’ve had? Hope so. But nobody knows.

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