Rays of Hope  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   April/May 2008

Rays of Hope   

Online Exclusive As many newspapers cut back on investigative reporting, can nonprofits step into the breach?

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


Robert J. Rosenthal, executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting, got right to the point. "The reality," he said, "is the newspaper industry in this country has been destroyed."

Rosenthal should know. He's seen the carnage up close, as editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer in Knight Ridder's declining days and as managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle as it staggered under the burden of an imposing annual deficit.

He made the comment over the weekend during the Reva and David Logan Symposium on Investigative Reporting at the Graduate School of Journalism at the University of California, Berkeley. The symposium's title sounded pretty grim "The crisis in news: Is there a future for investigative reporting?" But as it turned out, the two-day gathering, featuring panels and an audience both studded with outstanding journalists, wasn't quite as dominated by despair as you might guess.

That's because the newspaper business' unrelenting torrent of bad news has led to a more flexible way of looking at the world. And so there is a lot more openness toward an approach that would have attracted little enthusiasm in the past as a potential savior for ambitious public-interest reporting: nonprofit-funded journalism. (See Carol Guensburg's excellent piece for the details.)

A panel discussion Sunday highlighted the growing range of options in this burgeoning world. There was Paul Steiger, the former Wall Street Journal managing editor who is at the helm of the ambitious ProPublica. With a $10-million-a-year budget thanks to the Sandler Family Supporting Foundation, Steiger is putting together a 25-person team to do investigative projects for ProPublica's Web site. The fledgling organization will also carry out joint projects with existing news organizations.

Another approach was represented by Jon Sawyer, director of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Rather than field his own army of reporters, Sawyer awards grants to both freelancers and staff writers at news outlets to carry out foreign reporting projects.

Also on hand was Bill Buzenberg of the Center for Public Integrity, known for its hard-hitting reports on government malfeasance, and Rosenthal, whose center funds investigative projects.

An overarching theme of the conference was the alarming decline in investigative reporting by local and regional newspapers across the country. And there's plenty of reason to be worried on that score. But as Lowell Bergman, whose Investigative Reporting Program at Berkeley honchoed the symposium, pointed out, one of the bright spots on the horizon is the proliferating number of nonprofits that are moving into the vacuum.

Another striking change is how much more open news organizations are to working together, something that would have been considered heresy in the past. Bergman recalled that when the Arizona Project was launched to investigate the murder of reporter Don Bolles in the 1970s, many of the top news organizations would have no part of the massive joint effort. But at a panel discussion on Saturday, both Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, and Len Downie, his counterpart at the Washington Post, expressed a willingness to enter into collaborative projects.

Of course, none of this is any reason to put a Pollyannaish spin on the current unpleasantness. The cutbacks at so many papers represent a huge problem. Few pure-play Web operations have jumped into the breach. And nonprofit-funded news presents its own challenges. The identity of the benefactors can raise huge questions about credibility. Impenetrable firewalls are essential. And several attendees were appalled by the idea of giving away expensive projects to rich, for-profit news organizations.

As Edward Wasserman, Knight Professor of Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University, observed, "Going to rich people periodically asking for money isn't a real business model."

But there are times when any positive developments are particularly welcome, and this feels like one of them.

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