Investigative network likely to emerge today

Before they head for home Wednesday, about three dozen participants at an investigative reporting summit in New York are likely to launch planning for new organization uniting the growing number of nonprofits producing investigative journalism.

The new network, dubbed for now the “Investigative News Network,” would be another significant step in the rise of nonprofit investigative journalism in recent years. Chuck Lewis, the godfather of so much in investigative journalism, called the initiative “truly historic.”

At a conference outside Tarrytown, N.Y., Lewis laid out a possible scenario Tuesday for how the network might take shape. Secure a planning grant that would extend for up to a year; establish a new Web site displaying members’ work; and begin posting content within 6-12 months. By the end of the year, he said, the organization would need to be established as a 501(c)3. Lewis predicted said the organization would inevitably go international.

Along with the group’s name, its mission was also a work in progress. There was widespread consensus that the network should offer a menu of mostly back-office services –establishment of a co-op for legal and other services, for example; a Wiki that allows members to exchange information; templates on donor policies, and the like. Most participants also appeared to endorse the idea of an umbrella news site that could display the nonprofits’ best work and database information.

Other aspects remained less clear or, in some cases, the object of division among the nonprofits. Jon Sawyer, for example, who heads the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, worried that the network might end up competing with individual nonprofits for foundation support. Similarly, Joel Kramer, CEO of MinnPost, urged that members’ “financial success” be set as the group’s primary goal. Also debated was the question of whether the organization should be limited to investigative reporting alone, or include organizations that do a a combination of investigative and other types of journalism.

The gathering itself is a remarkable statement about the unfolding success story of nonprofit investigative journalism. It wasn’t long ago that the plight of investigative reporting appeared dire. Newspaper investigative units, made up of well-paid rerpoters who often took months to report their work, were a prime target of budget-cutters. Even the Center for Public Integrity, for years one of the most important organizations in investigative journalism, appeared in jeopardy because of funding issues.

But the center has righted itself under CEO Bill Buzenberg. And, in the meantime, investigative nonprofits have been springing up at a surprising rate. Many are represented at this conference — Andy Hall of the Wisconsin Center for Investigate Journalism, Joe Bergantino of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, Trent Seibert of Houston-based Texas Watchdog. And more are on the way: Laura Frank is launching the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network at the University of Colorado, Daniel Lathrop is part of a group setting up InvestigateWest in Seattle and Lorie Hearn is leaving the San Diego Union-Tribune to start an investigative site funded in part by the newspaper.

The group’s creators, Buzenberg and Robert Rosenthal of the Center for Investigative Reporting, are suggesting that some sort of umbrella group that encompasses the growing nonprofit movement will push it further ahead. Wednesday’s action will determine how (and if) this idea takes shape.

The conference is being held at the Rockefeller estate outside New York City. Its sponsoring foundations are the Rockefeller Brothers, Surdna and William Penn.