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.
But our democracy’s need for higher-quality reportage has substantially increased. It’s time for civil society, especially the nation’s foundations and individuals of means, to collaborate with journalists and experts who understand the changing economics of journalism in an imaginative, visionary plan that would support our precious existing nonprofit institutions and help to develop new ones—the Associated Presses and Morning Editions and Frontlines of the future, in all forms of media. As Bill Kovach, the chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists, puts it, “I think we have to really count on philanthropic organizations, at least in an interim period while this destabilization continues. Because most news organizations are so scared and so unsure of themselves, they are not protecting their franchise. And somehow a philanthropy that believes in democracy has to help stabilize it.”
There are tantalizing signs that specific philanthropic institutions and individuals finally realize just how severe the crisis has become. The question is: Can they overcome their sometimes short-term thinking and fickle, often idiosyncratic nature and make significant, multi-year commitments to strengthen or build pillars of journalism in their communities, the nation, and beyond? Can they think outside their own agendas and embrace the inherent value of accurate, nonpartisan information to our national discourse?
The journalists are ready. More than at any time I can remember in the past thirty years, respected journalists in the U.S. and around the world, frustrated by what has become of their profession, appear to be increasingly interested in carpe diem entrepreneurship, in starting, leading, or working in new nonprofit newsrooms locally, nationally, and even internationally. And in recent months, major philanthropists and journalists, in different settings around the country, have been talking to each other about what is needed and what is possible.