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Non-Profit Investigative Journalism to the Rescue?

Nonprofit investigative journalism outfits are breaking new ground. Can they sustain themselves?

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Some predict that commercial media will largely abandon high-cost investigations. “When I look at the next ten years, investigative reporting is going to die in corporate settings,” said Nick Penniman, executive director and co-founder of The Huffington Post Investigative Fund. “Nonprofits are the only place this reporting will survive and thrive over the long haul.” In a broad, social sense, he acknowledges that people do see the intrinsic value of a newspaper as its watchdog function. But the sad truth is, he continues, “it’s very difficult from a profit perspective to see the value of sinking millions into investigative reporting.”

Others, like Marc Duvoisin, deputy managing editor for projects at the Los Angeles Times , disagree. “I don’t know where it will settle out,” he said, allowing that perhaps as many as 40 percent of the investigations done in U.S. media could eventually be donor-funded. But—assuming revenue stabilizes (admittedly a large assumption)—he expects at least 60 percent of investigative work will continue to be done by mainstream media organizations.

Duvoisin thinks it’s great that philanthropies are stepping up in this emergency situation, as commercial media owners scramble to fix a broken business model during a prolonged economic slump. He compares investigative reporting to opera, which was popular entertainment, enjoyed and supported by the masses, in the nineteenth century. Today, it needs wealthy patrons to survive; hence, he said, “Mobil Oil ads in your opera program.” But that is not the path he believes investigative reporting will follow in the end, or should: “I’d hate to see this work given over entirely to nonprofits.”

Most everyone agrees that it’s still early in the nonprofit investigative news experiment, and hard to know what will eventually happen. Many use the “Wild West” cliché to describe the environment. Numerous centers of various size and scope are up and running and publishing their work, writing their rules as they go and attempting to engage new readers through social networking and other methods enabled by the Internet. Several others are teed up, trying to raise enough money to launch. Their hurried steps and missteps will determine whether the nonprofit model develops and endures or returns to its previous perch on the margin.

The overwhelming question faced by each organization is how to build multiple, stable sources of funding while maintaining journalistic integrity. It’s way too soon to know what those answers will be, except to say that there likely will not be a one-size-fits-all solution.

Lewis, in the hunt with the rest of them, has established his fourth nonprofit journalism venture, the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University. And while he and others are figuring out how to sustain their operations, serious journalism is being committed in new and interesting ways at new and interesting places.

Despite drastic cuts in newsroom budgets over the past decade, it seems that investigative journalists are persistent sorts, hard to kill off. They continue to push for ways to do their work, even if it means founding new organizations to support them. “I do have a need to investigate the bastards,” Lewis said, smiling.

The new California Watch office, just down the street from the University of California, Berkeley campus, has the feel of so many similar offices set up at the beginning of the dot-com boom some fifteen years ago. It’s quirky and modern. The reporters work in an open space in a loft area at the back of the long, narrow, four-story storefront building, while Katches and Freedberg occupy the only two offices at the top of a landing. Others, including Rosenthal, sit below on the first floor in tiny, glass-walled cubicles. A few empty desks await new arrivals, but it already feels packed in.