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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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Each nonprofit in this new ecosystem operates a little differently when it comes to distributing its stories, although all are hoping for the biggest possible impact. ProPublica offers its work for free, and often partners a reporter from its staff with one at a major news outlet. The two co-publish the exclusive work and then others are free to re-publish, with credit. “We’ve published about 225 stories with nearly 50 different partners over the last 21 months,” Steiger wrote in an e-mail. “Many of these have been bilateral partnerships, but some have been much more complex.” He cited ProPublica’s stories on police violence in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina as one example. “We’ve worked first with The Nation magazine, and more recently (and simultaneously) with The Times-Picayune and Frontline.”

The HuffPo Investigative Fund generally works alone and then sends alerts out when a new piece is published on its Web site. Media organizations are encouraged to re-publish the Fund’s stories for free, with a refer to the Fund’s Web site. The Fund’s for-profit sister, The Huffington Post, often does; other news organizations, less so. Although he has not asked anyone specifically about the lack of substantial pickup, The Fund’s Penniman said he suspects the reason is an “aversion to work with what’s perceived as a competitive brand.”

Some media critics have questioned whether the HuffPo Investigative Fund should qualify for nonprofit status at all, because they perceive it as feeding the for-profit Huffington Post. Penniman rejected the criticism and stressed that The Huffington Post is treated like other major news outlets when he sends out feelers to see if an organization is interested in publishing an upcoming investigation. All of the Fund’s work is published open-source, and it collaborates with others to provide work for the public benefit. “It would be really hard to argue that we have not fulfilled the requirements for nonprofit status,” Penniman said, though he allows that the brand connection with The Huffington Post “is strategically advantageous for us.”

When The Huffington Post picks up a Fund story, it does get read. One of its first stories in a series about insurance-claims denials featured a rape victim whose mental-health expenses were rejected for reimbursement. “We did that story in multimedia. The woman looked right into the camera and told her story. It was so powerful,” Penniman said, noting that several bloggers jumped on the story, followed by a few television journalists. Then several female members of Congress drafted legislation to deal with the issue. “It was instant impact,” Penniman said. “I was so gratified to see that as a journalist.”

Most new nonprofits have to work hard for that kind of reach. The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, launched in January 2009 by Andy Hall, a veteran investigative reporter who had just left his job at the Wisconsin State Journal , generally e-mails editors and news directors around the state offering a story for publication, usually targeted to the upcoming Sunday editions. Those who are interested can download embargoed versions of the story, at full and condensed lengths. Local editors can add their own staff reporting to the stories and are not required to run the story on a specific day. Indeed, Hall said sometimes a newspaper or television station will run a story a week or two after it’s been released for general use and has been posted to the center’s Web site, Wisconsinwatch.org. Many other centers—including California Watch—attempt to fix a specific publication date, to give the story the biggest possible bang.

California Watch generally charges for its stories, although the amount slides from around $75 to $500, Rosenthal said, based on the size of the news outlet. The fee can be reduced if the publisher agrees to barter services, like taking photos or designing graphics that can be used by others that are publishing the story. La Opinión , for example, often gets its California Watch stories for free because it agrees to translate the pieces into Spanish for free; California Watch then redistributes the stories to other Spanish-language media.