Biodiversity in the investigative ecosystem

I’ve been reminded these past few days how many different species inhabit the mini-ecosystem that is nonprofit investigative reporting. In the natural world, biodiversity is key to an ecosystem’s  survival. Can the same be said of the journalism world?

The biodiversity metaphor came to mind on Saturday, while I was moderating the panel that opened the Columbia Spectator’s Media Conference. Sharing twin billing were Paul Steiger, the former Wall Street Journal managing editor and founder of Pro Publica, and Jeffrey Klein, the investigative journalist who co-founded the progressive muckraking magazine Mother Jones in 1976. No two people could be more different in temperament. Klein, a proponent of what he calls oppositional investigative reporting, has had a storied career exposing the shenanigans of Republican politicians, including Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole. A left-wing liberal who believes that partisan journalism not only has a long, but also honorable, journalistic tradition, Klein likes to throw bombs (he famously said that most journalists are “sheep in wolves’ clothing,” and during the panel, made it clear – in far more colorful language – that Bob Woodward and Mike Wallace are exemplars of that pack).

Steiger  is hardly the flamethrower. But he’s a torchbearer for the nonpartisan, nonideological, professionally produced investigative reporting of the type that has won Pulitzers since 1985, when the venerable prize body opened an award in the investigative reporting category.  One of the best funded and best staffed investigative reporting operations in the U.S., if not the world, Pro Publica has won two Pulitzers in the four years since its founding. Steiger believes that as traditional news outlets cut back on reporting resources, centers like his, partisan outfits like Mother Jones and journalism schools will pick up the slack. “Americans have a passion for stuff that is impartial but tough,” he said, “I think there’s an important role for what we do, an important role for what Mother Jones does, and an important role for what The National Review does.”

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Will the nonprofit bubble burst?

The numbers are amazing and point to a clear trend.  While nonprofit news organizations have existed in the U.S. for decades, the last three to five years have seen a real explosion. Last fall, the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University published  a database of  75 news nonprofits in the United States. Their total funding, the survey found, was  $135 million; together, they had 1,300 full-time employees.

This nonprofit explosion provides a ray of hope to the somewhat parlous  projections about the viability of accountability journalism in the era of downsized newsrooms. The trend is global. News nonprofits are sprouting in  Africa, the Middle East and Latin America.

But can it be sustained? Read the rest of this entry »

Opera, game theory and investigative journalism

Will investigative journalism be like opera? Not in the sense that journalists act like divas. Nor in the sense that they play to an effete and aging audience (I hope not!).  I mean in the sense that opera has always been subsidized, has always  depended on wealthy patrons for its sustenance. This idea has been getting credence in the U.S. recently, as it becomes clear that American newsrooms can no longer afford to invest the resources they used to in accountability reporting.

The presumption in the U.S. is that profitable news organizations  are the natural  home of investigative reporting. After all, the monopoly profits that newspapers made allowed them to invest in watchdog reporting.  The worry now  is that if for-profit media can no longer live up to that name, then accountability journalism will wither and die.

Elsewhere, that has certainly not been the case. Muckraking journalism has emerged under a variety of market conditions. For sure, it has thrived most successfully in the heyday of American newspapers. But then many countries that have thriving newspaper markets — India is a good example — don’t have an investigative tradition.

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