Bullish: Investigative reporting nonprofits

You needn’t look far to find skepticism about the potential of foundations and philanthropists to bankroll the work that newspapers have long done. Conventional wisdom is that funders of nonprofits can make only a marginal difference, that the real answers will come from private sector innovators.

But these skeptics aren’t much found in evidence at the nation’s leading investigative reporting nonprofits.

The Center for Public Integrity (CPI), ProPublica and the Center for Investigative Reporting are all on the move, all seeing growing opportunities for nonprofit investigative work, all hopeful about future funding.

With mainstream media continuing to feel the crush of declining revenues, the nonprofits are seeing demand for their work rising. And, in a scenario few thought possible, the cold calls are sometimes coming from the opposite direction – from foundations wondering if they might play a role in financing investigative reporting.

“One of the interesting things that’s happening is that the demise of media is occurring so quickly that it does have the attention of funders,” said Bill Buzenberg, who runs the CPI. “New funders have come to us – in part because they see what’s happening.

“They’re as worried as we are about the watchdog function.” Investigative reporting held a center seat a year ago when more than two dozen people gathered in New York to discuss the state of foundation-funded journalism. Joining Buzenberg were Robert Rosenthal, director of the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), and Paul Steiger and Richard Tofel of ProPublica.

All three non-profits have stepped up the pace of their work since then. The latest example is Rosenthal’s May unveiling of a California investigative reporting unit that will focus on education and other public policy issues in the nation’s largest state.

With grants of $1.2 million each from the James Irvine Foundation and the William and Flora Hewitt Foundation, Rosenthal hopes to hire as many as 10 journalists to staff the new center.

Rosenthal, who took over CIR in January 2008, says he also has seen a night-and-day transformation in the interest level of foundations. “One big difference has been that funders previously tended to fund the story,” he said. “Now they’re much more willing to be supportive of the core.” ProPublica’s Tofel said investigative reporting is emerging as one of the arenas many people agree must be preserved even as newspapers and other mainstream institutions decline.

“I would identify investigative journalism and international reporting as the clearest cases here,” said Tofel. “But serious, analytical metro coverage may also be joining the list – and there could be more to come.” CIR’s California operation is but the latest example of investigating reporting units that are being established on a state or region-wide basis. The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the New England Center for Investigative Reporting are both up and running, and they hold the promise of a much larger collection of state and regional non-profits focusing on watchdog reporting.

In fact, Buzenberg and Rosenthal have already been discussing the possibility of bringing together all the state and regional operations in a network that could offer operational efficiencies and a common Web portal. Non-profit investigative reporting sites are also showing up at the local level, with startup operations in Baltimore and Texas, among other locations.

Where this is going is anyone’s guess, but it’s surely a mistake to assume we’ve seen the last of the new models. Just in the last couple of weeks two new variants have appeared.

In one case, Chevron paid a former CNN reporter, Gene Randall, to offer a counterpoint report to a “60 Minutes” takeout on Chevron’s impact on the Amazon rain forest. In another, the Goldwater Institute, a conservative think tank, is advertising for an investigative reporter who will hunt for examples of wasteful government spending.

Who knows where investigative reporting will pop up next?

Note: This is the third in a series of my year-later reports on the foundation-funded journalism discussion held in April 2008 in New York City. My earlier reports are here and here.

The discussion was sponsored by USC Annenberg’s Center on Communication Leadership and Policy (where I work) and by Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy.