Plotting the Future  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   June/July 2009

Plotting the Future   

Former Washington Post editor Larry Roberts will explore how best to showcase investigative projects online in his new role as executive editor of The Huffington Post Investigative Fund. He started work this week. Online Exclusive posted 7/8/09 5:00p.m.

By Lindsay Gsell
Lindsay Gsell is an AJR editorial assistant.     


Larry Roberts is a product of the Watergate Era.

As a college student during the scandal, Roberts followed the story closely, reading each article written by the young Woodward and Bernstein and watching the plot unfold. For Roberts, it was "the highest and best imaginable use of public service journalism."

Torn between pursuing a career in journalism or architecture, Roberts' decision was practically made for him once Watergate arrived. "It was all very exciting and inspiring for an entire generation of us who thought that journalism was the best way to explain and investigate the world," he says.

As a young reporter working at an alternative weekly in Seattle, Roberts told his colleagues that his goal was to someday do investigative work for the Washington Post. Years down the road, after stints as a foreign correspondent and wire service reporter and after working on three Pulitzer Prize-winning projects, Roberts would do just that: He spent five years as investigations editor at the Washington Post.

However, this spring, Roberts did something that his old non-Google-using, non-cellphone-owning, twentysomething reporter self would never have understood: He decided to leave the Post to head investigations for a nonprofit online venture.

Roberts, 57, started this week as executive editor of The Huffington Post Investigative Fund, where he'll create and manage an investigative team.

While Roberts admits it's not easy to leave a paper like the Washington Post, he says he's "excited to be trying to shape a new model. "We're going to need successes in all different forms and all different types of media, and with luck, the nonprofit sector can help with that."

The Huffington Post Investigative Fund is a nonprofit initiative with its own Web site, leadership and partnerships. Its namesake, The Huffington Post, is one of the project's financial backers and will post the Fund's content, which also will be offered free to any news organization--print or online---after it's published on the Investigative Fund's site.

"In that respect, HuffPost gives much (money, its brand, etc), gets nothing special in return and never has ownership over---or control of---the product," wrote Nick Penniman, executive director of The Huffington Post Investigative Fund and founder and director of the American News Project, a nonprofit that produces online investigative video journalism, in an e-mail interview.

Joining The Huffington Post and the American News Project in providing the venture's initial $1.75 million funding is Atlantic Philanthropies, a foundation that focuses its giving on issues of social and economic inequity. The Huffington Post Investigative Fund joins the ranks of other nonprofit startups attempting to pick up the slack as beleaguered traditional news outlets significantly cut their staffs and carry out fewer investigative efforts. (See "Nonprofit News," "Investigative Teem" and "Rays of Hope.")

ProPublica, an investigative journalism Web site that launched in early 2008 with a guaranteed budget of at least $10 million dollars for three years, now has 32 journalists working on pieces ranging from AIG's bailout to health care reform. While ProPublica tends to focus on national investigations, smaller nonprofits are popping up to investigate at the local level as well.

Roberts hopes The Huffington Post Investigative Fund will be able to bolster the roster of investigative firepower. "We'll be looking to fill in where others haven't been able to go..and to fill in some of the gaps that have been left by all of the print publications that have had to cut back," he says.

Although they are separate ventures, Roberts says the new investigative force is aligned with The Huffington Post, which will be a "guaranteed and very powerful platform" for the unit's work.

An investigative team has long been in the works for The Huffington Post, says Arianna Huffington, chair of the Investigative Fund's advisory board and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post. "We just needed to find the model that worked for us," she says.

Under Roberts' leadership, the team will carry on traditional investigations that will be showcased prominently online. As executive editor, Roberts will oversee the Fund's team of staff reporters and freelancers.

They will begin by focusing on national issues, primarily the nation's financial crisis, Roberts says. Although he's still sorting through the hundreds of résumés received, Roberts thinks the venture will be up and running later this summer with a "tightly-knit" team of about 12, including editors, reporters and multimedia staffers.

Roberts wants to determine whether and how citizen journalists can enhance investigative projects. He hopes to discover the best type of article for citizen journalists to participate in and how the process should work. When appropriate, Roberts plans to "make use of the community that we build around the work we do to enhance and extend the reach of our staff."

The Fund will also use contract writers and freelancers, says Roberts, who has already started making some of these arrangements.

A self-described "print guy," Roberts' career began in Seattle, where he worked on the Seattle Sun, a now-defunct alternative weekly. After a brief stint there, he began working for United Press International in Seattle before becoming a foreign correspondent for the wire service based in Spain.

Roberts next spent about 10 years in various positions at the Hartford Courant, finally as project editor in the investigations unit. Roberts edited the Pulitzer-winning series "Hubble Error: Time, Money, and Millionths of an Inch," which highlighted the flaws with the Hubble Space Telescope and illustrated many of the problems plaguing America's space program.

It was the Courant's computer-assisted reporting that piqued Roberts' interest in the Web. He left in 1995 to join a new venture, washingtonpost.com. When Roberts arrived there, it was still known as Digital Ink and had "a small staff of people who were devoted to trying to figure out how you move newspapers onto the Web."

Roberts helped washingtonpost.com evolve from a dial-up subscription site to its current incarnation before joining the print version of the Post. He spent time as both a technology editor and business editor before moving into investigations in 2004.

Jeff Leen, the Post's assistant managing editor for investigations, met Roberts at the Post's management retreat in 2000, when the latter was still working as a business editor, and remembers being impressed by Roberts' intelligence and demeanor. Leen ran the investigative unit on his own for a year, then looked for a deputy. He found one in Roberts.

Roberts' ability to "improve a story word by word" and his strategic, meticulous planning of investigations were major assets for the team, Leen says.

"When people think of investigations, they often think of the reporter with the byline," he adds. "They don't realize the strategy and the planning and the long-term editing that goes into the process. There are so many challenges to overcome when you're trying to do a really ambitious investigation. The editor is usually a full partner in it.

"It's like planning a military campaign. It takes place over a period of months, it's going to require all these resources, it's going to require all this time and there's several moving parts. It takes a special skill level to be able to handle all those things at once."

Roberts has the requisite skills, Leen says. Aside from having his hand in more than a dozen investigations during his five years on the team, Roberts was also in charge of managing the investigative unit's blog, bringing his experience from washingtonpost.com to the print Post and helping to present news in a multimedia fashion.

While working on the Post's July 2008 investigative series on the murder of Chandra Levy, a 24 year-old intern who disappeared in Washington, D.C. in 2001, Roberts and Leen thought of its multimedia components from the get-go.

Says Roberts, "That was one where we deliberately went about it thinking, 'What's the best way to produce this kind of investigation in an online way?' A lot of times you'll do your classic investigative work and then in an afterthought figure out what's the online component, but that was one where we thought about it from the beginning."

In the end, the piece ran as a 13-part serial in the Post's print edition as well as on washingtonpost.com. The online version includes more pictures, a list of key characters, blog posts and updates by the reporters, video and documents.

"There still will be a place for the more traditional three-part or five-part series that takes apart a topic, because sometimes that's just the best and highest possible way to do that kind of work, and there are times when investigations will be fully multimedia, with very little text," Roberts says. "There's all kinds of forms, and we're looking forward to figuring them out."

Lindsay Gsell (lgsell@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.

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