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The state of investigative journalism in America is in its five-alarm fire phase, with newspaper staffs being severely pared down, and TV news going for flash and celebrity. But Charles Lewis, the godfather of non-profit investigative journalism as founder and former director of the Center for Public Integrity, would rather put out the fire than simply yell “fire!”

“I actually think it’s one of the most exciting times in the history of journlism even though it sometimes feels like there’s a piano coming down on our heads,” he told me in an in-depth conversation we had recently. And more to the point: “I’m a doer, not a bemoaner, and I’m tired of bemoaning, I want to create.”

And Lewis has been prodigious in his creations, leaving a successful career as a producer for “60 Minutes” to launch the non-profit Center for Public Integrity in 1988 to do independent watchdog work on the U.S. government, with hundreds of investigative reports bringing in dozens of awards. Not to mention the successful book series, “The Buying of the President,” and a Polk Award for sussing out the Halliburton connection to so many defense contracts in Afghanistan and Iraq.

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But Lewis left the Center in 2004, and is now launching the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University’s School of Communication (SOC), where he is a professor. Lewis says the Workshop will include “all-stars” of the investigative journalism world, undergraduate and grad students at SOC, as well as faculty at the school — all working on important long-term investigative stories while also testing out new methods and technologies for doing their work. Plus, they’re going to try to solve the problem of anemic funding for investigative journalism.

And where does Lewis get his inspiration for this incubating, experimental workshop? Would you believe: the workshop that created Big Bird, the Children’s Television Workshop?

“I use the name ‘Workshop’ because I was always fascinated with the Children’s Television Workshop, which of course incubated Big Bird and ‘Sesame Street’ and other programming,” he said. “I’d like to spawn new models and new entities and make it a friendly atmosphere for entrepreneurialsm — for non-profits, for-profits and hybrids of both. That’s an unusual dimension to this.”

Because Lewis had done such an amazing job creating the Center for Public Integrity (even if it struggled mightily when he left), many high-profile folks are lining up to help him with the Workshop, including advisors such as former L.A. Times editor John Carroll and computer-assisted journalism guru Phil Meyer.

I spoke to Lewis about his aims for the Workshop as well as his thoughts on various online journalism efforts, from TalkingPointsMemo to The Smoking Gun and ProPublica. The following is an edited transcript of our discussion.

Now that you’ve left the Center for a few years, do you have any regrets about leaving, and how do you think the Center has changed since you left?

Charles Lewis: I regret what happened to my staff and the condition of the Center. It’s no secret it had a less than enviable few years. But that’s one of the reasons I thought it was important to leave. I had founded it and run it for 15 years, and at some point the founder does have to leave the building. Leaving at the 20-year mark, or 25-year mark, or 30-year mark wouldn’t have made such a transition easier; in fact, it would have made it even more difficult.

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Charles Lewis

There is something called the Founder Syndrome, and one of the problems is that the transition period is difficult because people think of the organization in terms of one person. I was trying to make it something beyond “Chuck’s Excellent Adventure” — less about me and more about the idea of having a watchdog entity in the nation’s capital doing investigative work.

I don’t regret it, I think it was important that I left, but I do feel badly about the hardship it brought to people I think the world of. On a personal and human level, I feel bad for those folks and have spent dozens of hours helping people work through things.

What do I think of things currently? It’s been a bumpy time. Bill Buzenberg is the third director since I left, but they have turned an important corner, and it’s back, and will continue to do important work. I’m doing everything I can discreetly to help them from outside the organization.

Tell me about American University. What was your attraction to going there?

Lewis: I was a visiting professor at Princeton for a semester [in 2005], and then I was a Shorenstein Fellow at Harvard for the spring of ’06. I was offered things at various other schools. I had folks ask me to apply to jobs ranging from dean to endowed chairs. The problem was that I had been traveling heavily for 30 years, going back to ABC News in the ’70s and I was interested in not traveling. So I wanted to settle down in Washington, DC.

When I was at Princeton, 40% of the class wanted to be investment bankers. That is probably not the case at American University. And being in Washington was important, and I worked with students at American University on the “Buying of the President” books. I like to spend time with people I respect and share similar values, and I don’t like to put up with bastards. I like to keep that quotient as low as possible. And the dean at American is doing a lot of new things there. American is being seen outside Washington as an exciting place to be.

Specifically to the School of Communication, the J-Lab is moving to American. I made my decisions and kinship with American many years back, but there is something going on, and I’m not just saying that because I’m there.

How did the idea for the Workshop come about?

Lewis: When I left the Center, I had conversations with Larry Kirkman, the dean [at American] and Wendell Cochran, the head of journalism. I had started other things, including co-founding Global Integrity, the Fund for Independence in Journalism, and founding the Center for Public Integrity’s International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, besides the Center for Public Integrity itself. I have some sort of tic or defective DNA where I feel the need to start things. I was exhausted coming out of the Center experience, doing 80 to 100 hours per week for 15 years, but I also understand that’s what I do.

It took me a year and a month to come up with the idea [for the Workshop]. It’s doing demonstration projects for investigative reporting, with all-star journalists who will come in as senior fellows, or by individual faculty, and working with commercial or other outlets for dissemination and rollout of those projects. I’ve done this before, but it will be a little different than that. It would have a cluster group of all-stars that would be doing things that would be disseminated in a multimedia way, and because of the web would go globally. And they would take as long as is necessary. One project we’re contemplating would take three to five years.

These are books, documentaries and all kinds of things in between. What makes it different than anything in the country is that we’re going to look to incubate new models of doing investigative journalism. It’s in great peril at the moment and is in free-fall. This kind of journalism is the most expensive, time-consuming and risky in terms of litigation. This is really extraordinarily ambitious — and some would say foolhardy. I’ve done a lot of work in the non-profit world, and the fact is that we need new models that will help pay for this work. And it might not just be some exciting investigative reporting centers; it might be something better, larger, with greater impact than that.

I want the Workshop to be a laboratory of sorts, like what the MIT Media Lab was supposed to be (I’m just joking). They never devoted that much time and energy to investigative reporting. That’s my world and I think it’s in deep trouble right now. I’ve been studying the economics of journalism for two years. Like everyone, I’ve been to six or eight symposia and conferences on the future of journalism. I’ve never been in AA, but I imagine this is what their meetings must be like. I’m a doer, not a bemoaner, and I’m tired of bemoaning, I want to create. The Workshop is a platform for many things to follow.

How do you see the partnership working? You said there would be professionals, faculty, students — how do you see that playing out?

Lewis: In a few years, American University will have a state-of-the-art convergent newsroom, which was designed by the same people who did the Bloomberg operation in New York. The facility will be state-of-the-art, and that’s relevant because we’ll be operating in all the cutting-edge media forms.

The projects are macro about our society, they are major projects that will make an impact in our world. I’m talking to leading television producers as well as leading Pulitzer Prize winning reporters. The Workshop will be manageable, there won’t be 40 staffers like at the Center. My goal is to have a cluster group of all-stars with high quality interaction with upper class undergrads, grad students and bringing in writers from outside that we care about. The interactions with the news organizations would have to be close and early. We wouldn’t dump it on their lap at the last second.

Newsrooms are being substantially shrunk, and the ones who are left are ready to jump out a window because they have too much to do and too little time, or they think they’ll be fired next week. Those newsrooms desperately need content, and the students would be thrilled to have those clips.

The goal isn’t to have the students be the mainstream media’s outsource mechanism — that’s not what I’m trying to do. What I’m trying to do is investigative journalism that has resonance with hopefully hundreds of millions of people. The web can do that with the wonderful viral effect, but if I can utilize the old-fashioned transition media, then I’ll get the best of both worlds and get people who are on the web and those who aren’t.

You said you wanted to set yourself apart from other projects by using new methods for investigative work. What you have seen out there that you’d like to build on?

Lewis: I do embrace some of the new elements. I think crowdsourcing is incredibly valuable. There was a Gannett paper in Florida, the News-Press in Ft. Meyers, that did some great work with crowdsourcing [the cost of new water and sewer lines]. Clearly citizens can be extremely helpful.

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The Center for Public Integrity produced a little noted book that I’m deeply proud of called Citizen Muckraking. It was going to be produced in the mid-‘90s and that was before the Internet became popular. We were looking at how citizens go to public meetings when they are upset and they ask questions because they’re interested in something in their community. It’s the first step that journalists take, and those people are fundamentally useful as sources for journalists. So we profiled 10 local citizens who got angry and got engaged in their communities and we had professional journalists critique their techniques and explain what else they could have done.

Do you think citizen journalism can help inform investigative reports?

Lewis: I’ve always believed in some citizen input, but I’m also tethered to having some quality control. The litigation and accountability factor of the web hasn’t played itself out yet, but it will over time. Having people say ‘let’s go investigate a subject and send me your stuff’ (I’m exaggerating); the ‘kumbaya’ approach to journalism won’t work either. It has to be something where we use the wisdom of the crowds but we have quality control. I haven’t seen anything to date that I’m terribly impressed with.

Is that something we’re focusing on heavily and something we want to look at? Everything is on our agenda, and I am open-minded about it. TPM [TalkingPointsMemo’s work on the attorney story] is a case of following a story closely and devoting space to it over weeks and months. It’s not a revolutionary concept, but they did a very good job of it. The problem is that we’ve seen the gutting of newsrooms to the point where very few reporters have the luxury to bird-dog a subject day in and day out like that.

I am interviewing great journalists for the past half century for my next book. I interviewed Barry Sussman, who was the Watergate editor, the boss of Woodward and Bernstein. He is the one who told Washington Post management that they were the two reporters to put on the Watergate story. He rode herd and bird-dogged that story 24/7 for the first year and a half. How many news organizations have one full-time editor who’s overseeing one story full time for that period of time? Almost none.

I am a big believer in the Lord Acton approach to journalism: Life is a matter of application — if you take great people and give them time and resources, they will do great journalism. My M.O. is not that complicated. I think the technology from satellite imagery and geo-mapping, all the cool stuff you can do, make it more exciting and add more breadth and depth to what’s possible. But we also need immensely talented kick-ass journalists who have the time to do their work. And that central ingredient at the moment is in a desperate way.

As a former TV producer, I love the idea of video and audio streaming and I accept that the future is YouTube. My son watches YouTube for hours a day, I can’t get him to turn it off. I know we’re moving to a video/audio, less-text future for our culture. Am I happy about it? With all the books I cherish and still struggle to write and my own generational perspective, of course it’s something I’m not necessarily thrilled about. But I am very much excited by the possibilities, and I fully expect to reinvent and embrace and adapt and further develop some of those things.

What about the business model of TPM living outside the mainstream media world? Do you think there are more opportunities for people to start up their own media outlets?

Lewis: I think it’s a struggle. What Josh Marshall has been able to do is powerful and immensely exciting, and the fact that he’s a PhD historian is impressive as well.

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Josh Marshall

The gatekeeper model has deteriorated very badly. We still have elite media that did not get the memo about not being gatekeepers anymore, and still try to control stories. We still have Scott McClellan’s book ending up on page A19 of the New York Times. The idea of a press secretary to the president of the United States dissing his president about a war and his truthfulness was not deemed important enough for page 1 of the New York Times… That is beyond ridiculous but it is also not surprising.

We are at a very strange time in history where the gatekeeper is eroding and will morph into some other form that will be influential with news organizations down the road, but there are tens of millions of other places you can get information. Some people say we should go back to the days of partisan media, with partisans bashing each other over the head. I know we have always had that and will always have that, but do I want to be one of those people? No. I don’t believe in Republican truth and Democratic truth.

I’m not being critical of TPM, and I like that he’s for-profit and that he’s pulled it off. The fact that their reporting held up, they obviously have a point of view, and their investors and readers are folks of a certain ilk. That’s fine, that’s their audience, but in the last year, they have entered into the traditional media radar who are acknowledging what they are doing. That shows progress and shows it has moved on from just being a chest thumper on either side. I have the most respect for people who shake loose hidden truths and tell us things about our society that we don’t know and are a little unpredictable.

What do you think about The Smoking Gun, where they have three people going through documents?

Lewis: I am not an expert on The Smoking Gun website, to be fair to them, but what I have seen is not overly substantive. It’s got a little bit of a sensational quality to them. Maybe I’m a bit of a stick in the mud. I like the notion of digging stuff out and making it available. I think that’s a real public service. I would like that function done if it did not involve celebrities, or things that are not important, to me, I guess. I know some people do care about that, and it brings eyeballs, which helps pay the bills. I don’t mean to sound overly difficult in my judgment, I’m waiting to see more and hope they will dig into more serious issues. The concept is an interesting one.

Or maybe someone will take up their same methods to cover more serious topics?

Lewis: That’s the beauty of what’s happening right now. People are learning from others basically every minute. That’s really exciting, the synapses are always jumping. I actually think it’s one of the most exciting times in the history of journlism even though it sometimes feels like there’s a piano coming down on our heads. It’s a very strange thing. Some would call it masochism, but there’s something very bizarre going on and very exciting simultaneously.

What do you think might come out of ProPublica?

Lewis: As someone who’s been thought of as an ambassador of sorts for non-profit journalism, I think that what they represent is very exciting, because it shows that donors with little history in supporting investigative journalism are willing to pay large sums of money, more than we’ve seen in a long, long time. With the exception of the start of NPR and PBS 40 years ago, we haven’t seen that much money put out to start something, $30 million, that’s more than any foundation has put down for journalism. To have a top editor from the Wall Street Journal to run it and have Steve Engelberg, who’s very well respected, there as well is important, and they’re paying top dollar.

I’ve been a big believer that quality begets quality. If you have quality people then they will create quality content. They have gone from zero to 100 miles per hour, they’ve gone from not existing to being the largest non-profit journalism enterprise in terms of budget in the span of a few months. What we don’t know is the significance of the work they will do, but I can’t imagine it won’t be impressive given who’s involved. What I’m trying to figure out is the long-term — is this a flash in the pan? Will the donor stick with it? They’re supposed to put out journalism in the next month, and we don’t know the subject matter. What we do know is it’s quote-unquote important journalism.

I am hopeful that it works for them because it helps non-profit journalism. The gap that we need to fill with investigative journalism in this country is very large, and I’ve come to the conclusion that we need other models. These individual centers are nice and they are national treasures, but we need to do more than this.

I actually think we’re in a very serious situation here. If we’re not careful we’re going to have nothing but a morass of information that’s relatively mindless, and no one will be watching the store. That’s dangerous. Someone has to watch those folks in power, regardless of their power. The role of journalists is that watchdog role. The two most expensive and endangered species of journalism today are international journalism and investigative journalism, and you’ve got every major news organization shutting down bureaus around the world. This has been a difficult time for investigative journalists, so somebody better come up with Plan B. I don’t know if I can do it, but I think it’s important enough to devote time to try to figure it out.

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What do you think about the new Workshop at American University? Do you think it can help come up with new approaches to investigative journalism? What other promising ways do you see this kind of in-depth work changing in the Digital Age? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

Photo of Josh Marshall by JD Lasica via Flickr.