Investigative reporting remains a major part of the mission for the mainstream media. But financial pressures have drastically reduced the watchdog capacity at many news organizations.
Nonprofit investigative outlets like ProPublica have jumped in to help plug the gap. But there's still plenty of accountability reporting to be done.
That's where the Fund for Investigative Journalism comes in.
"The fund is for the independent, intrepid reporter," says Brant Houston, FIJ's president. "It's there for people who are willing to take risks both in personal safety and in pursuing stories that are really hard to get."
FIJ has already doled out $118,000 worth of grants this year. That money went to 32 different projects, and there is still one more grant cycle before year's end. The maximum grant of $10,000 goes to an individual reporter or nonprofit news organization chosen by the all volunteer board.
FIJ has been financially, and intellectually, supporting investigative journalism since 1969, when a young reporter named Seymour Hersh received an initial grant of $250 and ultimately uncovered a U.S.-led massacre in the Vietnamese village of My Lai. Since then, FIJ has provided over $1.5 million worth of grants to support investigative work.
FIJ's deeds aren't going unrecognized. It's the first journalism nonprofit to be selected by the Washington, D.C.-area Catalogue for Philanthropy for 2011-2012. The catalogue features carefully selected nonprofits. It is basically a "seal of approval" for area nonprofits and should help FIJ attract more donors, says Sandy Bergo, who became executive director of FIJ a year and a half ago after a long career as a producer on an investigative team at WBBM, the CBS-TV affiliate in Chicago.
FIJ gets its money from the Green Park Foundation, the Gannett Foundation, the Park Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation as well as numerous private donors, says Houston, who holds the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Reporting at the University of Illinois. But, he adds, it could certainly use more contributions to underwrite its important work.
The beneficiaries come in all ages and experience levels. Some applicants are young reporters, while others are veterans, perhaps freelancers who in the past worked for news organizations, but now need some extra money to support their work, Bergo says.
But young or old, the reporter who'll get the grant is the one with a game plan, the one who can "pull it off," she adds.
To prove their worthiness, prospective grantees submit their ideas, résumés, previous work and budget proposals to FIJ. Then the board scrutinizes the material, discusses the options and takes votes. Once the grantees are chosen, the board gives them a portion of the largesse and anticipates their investigative masterpieces.
In 2009, Laura Frank was a reporter at Rocky Mountain News in Denver when federal agents raided an electronics recycler in Denver. They found that the company had been shipping its dangerous electronic waste overseas, dumping it into local landfills and selling it to unregulated customers. At the time, Frank wasn't working on the story. She heard about the raid through an Environmental Protection Agency press release and knew that it was worth pursuing further.
That same week in February, the Rocky closed its doors, and the story might have perished in its wake. But Frank had begun creating I-News, a nonprofit investigative newswire. "I was working at a newspaper that supported investigative stories, but once it ended I thought, 'My gosh, how are we going to fund this'? Frank says. "The Fund for Investigative Journalism helped."
It took a year for I-News to get up and running, but when the investigative team went back to research the story, nothing had changed; the same faulty practices were still in place. Hazardous electronic waste was still being illegally exported and it was still being used for unsafe, illegal mining practices in Colorado.
Generally, FIJ funds are granted to individual reporters. But Frank put in a request on behalf of her nonprofit, and FIJ thought it was a foundation well worth supporting. FIJ gave I-News an initial grant of $4,845. With the money, the I-News team was able to launch a six-month investigation that found rampant problems with electronic waste in the state.
After the team's success with that saga, FIJ granted I-News another $4,910 for a story that is still in the works. In fact, many FIJ recipients have received more than one grant. If they've got a good story to go after and a sound plan for how to do so, the FIJ ATM stays open.
"I may have gotten more grants than anyone else," says Jason Berry, a journalist, author and filmmaker known for his probing coverage of the Catholic Church. "I've been an independent writer for 38 years. If it were not for the fund, I don't know how I would have done a lot of the projects that I ended up pursuing."
And he's pursued a great deal.
Berry began his relationship with FIJ when he got a grant in 1974, after working as a press secretary for civil rights activist Charles Evers' gubernatorial campaign in Mississippi. Berry became curious when he learned the IRS had charged Evers with tax evasion. He did some reporting and discovered that it wasn't just Evers. The IRS had audited 26 other civil rights leaders in Mississippi. FIJ gave Berry $300, which enabled him to do many needed interviews to learn more about the audits.
What Berry found was that the IRS had basically turned Southern civil rights leaders into targets. He reported that overaggressive IRS agents put the leaders in the same category as criminals and began to regularly investigate their books.
Other organizations became interested and granted Berry additional money to take his story further. He traveled to determine whether the audits were a trend outside of Mississippi, and found that they were.
Over the following years, Berry continued his IRS investigations along with new pursuits, all the while receiving additional grants from FIJ.
More recently, FIJ supplemented larger grants Berry received from other organizations for his work. He received a grant for his documentary on the Catholic priest pedophilia scandal, "Vows of Silence," which was based on a book with the same title that he coauthored with Gerald Renner.
"When you have FIJ supporting an independent film, it is sort of a signal to other potential donors, funders, foundations that you've got a good project and you've got the background to produce it," Berry says.
To keep supporting high caliber investigative work, FIJ needs as many donors as possible, some of whom are previous grantees.
Mark Feldstein spent 20 years as a broadcast investigative reporter at CNN, ABC and local news stations. His first FIJ grant marked the beginning of his career, and his second helped him on his way to publishing his well-received book "Poisoning the Press: Richard Nixon, Jack Anderson, and the Rise of Washington's Scandal Culture."
After graduating from Harvard in 1979, Feldstein returned to his home in Arizona. While looking for a job, he got a lead that a local power company had been spying on antinuclear activists, taking their photographs and leaking them to authorities.
Feldstein wanted to investigate the story, but he didn't have the money. He heard about FIJ's distinguished legacy from a friend, journalist and author Mark Nykanen, who had previously received a grant from the fund for his own work investigating the Arizona correctional system. Feldstein applied to FIJ, received a grant and used the money to produce a two-part series.
"It was a modest amount of money, but I wouldn't have been able to do that being that I was a starving recent college grad," Feldstein says.
He again sought support from FIJ when he began work on his book. Feldstein, who had already been an on-air reporter and had received a Ph.D in journalism from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill in 2002, found himself in need of financial support. He was able to use the grant to travel to interview sources about Jack Anderson, who was for many years a prominent and powerful investigative reporter based in Washington, D.C.
Feldstein is now the Richard Eaton Professor of Broadcast Journalism at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland. He regards FIJ as an instrumental part of his success and he continues to give back to the fund.
"I've donated to them a number of times, and I will continue to do so and help in any way I can," he says. "As the saying goes, 'What goes around, comes around."