The imperative to collaborate has given rise to the new buzzword for this era: partnership. These investigative nonprofits all talk about their distribution “partners,” (i.e. newspapers, television news programs, Web sites, and radio broadcasters who run their work); their reporting “partners,” (i.e., traditional media reporters who team with the nonprofits, or university students who work with a nonprofit’s professional journalists, or groups of nonprofits who combine their efforts to nail a story); their user “partners,” (i.e., those who respond to crowd-sourcing queries or donate a few bucks via Kachingle or agree to pay for a membership or join a Facebook fan page or even those who simply post a comment on a story). Some even call their donors their “partners,” though others are wary of that because they fear their work being seen as supporting a donor’s cause.
The Center for Public Integrity has long partnered with commercial and nonprofit media on investigations, but its collaborations today “are at a new level than what we had seen,” said Bill Buzenberg, the center’s executive director. “It’s new. It’s different. It’s exciting. It’s a lot of work.”
Mark Katches was very busy. On his screen was a 147-inch story that he was cutting to a six-inch box that The Fresno Bee had agreed to run, though the Bee would refer readers to the California Watch Web site to see a full multimedia package. The stories were based on a four-month investigation by reporter Erica Perez about public university buildings in California that are judged to be dangerous to occupy in an earthquake. Next up was re-editing the story to a fifty-inch version to send over for a look-see to The Orange County Register, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Sacramento Bee, the Torrance Daily Breeze, and others. Nearly all the papers wanted a few graphs up high about the campus buildings in their circulation areas, and Katches knew from previous collaborations that a few editors would have good suggestions for tweaking the lede or tightening the nut graph. It’s not edit-by-committee, he said; it’s more like “a collective brain.”
Each nonprofit in this new ecosystem operates a little differently when it comes to distributing its stories, although all are hoping for the biggest possible impact. ProPublica offers its work for free, and often partners a reporter from its staff with one at a major news outlet. The two co-publish the exclusive work and then others are free to re-publish, with credit. “We’ve published about 225 stories with nearly 50 different partners over the last 21 months,” Steiger wrote in an e-mail. “Many of these have been bilateral partnerships, but some have been much more complex.” He cited ProPublica’s stories on police violence in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina as one example. “We’ve worked first with The Nation magazine, and more recently (and simultaneously) with The Times-Picayune and Frontline.”
The HuffPo Investigative Fund generally works alone and then sends alerts out when a new piece is published on its Web site. Media organizations are encouraged to re-publish the Fund’s stories for free, with a refer to the Fund’s Web site. The Fund’s for-profit sister, The Huffington Post, often does; other news organizations, less so. Although he has not asked anyone specifically about the lack of substantial pickup, The Fund’s Penniman said he suspects the reason is an “aversion to work with what’s perceived as a competitive brand.”
Some media critics have questioned whether the HuffPo Investigative Fund should qualify for nonprofit status at all, because they perceive it as feeding the for-profit Huffington Post. Penniman rejected the criticism and stressed that The Huffington Post is treated like other major news outlets when he sends out feelers to see if an organization is interested in publishing an upcoming investigation. All of the Fund’s work is published open-source, and it collaborates with others to provide work for the public benefit. “It would be really hard to argue that we have not fulfilled the requirements for nonprofit status,” Penniman said, though he allows that the brand connection with The Huffington Post “is strategically advantageous for us.”
When The Huffington Post picks up a Fund story, it does get read. One of its first stories in a series about insurance-claims denials featured a rape victim whose mental-health expenses were rejected for reimbursement. “We did that story in multimedia. The woman looked right into the camera and told her story. It was so powerful,” Penniman said, noting that several bloggers jumped on the story, followed by a few television journalists. Then several female members of Congress drafted legislation to deal with the issue. “It was instant impact,” Penniman said. “I was so gratified to see that as a journalist.”