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.