New investigative group’s twin missions: journalism and sustainability

How hot is the world of nonprofit investigative reporting these days? Hot enough to make Jon Sawyer, who runs an international reporting shop, full of envy at this week’s gathering on investigative reporting outside New York City.

“We’d like to see the same energy in international reporting that we see on the investigative side,” said Sawyer, director of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

As was true at the recent Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) conference, this week’s meeting of investigative reporting nonprofits generated an unmistakable energy field. Which is an amazing thing, given how desperate the plight of investigative journalism seemed just 18 months ago.

Today, a nonprofit group featuring or specializing in watchdog reporting is being created almost every month — a pace that emboldened leaders to take the first step this week toward creating a network connecting these mostly startup groups. Participants established a steering committee that swings into action immediately after the July 4 holiday, with Goal No. 1 being securing foundation support for a planning grant.

I stood with Mark Horvit, executive director of IRE, on the vast grounds of the Rockefeller estate, site of this week’s conference site, and we both marveled at the change that’s occurred. “Almost heady,” I said.

Both of us quickly agreed that was overstated. As participants frequently observed at the conference, the organizations of some at the table likely won’t be around if the group meets a year from now. Still, it’s an eye-popping turnaround from the woe-is-me lament that has accompanied the decline of mainstream media.

“I couldn’t be more excited,” said Bill Buzenberg, who with Robert Rosenthal gave birth to the network idea. Buzenberg was speaking of the network organization that he and others will now bring to life. But the words also stand for his own nonprofit, the Center for Public Integrity, which got a close look at death’s door two years ago but now has gained a financial rebirth.

At the Pocantico conference this week, where participants launched the new national organization, I got a close look at both the ecstasies and agonies of those trying to keep investigative reporting alive. Participants sensed they were in the midst of a special moment. And yet they were keenly aware that sustainability — for many of them anyway — is not yet within their grasp.

I was one of two observers (former Washington Post editor Len Downie was the other) to have fly-on-the-wall status at the meeting. Even better, the entire meeting was on the record, so a fairly good summary can be Twitter-searched at #inewsnet. (By the way, it’s hard to imagine many other groups attempting to write a new charter in the open. But, of course, what do these investigative groups stand for if not openness? Also, I suspect the convenors believed that getting divisions out in the open would be a valuable step in ultimately gaining political support for their initiative.)

And, yes, there were divisions.

The leaders guaranteed as much by inviting such a diverse group of nonprofits to the conference. There were the pure investigative nonprofits, all right (Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the New England Center for Investigative Reporting), but there also were public broadcasting (NPR and WNET.ORG), community news sites (Voice of San Diego, MinnPost, St. Louis Beacon), ethnic media (New America Media) and many other hybrids (Stateline.org, Capitol News Connection). And their diverse charters produced basic disagreements.

One issue dwarfed everything else: Should the new group focus primarily on editorial projects and collaborations or on improving the nonprofits’ chances of survival? Not shockingly, there were strong feelings about this one. Some wanted a focus on the editorial side; others, especially the community Web site leaders, advised a laser focus on financial issues. “My personal passion is the sustainability issue,” said MinnPost editor Joel Kramer.

This issue was being debated right up to the end, when a polite scuffle broke out over a bid to add Kramer to the steering committee. (Ultimately, he was.) Officially, the conference declaration says the new organization will focus on both editorial and financial issues, but each side worried that, in the end, one or the other would win out.

Over the conference’s two days, members came up with a long list of ideas for how the temporarily named Investigative News Network could assist on the business side: secure a pool of pro-bono First Amendment lawyers; negotiate group rates for libel insurance or even health insurance; offer up help on the IT side; devise model templates for donor policies, and more.

Then there was the question of whether the new network might be a conduit for attracting and dispersing foundation money to individual nonprofits. Some participants expressed concern that the network could end up being a competitor for foundation money. In an interview on Thursday, Buzenberg offered reassurance that this would not happen. “Sustainability in all its aspects, including foundation support for individual nonprofits, will be on the agenda,” he said.

But so will formation of a network Web site and other editorial activities. Chuck Lewis of the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University, one of the key figures in the development of nonprofit investigative reporting, said that the new organization will work only if it enhances editorial collaboration and content creation. That’s partly true, he said, because those are the activities likely to attract foundation support.

As you would expect from a group so diverse, there were other divisions.  Some, like Stephen Segaller of WNET.ORG, wanted the new network to create a bolder and brassier mission. Others worried that the umbrella group might disrupt the entrepreneurial wave that still seems to be building in investigative journalism.

There was another issue at the conference, and that was the absence of ProPublica, the 18 month-old nonprofit challenging to be the national leader in investigative journalism. ProPublica declined a seat on the new group’s steering committee and did not attend the conference. ProPublica’s general manager, Richard Tofel, said Editor-In-Chief Paul Steiger couldn’t attend because of a previous commitment, and didn’t rule out joining forces with the new group. “I think we want to see what the organization is going to do first,” he said. Tofel said ProPublica in any case intends to continue and expand its collaborations with both for-profit and nonprofit news organizations.

Despite issues such as these, the friction here was mild. (This group even managed to pull off a 30-person copy edit of the conference resolution.) It was apparent all along that nothing was likely to stop this idea from getting a real-world tryout.

Where it’s headed now cannot be predicted. Lewis, who will undoubtedly be a key figure going forward, said he expects the Investigative News Network eventually will go international. Rosenthal, who heads the Center for Investigative Reporting, indicated it would seek revenue models for its activities. I pretend no objectivity here. I hope this initiative succeeds — or better put, I hope the current upward trajectory of investigative reporting nonprofits continues.

Will it? For a while, anyway, I think yes. More organizations, especially at the state and local levels, will rise up with investigative reporting in their DNA. More universities will get into the act. Public broadcasting, as shown by the strong enthusiasm of NPR‘s Brian Duffy this week, will likely come on.

The number of funders will probably grow as well, as the public begins to understand the depths of the still-continuing cutbacks at for-profit newsrooms. It took a while for foundations to see news and information as a critical need, but now it’s happening and there are likely to be more stories like the newly announced Huffington Post Investigative Fund and California Watch, each with seven-figure grants. Buzenberg said he’s looking at holding a funders’ conference in the fall.

However, unless foundations pivot from their traditional strategy of bankrolling innovation and then moving on, nonprofit investigative journalism will need to find new ways to sustain itself. Even as Segaller brainstormed the future of investigative reporting at the conference, he confessed he was facing the prospect of cutting $10 million from his budget because of foundation cutbacks.

But grappling with survival is not exactly new for investigative reporting nonprofits. What was new at Pocantico was to look around the room and see the marvel of innovation and entrepreneurial spark now playing out. Said Margaret Freivogel of the St. Louis Beacon: “I think we’ve all turned the corner from the shock-and-grief stage.” Sure seems so.