BERKELEY, CALIFORNIA — In the world of American investigative nonprofits, the Center for Investigative Reporting is the oldest and one of the best recognized. Founded in 1977 by a small group of investigative reporters, CIR has grown considerably since, amassing numerous awards. It now employs a full-time staff of twenty and works with an annual budget of over $4 million. CIR has broken stories ranging from the degeneration of the Black Panther Party into a criminal gang to the problems at the heart of the carbon-trading market, and has partnered with some of the nation’s most respected news organizations. It also launched California Watch, an investigative team within CIR that has quickly become a bedrock of quality journalism in California. [UPDATE: In May 2012, CIR announced that it had merged with California local news nonpofit The Bay Citizen. The merger added a few members to the CIR board that originally ran The Bay Citizen. CIR now features a new executive chairman, Phil Bronstein who will work together with executive director Robert Rosenthal.]
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But CIR is also unique because of the diversity of its content. “The Muckraker,” CIR’s blog, to which over seventeen different writers contribute, looks at major stories (usually investigative) in the news. The site’s “Reporter Tools” section provides different guides, links, resources, and tips for aspiring journalists and citizen journalists. CIR’ s articles also often have interactive components, such as a chart paired with a story about homeland security earmarks that allows readers to select a state from the drop-down menu to track the congresspeople involved and the direction of the money.
“The key asset we have is unique stories and credibility,” executive director Robert Rosenthal said. “And it’s all happening at a time when traditional newsrooms have shrunk and investigative content has been cut back on. Their audiences want watchdog journalism.”
A 2009 story CIR co-produced with The Nation, “Iraq’s New Death Squad,” is a chilling story about the Iraq Special Operations Forces (ISOF): a lethal, U.S.-trained military group feared for its savagery and almost completely unaccountable to the Iraqi government.
CIR’s stories have appeared in over twenty-five different publications, like The Washington Post or Harper’s, often being re-purposed for different formats and different locales. While creating content appropriate for a myriad of mediums and publications is a challenging task, it allows CIR to generate more revenue and rely less on philanthropy.
“Part of what we’re doing, besides the storytelling, is trying to look at the issue of sustainability and charge for our content,” said Rosenthal. “I think a lot of this wasn’t that we were smart, it was just that we were willing to try almost anything and I think that’s the difference in the new culture that we’re a part of.”
Rosenthal said that part of this new culture is the alignment between the business and journalistic operations of the publication.
“In the old model, when I was the editor of The [Philadelphia] Inquirer, there was a huge conflict between the business side and the editorial side,” Rosenthal said. “Their core value was profit. The newsroom really wanted to do good journalism.”
Now, Rosenthal said, the conflict is simply nonexistent.
“There is total alignment,” Rosenthal said. “We’re working very hard right now on building a business model.”
Ideally, Rosenthal wants to bring in 35 percent of its revenue through content, subscriptions, and advertising. It’s a plan on which he says everyone agrees, as long as it doesn’t sacrifice CIR’s core values of good investigative journalism.
Center For Investigative Reporting Data
Name: Center For Investigative Reporting
Revenue Sources, other: CIR charges all for-profit news organizations (newspapers, magazine, websites, television and radio partners) to distribute its work. There are also royalties from films and co-produced projects.
Principal Staff: Lowell Bergman, Dan Noyes, Henry Weinstein,
David Weir, founders; Robert Rosenthal, executive director; Phil Bronstein, executive chair.
CJR on the Center for Investigative Reporting:
05/01/10: The New Investigators - Nonprofits are breaking new ground. Can they sustain themselves? - Jill Drew
02/08/10: Behind the Veil: Covering Iraq’s Women in Hiding - CJR presents an ongoing video series about the work of investigative reporters - The Center for Investigative Reporting
06/05/09: Colombian Journalists Track Guerrilla War on Contravía - CJR presents an ongoing video series about the work of investigative reporters - The Center for Investigative Reporting