Call it the Pocantico Declaration. Back on July 1, the leaders of twenty muckraking nonprofit news organizations concluded a three-day meeting and produced a document that ended with this proud, hopeful sentence: “We have hereby established, for the first time ever, an Investigative News Network of nonprofit news publishers throughout the United States of America.”
That final sentence meant different things to different people who were in the room, at the Pocantico Conference Center at the John D. Rockefeller estate outside New York City, let alone to the rest of the journalism world that was not. Nonetheless, it raised great expectations about what a network like this might be able to ultimately accomplish.
Administrative, editorial, and financial collaboration is the overall, explicit goal of the group. But to me and others, the most exciting potential of the Pocantico Declaration is the prospect of organizing the best investigative-reporting output and talent of member news organizations. That has never happened. Properly structured and led, the Investigative News Network could become the online destination for original investigative reporting.
Full disclosure: I was not just a participant at Pocantico, but a member of the conference steering committee along with the principal organizers, Bill Buzenberg, the executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, and Robert Rosenthal, the executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting, and the conference moderator, Brant Houston, the Knight Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Reporting at the University of Illinois. As the original draftsman of the Pocantico Declaration before it was collectively debated and edited, who on the afternoon of June 30 also formally proposed to the group the name and the concept of an “Investigative News Network,” I am obviously not objective about what transpired or what lies ahead.
Still, two dynamics reinforce this vision, in my view. First, the number of Investigative News Network member organizations—and thus the subject range, sheer volume, and potential public impact of available content—will increase substantially over the ensuing months, just as the member stations and programming content of the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR) hugely increased after those national nonprofit networks were first established in 1970. (Because of space and lodging limitations at Pocantico, a stunning venue made available by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, a number of publishers of quality investigative reportage could not be invited.) Second, the network will inevitably become international, as numerous nonprofit news organizations exist around the world, many of them producing outstanding journalism.
Pocantico brought together an abundance of heavyweight journalistic, entrepreneurial, and management talent around a large, room-size table, including Sheila Coronel, the director of the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University’s journalism school and the founding executive director of the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism; Brian Duffy, the director of investigation and enterprise reporting for npr and former editor of U.S. News & World Report; Margaret Freivogel, the founder and editor of the St. Louis Beacon and a veteran reporter and editor for The St. Louis Post-Dispatch; Florence Graves, the founding director of the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University and the founding editor of Common Cause Magazine; Lorie Hearn, the founding editor of the new Watchdog Institute, an investigative outlet in San Diego that will have a relationship with The San Diego Union-Tribune, where she spent a quarter century; Mark Horvit, the executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE); and Joel Kramer, the founding editor and CEO of MinnPost.com and former executive editor and publisher of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.
Not long ago, nonprofit investigative-journalism organizations were regarded as novelties, capable of high-quality reporting but supported by philanthropic contributions rather than advertising, which was considered, among other things, unsustainable. Yet amid the carnage in commercial newsrooms, which has cost thousands of talented writers and editors their jobs in recent years, the number of nonprofit news organizations, and outstanding journalists working for them, has notably increased.
So too has the funding: At least 180 U.S. foundations have spent nearly $128 million since 2005 on news and information projects, and half of that has been for investigative reporting by nonprofit centers, according to a recent report (“New Media Makers”) by Jan Schaffer, the executive director of J-Lab: The Institute for Interactive Journalism. And those numbers do not include the massive foundation and individual funding given annually to public broadcasting.
All of this doesn’t make up for what’s been lost, certainly, but the dramatic decline of commercial newspapers and the expansion of nonprofit journalism are obviously related. Roughly two-thirds of the nonprofit news organizations represented at Pocantico began because the commercial milieu for serious journalism had become, shall we say, professionally inhospitable. And half of the organizations at Pocantico began within the past three years.