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From AJR,   August/September 2012  issue

Adding a Player-Coach to the Lineup   

Thanks to a grant from the Ford Foundation, the Washington Post is beefing up its government accountability reporting. Miami Herald veteran Mike Sallah will be in the middle of the action. Thurs., August 30, 2012.

By Allison Goldstein
AJR editorial assistant Allison Goldstein (agoldstein@ajr.umd.edu) is a graduate student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     

What happens when a for-profit news organizations applies a nonprofit model to fund its investigative projects? Pulitzer prize-winning investigative reporter and editor Mike Sallah will soon find out, as the Miami Herald seven-year veteran leaves South Florida for the Washington Post newsroom.

Sallah is the Post's first hire for a new team tasked with beefing up the paper's government accountability investigative projects an endeavor sprung from a half-a-million dollar Ford Foundation grant awarded to the Post in July.

As many financially challenged traditional news organizations have cut back on investigative reporting, foundations have moved to help make up for the shortfall. While the Post still has a sizable investigative presence, the paper has sharply reduced its staff in recent years.

While Sallah said working for the Post, where he's set to start in October, will open up the federal government world for him in a new way, he's sure the journalism basics will remain the same.

"The targets of investigative journalism in Washington are bigger and broader," he says. "But the ways in which you fundamentally get to the layers and peel back the truth, those never change."

As a self-proclaimed player-coach at the Herald who has helped reporters transition from beats to investigations, Sallah's truth-seeking experience will be useful at the Post, where he'll be "leading investigations as a reporter as well as helping to edit and mentor younger reporters," Post Executive Editor Marcus Brauchli said in a late August memo. Sallah's track record includes a decade of notable investigative work, including a 2004 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting for his Toledo Blade series "Buried Secrets, Brutal Truth" on Vietnam War atrocities of the U.S. Army platoon Tiger Force. At the Miami Herald, he edited "House of Lies," reporter Debbie Cenziper's series that exposed corruption in the Miami-Dade housing program.

Sallah hopes to add to his string of successes at the Post. "What you really want to do is develop a body of work that's strong, that's done well, that's complete and, in the end, you always hope that in some ways it makes a difference," he says. "Whether it's institutional, whether it's a government blunder, financial improprieties, whatever it might be, you want to be able to do projects and do them as airtight as you can."

Jeff Leen, the Post's assistant managing editor of investigations who is heading the Ford-funded operation, says Sallah's range of experience makes him an ideal team member. "We wanted someone who cannot just report but edit." he says. "That is a rare combination."

The Post hasn't determined how many people it will hire as a result of the grant. Leen says the paper is looking for a range of talent and that there's no one-size-fits-all template for those they hope to add to the team. The new hires will likely collaborate with different departments around the newsroom, he says.

The grant is aimed at strengthening government accountability reporting at the Post work that can involve everything from government contracting to evaluating how public officials are doing across an array of disciplines like education and criminal justice, Leen says.

And Sallah and Leen agree that this kind of investigative work is an enduring need. "People need to be informed and they need to be informed right," Sallah says. "You need to have a watchdog component out there now more than ever."

While some worry that foundation support can pose a threat to editorial independence, Leen doesn't see that as a problem. "This grant comes with no strings attached other than to do good journalism," he says. "I think that in the environment we're in now, when there's a lot of financial pressure, lots of people are trying out new models. We have collaborated with other nonprofits, and this is another iteration that goes directly to boosting the investigative reporting mission that we have."

The grant is the second this year from the Ford Foundation to a for-profit news organization. In May, the foundation awarded a $1 million, two-year grant to the Los Angeles Times to expand its reporting on immigration and other areas. The Post's one-year grant could be renewed for two more years.

"In an evolving media landscape, we are trying out new and different models to support the delivery of high-quality journalism that addresses complex social issues. We will continue to explore how future grants to both new and established news organizations might help them deepen their coverage and reach a broader audience," Joshua Cinelli, Ford Foundation's media relations chief, said in an e-mail.

"You're seeing [this model] more and more, and it's part of a trend that started with the decline of newspapers," Sallah said. "But the very important watchdog part of journalism will not, and should not, ever die because it's so essential to a functional democracy."