Duvoisin thinks it’s great that philanthropies are stepping up in this emergency situation, as commercial media owners scramble to fix a broken business model during a prolonged economic slump. He compares investigative reporting to opera, which was popular entertainment, enjoyed and supported by the masses, in the nineteenth century. Today, it needs wealthy patrons to survive; hence, he said, “Mobil Oil ads in your opera program.” But that is not the path he believes investigative reporting will follow in the end, or should: “I’d hate to see this work given over entirely to nonprofits.”
Most everyone agrees that it’s still early in the nonprofit investigative news experiment, and hard to know what will eventually happen. Many use the “Wild West” cliché to describe the environment. Numerous centers of various size and scope are up and running and publishing their work, writing their rules as they go and attempting to engage new readers through social networking and other methods enabled by the Internet. Several others are teed up, trying to raise enough money to launch. Their hurried steps and missteps will determine whether the nonprofit model develops and endures or returns to its previous perch on the margin.
The overwhelming question faced by each organization is how to build multiple, stable sources of funding while maintaining journalistic integrity. It’s way too soon to know what those answers will be, except to say that there likely will not be a one-size-fits-all solution.
Lewis, in the hunt with the rest of them, has established his fourth nonprofit journalism venture, the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University. And while he and others are figuring out how to sustain their operations, serious journalism is being committed in new and interesting ways at new and interesting places.
Despite drastic cuts in newsroom budgets over the past decade, it seems that investigative journalists are persistent sorts, hard to kill off. They continue to push for ways to do their work, even if it means founding new organizations to support them. “I do have a need to investigate the bastards,” Lewis said, smiling.
The new California Watch office, just down the street from the University of California, Berkeley campus, has the feel of so many similar offices set up at the beginning of the dot-com boom some fifteen years ago. It’s quirky and modern. The reporters work in an open space in a loft area at the back of the long, narrow, four-story storefront building, while Katches and Freedberg occupy the only two offices at the top of a landing. Others, including Rosenthal, sit below on the first floor in tiny, glass-walled cubicles. A few empty desks await new arrivals, but it already feels packed in.
The creative tension and excitement at today’s California Watch echoes, say, Yahoo! in 1995. Today’s sketchy plans for “multiple streams of revenue” at nonprofits sound a bit like the hazy hopes for “paths to profitability” at the dot-coms.
But there are distinct differences, too. Dot-coms blew up by the thousands, chasing “buzz” and “eyeballs,” squandering millions to get both, but without a clear business model. Today’s nonprofits can only hope to get their next round of donor cash if they produce something tangible—stories that create a buzz and, ideally, change something. So they prize “collaboration” and “transparency” and plow whatever money they can raise into substantive journalism. “My goal is to support and pay journalists to do high-quality work, not to earn twenty-two to twenty-five-percent margins,” Rosenthal said.
There is also a difference in scale. The money flowing into nonprofit journalism is a pittance compared to the venture-backed billions of the ’90s. It’s also a pittance compared to what’s been cut from traditional newsrooms.
Rick Edmonds, media-business analyst at the Poynter Institute, figures the newspaper industry has cut $1.6 billion in annual reporting and editing capacity since 2005, or roughly 30 percent. It is unclear how much of that hit investigative journalism—“We’ve tried to slice it a couple of ways, but it’s a very hard number to get,” said Mark Horvit, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors (ire). But, he said, there’s no question that investigative and enterprise reporting, especially in state capitals, has been slashed.
In any event, philanthropies have begun opening their wallets. According to a running tally kept by the J-Lab at American University, about $143 million of foundation money has flowed into news media enterprises between 2005 and April 2010. More than half of that has gone to twelve investigation-oriented news organizations, according to a tally by CJR.
That is not enough to replace what has been lost, of course. “National funders are not going to fund all of us,” said Maggie Mulvihill, co-founder of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting at Boston University. “They want to see us collaborate. We have to help each other.”