Nonprofit reshapes investigative model

In recent years, investigative journalism has found itself on the front lines of the newspaper industry's identity crisis.

In recent years, investigative journalism has found itself on the front lines of the newspaper industry's identity crisis. Investigative reporters can thank the time-consuming nature of their craft for that. Even worse for publishers concerned with the bottom line, investigations offer no guarantee of a big story at their conclusion, and so regional and local papers are increasingly finding little room for full-time investigative reporters.

That's why much was made earlier this month of the founding of ProPublica, an ambitious new journalism venture that will run as a nonprofit organization dedicated to major investigative reporting efforts.

"I wouldn't want to say [investigative journalism] is in danger of extinction, because I don't think that's the case," says Richard Tofel, GM of ProPublica. "But I think it can seem to be a luxury from many editors' and publishers' points of view."

Jack Shafer, media critic for Slate, questioned the uproar over diminishing investigative staffs at the nation's biggest newspapers in his column last year. "Newspaper publishers presumably fund investigations because readers expect them - or because they want something to throw at the Pulitzer committee come contest time," he wrote.

Shafer went on to point out that a number of nonprofit organizations, such as the Center for Public Integrity and the Center for Investigative Reporting, have been breaking big stories for years.

So why all the buzz over ProPublica? For one thing, says Kelly McBride, ethics group leader for the Poynter Institute, the hiring of Paul Steiger, former managing editor at The Wall Street Journal and a giant in the journalism world, as editor was enough to catch the attention of media critics. But the size of the staff Steiger promises to hire - 24 reporters to start - will give the organization one of the largest rosters in investigative journalism.

McBride says ProPublica will indeed fit into the larger picture in a way many would not have imagined a few years ago. But she isn't convinced that the outfit will serve as a model down the road.

"We really have to figure out a capitalist economic model for watchdog journalism, or else the democracy will suffer," she says. "We cannot count on nonprofits to shore up the democracy. There just isn't enough money out there."

For his part, Tofel says the most groundbreaking aspect of ProPublica isn't the nonprofit model, but the lack of a publication to accompany it. "About two-thirds of our costs will be for news," he says. "That compares to about 15% for a leading newspaper. When you think about that another way, they need to pull in $7 or $8 for every $1 spent on news. We need to pull in $1.30."

Some earlier incarnations of the nonprofit model haven't had that luxury. The Poynter Institute, which as a nonprofit runs the St. Petersburg Times, attempts to keep the paper in the black, but is hampered by printing costs and diminishing revenue. ProPublica, on the other hand, will give away content for free, not initially looking for any return on its investment from benefactor Herbert Sandler, founder of Golden West Financial Corp.

There's another factor that will help determine the long-term viability of a new journalism outfit: credibility. New outlets are particularly vulnerable to accusations of bias, considering they don't have the institutional power of a New York Times or Wall Street Journal. There have been some ideological attacks direct-ed at new sites such as Politico, and ProPublica will certainly catch flack for anything viewed as partisan bias.

"I think it's a critical task for us in the near term," Tofel says in response to the credibility question. "And Paul's reputation and the reputations of the people we're going to hire will go a long way toward that. In the long term, it will obviously be based on the quality of our work."

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