Over the past three decades, the Center has conducted dozens of successful investigations and won most major journalism honors. Its modus operandi has always been to release investigative findings the way a freelance journalist would, through major media outlets. For example, Washington Post reporter Robert O’Harrow Jr., who has carved out a unique information technology and privacy beat at the paper, took a leave of absence—financially supported by the Center—and in 2005 produced “No Place to Hide,” a multimedia project about disconcerting alliances between commercial data-services companies and government antiterrorism efforts. A series of stories in the Post, a bestselling book, an ABC News primetime documentary, and an American RadioWorks documentary all combined to create a public furor and prompted Congressional hearings. The Center accepts income from foundations, contract revenue from news outlets, and individual donations; its annual budget of approximately $1.5 million supports a full-time staff of nine and numerous independent contractors.
There are other, much smaller, nonprofit investigative journalism organizations outside the U.S., including the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism in Manila, and the newer and even smaller Romanian Center for Investigative Journalism in Bucharest. In 1989, just after the collapse of the Ferdinand Marcos regime, Sheila Coronel and eight other Filipino journalists founded the highly respected Philippine Center. With an annual operating budget of $500,000 and a staff of roughly ten, the Philippine Center went on to expose the corruption of subsequent presidents, including Joseph Estrada, who was removed from office after the Center uncovered the tens of millions of dollars he had spent building lavish mansions for his mistresses. (Last year Coronel passed the baton to a successor and became the first director of the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.) The Philippine Center receives roughly 25 percent of its annual income from the interest on an endowment seeded by the Ford Foundation, 60 percent from grants and individual contributions, and 15 percent from the sale of books, magazine subscriptions, and reports.
Three investigative reporters from the Bucharest daily Evenimentul Zilei—Stefan Candea, Paul Radu, and Sorin Ozon—started the Romanian Center in 2001. Despite being chronically underfunded, it is well regarded for its courageous reporting on corruption in the region. Radu told me that he and his partners created the Center because of the poor quality of investigative journalism in Romania, and the great need for it, because of “the ties between high-ranking officials, organized crime groups, and crooked intelligence officers.”
Back in the United States, we also have seen some innovative, cross-platform collaboration and synergies between investigative reporters and universities. The considerable human and physical resources of those institutions—researchers eager both to learn and be mentored, libraries, office space, experts in various disciplines—help respected investigative journalists do their important work. For example, Lowell Bergman, as a journalism professor at Berkeley, benefits from students’ research for his investigative projects, such as a powerful series on worker safety he did for both The New York Times and Frontline.
David Protess, at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, famously launched the Medill Innocence Project in 1999. He and his students investigate miscarriages of justice and, in close collaboration with the commercial media in Illinois, have contributed to the exoneration of ten innocent men and women, five from death row. Florence Graves, founder and editor of the now-defunct Common Cause Magazine, began what is now called the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University in 2004. It has since collaborated with both The Washington Post (an exposé of airline safety at Boeing) and The Boston Globe, and also is beginning its own Innocence Project. Bill Moushey, a former Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter, runs an Innocence Institute out of Point Park University in Pittsburgh; Steve Weinberg at the University of Missouri (and a former contributing editor to CJR) expects a similar project to get under way in that state in January, drawing on resources from the university’s four campuses, including law and journalism students.
Our disillusionment with the limitations of the commercial broadcast news media is not new. PBS and NPR were created roughly forty years ago in part due to a perception that the public needed more substantive, enriching news. And we often forget that, as detailed above, philanthropic foundations were instrumental in helping to create these two vital, national nonprofit institutions and their noncommercial systems of distribution.