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Are Non-Profits the Future of Investigate Reporting?

Are Non-Profits the Future of Investigate Reporting?

Non-profit investigative news groups have been encountering many of the same financial difficulties as the newspapers they have been working with, according to the AP's Andrew Vanacore.

As newsrooms cut costs and staff, investigative non-profit groups like the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) have picked up where they left off, or more appropriately, what they left out. Charitable foundations and philanthropists have pumped tens of millions of dollars into these non-profit watchdogs to investigate issues like corruption and the environment, which some newsrooms lack the resources to cover.

The CIR's latest project, California Watch, is an investigative non-profit endowed to focus on education, immigration, public safety, and the environment. Its reporters investigate stories of interest before trying to find a newspaper or TV station willing to publish them. This arrangement, requiring careful coordination on both sides, gives the publisher more content and the non-profit a platform for their work.

The first investigation by California Watch on the state government's wanton spending of Homeland Security money landed on the front page of the San Jose Mercury News and the Sacramento Bee. California Watch was created with $3.7 million in donations and is set to run for two more years. Some funding has also been allocated for a third year.

ProPublica, a year-old non-profit funded by the Sandler Foundation, has also broke some major stories. A joint investigation with the Los Angeles Times into the questionable practices of the California Board of Registered Nursing found that it took years for the committee to investigate the claims of patients and discipline nurses guilty of misconduct and drug abuse.

The group's collaboration with the New York Times Magazine for a 13,000 word article last summer on events at Memorial Medical Center after Hurricane Katrina took two years and $400,000 to produce - approximately ten times the cost of the average cover story. An article of that scale would never have been possible without ProPublica's investigative expertise and the Kaiser Family Foundation who funded it. The success of their partnership highlights the benefits of investigative non-profits working together with traditional newspapers to write better stories.

Big stories like that have convinced the Associated Press to begin sending out ProPublica articles to its network of 1,500 member newspapers. ProPublica employs 36 editors and journalists on an annual newsroom budget of $10 million. Considering the Sandler Foundation has promised to support the group indefinitely, their future seems brighter than most.

However, sponsors as generous as Herbert and Marion Sandler are hard to come by. InvestigateWest, a non-profit based out of Seattle, has an endowment of $80,000 and a staff of five reporters and editors from the Post-Intelligencer working on a contract basis.

The group's executive editor, Rita Hibbard, spoke about the "transitional point" the industry faces. "Part of what we need to do....is make it through that transition and preserve the skills of investigative journalism."

As speculation about the newspaper industry's future grows, proposals for a transition to the non-profit model have received mixed reviews. The growing controversy over at the Bay Area News Project is a testament to that struggle. However, if ProPublica and California Watch continue to break the front page, foundation grants should be easier to come by.

Sources: AP, New York Times, Los Angeles Times



Trafton Kenney


2010-01-19 13:43

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