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Non-Profit Investigative Journalism to the Rescue?

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

At a story meeting for California Watch, the nonprofit investigative news startup, employees sit around a conference table as Robert Salladay, the organization’s senior editor, begins to describe the findings of a six-month investigation by one of his state capital reporters. “It gives me chills,” Salladay tells the group. “Each paragraph could be its own story.” Robert Rosenthal, the founder of California Watch, peers over his glasses at an open laptop, then nods in agreement. “The reporting is so amazing,” he says.

This is a sweet moment in any investigation, a charmed time that used to feel familiar in newsrooms, back when editors could afford to detach reporters for a few months of digging. Corey G. Johnson had used his shovel well. The California Watch reporter amassed twenty boxes of documents—so many that one government agency he’s probing set up a private office for him to go through the material. Now Johnson was laying it all out for his editors, certain he had uncovered something important.

The editors agreed; this was big. But then the conversation veered in a direction unfamiliar to traditional newsrooms. Instead of planning how to get the story published before word of it leaked, the excited editors started throwing out ideas for how they could share Johnson’s reporting with a large array of competitive news outlets across the state and around the country. No one would get a scoop; rather, every outlet would run the story at around the same time, customized to resonate with its audience, be they newspaper subscribers, Web readers, television viewers, or radio listeners. California Watch’s donors—at this point, a handful of high-powered foundations—expect it to publish high-impact investigative journalism about California as widely as possible.

“If we do six hundred schools [in a mapped database] . . . could we get KQED to come work with us?” Rosenthal asked.

“Maybe The Sacramento Bee or The Orange County Register could help with graphics,” suggested Louis Freedberg, California Watch director.

“Could we ask Long Beach to do the history . . . pull some stories and photos from their files?” asked Rosenthal, adding that perhaps they should enlist a few college students to help with on-site interviews. pbs was interested in the story, as were each of the television networks, Rosenthal said, ticking off a list of colleagues he’d already contacted to share the story’s gist.

“Okay. There are a lot of balls in the air here,” warned Mark Katches, California Watch’s editorial director. “How are we going to keep track of all this?”

California Watch is one piece of what Charles Lewis, the well-known founder of the Center for Public Integrity, calls “an emerging ecosystem of investigative reporting.” Nonprofit investigative news centers aren’t new; Lewis founded the Center for Public Integrity back in 1989. The Center for Investigative Reporting was launched even earlier, in 1977; it is the parent of California Watch and shares its offices in Berkeley. Rosenthal is CIR’s executive director and has overall responsibility for both it and California Watch.

What is new is that nonprofit centers have moved from the margins into a core role in investigative news production. This trend has been under way since 2007, when Paul Steiger, the former Wall Street Journal managing editor, announced that a foundation established by Herbert and Marion Sandler, the California thrift magnates, had given him a $10-million-a-year grant to fund what has become ProPublica. In April, the announcement of ProPublica’s first Pulitzer Prize helped solidify the sense that the investigative world is changing. (For a PDF chart showing the size, budget, start-up date, and founders of selected nonprofit investigative newsrooms, click here.*)