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Non-profit Groups Financing Independent Journalism

June 24, 2008 at 6:45 PM EDT
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A rise in the number of non-profit organizations funding journalism projects is changing how newsrooms gather independent content. Two media experts discuss the shift in foreign and investigative reporting.

SCOTT PELLEY, correspondent, “60 Minutes”: America’s been struggling with its image…

JEFFREY BROWN: When “60 Minutes” correspondent Scott Pelley introduced a report on Sunday about the U.S.-funded al-Hurra network, he told viewers that the story was a collaboration with a new news organization called ProPublica.

The al-Hurra story was, in fact, the debut of ProPublica, an independent, nonprofit newsroom supported by private philanthropy and aimed at providing three in-depth investigative news stories to a variety of media organizations.

ProPublica’s Web site lists its funders. The Sandler Foundation, started by former bankers Herb and Marion Sandler, has made a major multi-year commitment and states as its mission to produce stories with moral force that shine a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them.

The effort comes at a time of upheaval in the news business amid advertising revenue losses, fewer readers and viewers, and resulting cuts in staffing that threaten traditional areas of coverage, including in-depth investigations and foreign reporting.

Cable television, for example, has in many cases turned to less expensive opinion journalism. In response, the journalism world is seeing a rise in independent nonprofit efforts.

Some, like the Center for Investigative Reporting, have been at it for years, providing stories to network and cable TV, as well as PBS’s “Frontline” and national newspapers, magazines and radio.

More recent projects include the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University in Washington and the Global News, which plans to be the first fully Web-based news organization to provide daily coverage of international news, building a team of 70 correspondents in 53 countries.

REPORTER: After nearly two decades of bitter conflict over Kashmir…

JEFFREY BROWN: The Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting also has an international focus, looking at stories it believes have been underreported, misreported, or not reported at all.

In addition, there are now many regional and city-based Web sites that focus on critical underreported stories in their area, such as the Center for Independent Media’s six spin-off sites in New Mexico, Minnesota, Michigan, Iowa, Colorado, and Washington, D.C.

New reporting fills gap

JEFFREY BROWN: And we look more at the nonprofit journalism model now with Paul Steiger, editor-in-chief of ProPublica and previously managing editor of the Wall Street Journal; and Alex Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy center of government.

Well, Paul Steiger, you've had a long career in traditional for-profit journalism. Now you're undertaking this. What's the biggest difference?

PAUL STEIGER, editor-in-chief, ProPublica: One of the biggest differences is that I know what my news budget is going to be for the next three years, whereas in the environment of even a great newspaper like the Wall Street Journal, every few months the estimates of revenues would change.

And very often I was being asked by top management to see if we could find $1 million here or $500,000 there, $2 million or $3 million dollars some place else. So it's great to be in a position where the funding is secure, at least for the next three years.

JEFFREY BROWN: Alex Jones, you've been watching the plight of the media business. Where do these nonprofits fit in, in terms of helping fill a gap or perhaps raising new questions?

ALEX JONES, Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy: I think they're definitely trying to fill a gap, because all of these new nonprofit entities are focused on what I think the public and others, you know, correctly view as a dearth of serious news and a dwindling supply of it, as the newspaper industry in this country shrinks its reportorial strength.

I've been watching ProPublica. I think ProPublica is a great development in this area. But I am saddened by something that Paul Steiger told me a while back, that he was deluged with applications from people who would have been theoretically working at some of the nation's greatest news organizations on investigative reporting that they would have been doing, but now either were out of jobs or were insecure enough in their own jobs to think that ProPublica, even with its three years of funding secured, was a better bet for them.

That, I think, reflects about what the real climate is in this country for this kind of expensive, vitally important kind of news.

Private funding vs. independence?

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me ask about both of you -- I'll start with you, Alex Jones -- about the questions that are always raised about any funding model, is the independence, the editorial integrity of the product, and who has the say in what kind of stories get done.

To what concerns, if any, do you have about this kind of nonprofit funding model?

ALEX JONES: Well, calling something "nonprofit-funded" journalism can cover an awful lot of things. If you have something like what Paul Steiger is running, Paul I know has secured absolute guarantees of independence.

But you now also have advocacy groups, you know, from the NRA to liberal ones, who are starting their news organizations. And they are going to have news as a form of advocacy.

And I think that it's one of the weaknesses of the nonprofit system of journalism that people who fund foundations and others can have their own perspectives on what success is in this kind of an area.

I hope that independent funders, such as the ones that Paul has secured, are going to be the rule. But, you know, you've got the Knight Foundation, for instance, is now trying to interest local foundations all across the country in supporting journalism in their own communities.

That's going to be something that will be a great help to the local news organizations, newspapers, for instance, that may not be doing in-depth work on education, much less investigative work. But if they get annoyed at what those reports are, then that funding, that enthusiasm, that kind of thing, it can disappear.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Paul Steiger, explain how it does work at ProPublica. And what kinds of concerns did you have coming into this?

PAUL STEIGER: Well, coming into this, when I talked to Herb and Marion Sandler, one of my concerns was precisely this question of independence and nonpartisanship.

I mean, I find nothing wrong with partisan-motivated reporting. That's just not me; that's not what I want to be involved in.

My history has been doing down-the-middle reporting. And so when I talked to Herb and Marion, I said, "Are you comfortable with that?" They said, "Absolutely." I said, "Well, suppose we did an expose of some of the left-leaning organizations that you have supported or that are friendly to what you've supported in the past." They said, "No problem."

And when we set up our organizational structure, the board of directors, on which I sit and which Herb is the chairman, does not know in advance what we're going to report on.

I think that's a very important consideration, and it gives me essentially the same freedom I had when I was running the Wall Street Journal.

Model for investigative journalism

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you see, Mr. Steiger -- I wonder -- I had a question myself, as I watched the first one, why "60 Minutes," which is, after all, a place which has a long tradition of investigative reporting? Why there?

And do you see this model, do you see a way to get stories into more local markets, where newspapers are having a harder time and certainly cutting back on these kinds of investigative pieces?

PAUL STEIGER: "60 Minutes" was a perfect place for us to be, and let me explain why. Our mission is not to try to shore up the economics of metro newspapers.

Here, you're talking about ships of hundreds of millions of dollars, whereas our budget is $10 million a year. But we do have in 25 journalists the largest single team of investigative reporters in the United States.

So we're in a position to do work in the public interest, work that exposes folks that we think are violating the public interest, and what we're seeking is the best possible way of getting that information to the public.

What could be better than "60 Minutes," with an audience on a slow weekend in June of 10 million and in a strong weekend during football season in the fall of 20 million or 25 million?

So we think it's a wonderful way for us to have our first story, to have it go out to 10 million viewers of "60 Minutes."

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Alex Jones, you know, you watched the growth of the foundation funding. And our own viewers can see in our credits every night that this is part of our funding, as well, nowadays.

Do you see this model growing into something that is a part of -- an important or majority part of what the kind of media that goes out? Or is it always going to be sort of marginal?

ALEX JONES: Well, I feel that the better model would be a commercially supported one, one supported by advertising or subscriptions, simply because it's got more people funding it and it has an underlay of security that's not quite as fickle as some of the foundations and nonprofits tended to be.

I mean, there are some great news organizations like the NewsHour, for instance, and like the Center for Public Integrity that have had real funding problems, not because the funders are bad, but because they change their minds about what their priorities were.

These foundations have a way of changing what they want to do. And there are not many of them -- not set up to be ongoing funders. They're funders for things that are start-ups, but then they expect it to take care of itself.

Well, nonprofit journalism is not geared to take care of itself. It's got to be supported. And that creates an inherent weakness that I think a commercial model, if we could find one that would sustain the high-quality kind of journalism that the nonprofits are willing at least for the short term to support, what we're looking for, I think, in the long term is finding a way to do that without foundation support being so critical to it.

JEFFREY BROWN: We just have about 30 seconds, Paul Steiger, but since you've been in both worlds, do you have a response to that?

PAUL STEIGER: No, I totally agree with that. The additional point is that, when you have a successful commercial model, it attracts imitators, so you get critical mass much more quickly than you do with nonprofits.

But in the current environment when, you know, newspapers are under enormous stress and other news organizations under enormous stress, there is a role for the nonprofit.

I was just out in San Diego, met with a couple of young guys that are running something called the Voice of San Diego. It's a nonprofit, totally online, new news enterprise that's focusing on breaking important public interest news in San Diego...


PAUL STEIGER: ... and they're challenging the other news organizations to meet their standards.

JEFFREY BROWN: OK. We have to leave it there. Paul Steiger and Alex Jones, thank you very much.

ALEX JONES: You're welcome.