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From AJR,   March 2010  issue

Investigations with Impact   

The Huffington Post Investigative Fund aims to meld classic reporting with the power of the Web.


By Karen Carmichael
Karen Carmichael is an AJR editorial assistant.     

Two months after its launch, the Huffington Post Investigative Fund published the story of Benjamin French, a 12-year-old from Michigan who was born without part of his right arm. His family's insurance provider, a Teamsters health plan administered by Blue Cross Blue Shield, had refused to cover his most recent prosthesis because he had reached his lifetime maximum benefit of $30,000. Michigan Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow read from the story on the Senate floor during a debate over health care reform.

The following week, the Teamsters health plan said it would cover French's device and raised by $30,000 the cap for others under the same health plan.

"The goal of nonprofit journalism like this is to create impact in the world," Investigative Fund Executive Director Nick Penniman says. "We managed to affect both the debate and one person's life."

Since its September 2009 debut, the fund has produced about 50 stories, many focused on uncovering banking practices that led to the nation's financial crisis and on the health care industry's convoluted claims process. Penniman says the editorial staff of nine is now publishing three to five stories a week, including "deep dive" pieces that require a couple months of reporting, "quick-strike" stories and some in between.

In addition to breaking news, the fund aims to create a new nonprofit business model for investigative journalism and "to reinvent the way investigative journalism is done" through the two-way street of the Internet, Penniman says.

"We're hoping to create this kind of model for an investigative team of the future, where we can combine the best of the classic investigative reporting with the tools of the Web," says Executive Editor Lawrence Roberts, a former investigations editor at the Washington Post.

The fund showcases its stories on its Web site (huffpostfund.org), and all of its material may be picked up by other media outlets free of charge.

The Investigative Fund's $2 million annual budget is entirely supplied by donations from five benefactors, Penniman says: The Huffington Post, the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy (Penniman used to be its Washington director), Atlantic Philanthropies, the Knight Foundation and the Markle Foundation.

Its offices are located in downtown Washington, D.C., about two blocks from the White House. It shares a suite with The Huffington Post's Washington bureau, although the two organizations occupy separate wings.

The District is "a good place for an investigative fund to be," says Senior Editor Christine Spolar, formerly a foreign correspondent for the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post, a member of the Post's investigative team and a producer at "60 Minutes II." "We are looking at how these policies affect people. It's better to be able to jump on the Metro and get up to Capitol Hill or go over to any of the agencies, rather than always doing things on the phone."

One of the news organization's priorities is making the best use of the online environment. "The Internet is the television channel of the future," says Penniman, who previously was editor of the online video journalism outlet American News Project (he has merged the two organizations). "We need to be doing as much in video and multimedia as possible."

After seeing newspapers struggle to manage both a print and Web product, Spolar says she was "intrigued with the idea of a Web site-only news outlet. We get up every day and we're thinking, how do we tell this story in the best multimedia way?" The challenge is to explore what text, video and slideshows can bring to a story, she says, as well as how to best harness the efforts of citizen journalists.

At the end of her first story about how health insurance companies deny claims, staff reporter Danielle Ivory posted a note asking readers to write in if they had any inside knowledge of the industry. Within a couple days, the fund was inundated with hundreds of high-quality tips, says Ivory, who has worked for National Public Radio and joined the fund from the American News Project along with Penniman and reporter Lagan Sebert. One of those tips led to the story of Benjamin French.

"I never would have thought that so many people would have written in," Ivory adds. "It's so encouraging as a reporter to have one of your readers come to you with that missing piece of the puzzle, the one you didn't even know you were looking for."

With every story the fund puts together, Spolar says, staffers question whether it can be accompanied by a video or might be better adapted to video. According to Penniman, about 30 percent of the fund's stories include video elements. The goal is to attract readers and viewers "who want to consume news, but not necessarily in a long newspaper story," Spolar says.

She says it's important to make sure the videos look crisp even on iPhone-sized screens. Everyone in the fund's office younger than 30 uses their smart phones "in all possible ways," she says, from reading the news and books to watching videos. "You have to think about your audience--who's going to be accessing the stories, and how do they access them?"

But changing technology hasn't affected the journalists' commitment to traditional investigative techniques, says senior reporter Fred Schulte, a former investigative reporter at the Baltimore Sun and Fort Lauderdale's Sun-Sentinel. "We're still doing old-fashioned shoe leather and documents reporting," he says.

When plans for the fund were first announced, its close ties with The Huffington Post--and its shared name--may have raised some eyebrows. Arianna Huffington's widely read news aggregator is known for its liberal bent. But Fund staffers firmly reject the notion that their investigative pieces are affected by HuffPost's ideological slant. "There's definitely an editorial firewall between the two organizations," Penniman says, adding in an e-mail: "But we do share a common vision about the deep dysfunctionality of our democracy and the need to shine a light on it."

Before he signed on, senior reporter Keith Epstein says he quizzed Huffington on whether the fund would truly be independent; he says she reassured him. "You can't do credible investigative reporting if you're advancing a particular cause, currying favor or taking sides," says Epstein, a former investigative reporter for BusinessWeek.

Investigative Fund executives say the alliance with The Huffington Post is all about business and branding, not ideology. "It certainly gives us a big head start to have a recognized brand that we're part of, rather than calling ourselves the 'Acme Investigative Fund,'" Roberts says.

Without the brand, it would have taken years to build up a substantial audience, says Penniman, who estimates that the fund's stories have been published by about 40 outlets. They range from AlterNet to the Seattle Times, and some of its most heavily read pieces have registered hundreds of thousands of pageviews, according to Multimedia Editor Amanda Zamora.

The Investigative Fund doesn't just tackle a story and drop it, says Mark Horvit, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors. "They sure seem to have made that one of their priorities--to stay on certain things and follow them through."

Questions will always be raised about the motivations of foundations that fund newsgathering, says Brant Houston, the Knight Chair in Investigative & Enterprise Reporting at the University of Illinois. But there's nothing wrong with requiring accountability from organizations that are in turn demanding accountability from business and government, he says.

"In the end, I think a lot of people are going to measure the importance and the success of any of these ventures on the stories they produce, and the credibility of those stories," Houston says.

To Penniman, it makes perfect sense for media groups to forge alliances with large foundations. "Because investigative journalism is the most expensive and time-consuming, in my mind it will forever be the province of the nonprofit world," he says. Penniman likens enterprise journalism to museums and educational and environmental causes. "People have always understood that those things need to be funded through philanthropy," he says.

But can news outlets funded this way go the distance? A group may be able to acquire startup money, but what happens when a benefactor decides to direct those funds elsewhere? Horvit believes media nonprofits will eventually require a mix of revenue sources, supplementing gifts with options that include advertising, user fees and subscriptions.

"That will be our challenge," Spolar says. With so many nonprofit news startups in the mix, all looking for donations, she adds, the Investigative Fund needs to be asking every day "What need are we fulfilling?"