An investigative-journalism ecosystem is emerging in which an increasing percentage of the most ambitious reporting projects will emanate from the public realm, not from private commercial outlets. That is a tectonic shift. Meanwhile, attitudes in the traditional media world are changing in significant ways, as indicated in recent decisions by two of its most venerable institutions. First, the Pulitzer Prize board in December 2008 announced that for the first time since their inception in 1917, Pulitzers may be awarded to news organizations that publish only on the Internet and which are “primarily dedicated to original news reporting and coverage of ongoing stories”; and that “adhere to the highest journalistic principles.”
Six months later, in June 2009, at the IRE national conference in Baltimore, The Associated Press announced that the nonprofit cooperative will make investigative stories from four nonprofit news organizations—the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Center for Public Integrity, the Investigative Reporting Workshop, and ProPublica—available to its member newspapers.
These developments were fresh in all of our minds at Pocantico, providing buzz and momentum and reminding us that we were part of something larger than our individual projects. Many of those present had first felt the buzz two weeks earlier at the IRE conference. While the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) couldn’t muster enough money or people for its annual meeting in a recession year, IRE had more than eight hundred attendees and optimism and excitement filled the air. And IRE, thanks to the Knight Foundation, organized a special, eleven-hour-long meeting of the nonprofit investigative-reporting centers. There was heady talk by some of a “movement,” and maybe these atmospherics help explain why the strong personalities and egos of those assembled at Pocantico were remarkably restrained throughout the three-day meeting.
However, there were—and remain—some fundamental tensions between the priorities of the various participants. The newer startup publishers are understandably most worried about their economic viability. They want to establish administrative, legal, fundraising, and other new systems. Their forcefully articulated and continuing concern is that the investigative network could become a behemoth that siphons donor dollars away from state and local publishers and pushes their daily logistical concerns into the background. The older institutions, meanwhile, are necessarily interested in exchanging information and establishing greater “back office” administrative and financial collaboration between the groups. But they were also strongly motivated by the promise of joint editorial projects across the nation, and of increasing the power, brand, and earned revenue potential of shared investigative content. To the larger, more established operations, the new network would bolster the individual financial potential of the enterprise and its member organizations, not diminish them.
Sometimes the divergent positions at Pocantico felt like the Constitutional Convention of 1787, and there was even a little joking about that between sessions. But we had just seventy-two hours, and somehow we arrived at what I believe will be prove to be a historic agreement. That said, any vision must also be implemented. And the extent to which the network will be able to grow editorially, and to contract original reporting from respected freelance investigative journalists—all on the way to becoming the online brand for anthologized and original investigative reporting—may be constricted by the more immediate exigencies facing the newer, smaller member organizations. The network’s leadership and governing structure is key to overcoming this challenge.
None of us harbors any illusions about the grubby logistics of building a new institution. The staff sizes, annual budgets, and editorial capacities of the various nonprofit publishers in the U.S. vary widely, as does, frankly, the quality and quantity of their work and the actual extent to which they do investigative reporting. Newsgathering practices and standards of some sort must be established, a thankless job that the membership committee, chaired by Brant Houston, is handling.
Scott Lewis, the co-founder and CEO of Voice of San Diego, is the chairman of the sustainability subcommittee, which is conducting a basic assessment of member organizations’ needs and capabilities. What are the best practices and shared strategies for fundraising, generating earned revenue, human resources, IT, general and liability insurance, corporate governance, etc.? I chair the content dissemination subcommittee, which includes an assessment of platforms, technologies, corporate and legal structures, and potential editorial collaborations. Bill Buzenberg is, among other things, spearheading the effort to obtain planning grants from a few foundations to support these activities over the next six to twelve months. The Center for Public Integrity is serving, as it did for the Pocantico conference, as the temporary fiscal agent for this burgeoning network until a 501 (c)(3) tax-exempt organization is formed.
With the new Investigative News Network, we will have, at the least, the first broad-based, nonprofit news publishers association, its members collaborating administratively, editorially, and financially. At the most, well, use your imagination.