< BACK TO THE HOME PAGE 4 comments
Inside FRONTLINE Who Will Pay for Investigative Journalism?
June 10, 2010
This is Nathan Tobey, FRONTLINE's online engagement coordinator. For the next few days, I'm blogging from the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) Conference in Las Vegas.
Before I left, Mike Sullivan, FRONTLINE's executive producer for special projects, pointed me to the investigation that put the IRE on the map. A year after the organization's founding (1975), one of its members, Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles, was murdered while looking into land fraud and organized crime. The IRE came together, and 38 journalists from newspapers and TV stations across the country went to Arizona to finish reporting Bolles' story.
Three decades on, the IRE's still going strong. But its members face a very different challenge now: the collapse of funding models to support their work. While the revelations reporters dig up are essential to blogs, news aggregators and social media sites, these new media entities are undercutting newspapers' and television stations' advertising-driven business model faster than they can devise a new model to replace it. Google believes that its targeted advertising, along with paid online subscriptions, can eventually generate enough revenue to help bridge the funding gap -- but that remains to be seen.
So who will pay for investigative journalism?
On the flight to Las Vegas, I talked this over with veteran investigative reporter Joe Bergantino, director of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting. His organization, along with other pioneers such as ProPublica and CaliforniaWatch are working hard to develop innovative funding models.
On the first day of the conference, a variety of new funding approaches were discussed by a panel -- "Nonprofit Watchdog Centers: The do's and don'ts of fundraising." Currently, most investigative groups are funded by philanthropic individuals and foundations, which can only do so much, for so long. "Foundations cannot sustain you indefinitely," said panelist Sue Hale, a media consultant for the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.
Coming out of these discussions, here are a few interesting questions that came up:
1. Is "research-for-hire" a model?
The Economist and a few others, including the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, are making money by doing research-for-hire. Is there a model there? If you do try it, Joe Bergatino cautions, "you should consider this as a separate arm of the organization. It should not be done by the same people doing the journalism."
2. Why don't media outlets see the uniqueness of depth?
Why are traditional media outlets still focusing on breaking news, sports coverage and other short-form work at the expense of investigative journalism? Many people are getting breaking news from Twitter and local sports coverage from hyperlocal sites and Facebook. Most of the national sites end up publishing slight variations on the same stories each day. Investigative journalism is, arguably, the only truly unique content news outlets have to offer. It's time to turn this model on its head.
3. Does investigative journalism need to be rebranded?
The worst-case scenario is that there just aren't enough Americans who would care about investigative work, even if they did know more about it.
4. How should we creatively diversify our funding sources?
On yesterday afternoon's panel Joe Bergantino noted: "When you look at how journalism has been funded historically, it's often been supported by other unrelated revenue-generating parts of organizations they were in." In the past, the owners of many conglomerates did not expect their news operations to make a profit. Now, conglomerates almost uniformly do. So perhaps journalists can start their own diversified ventures to fund the journalism, or work closely with a business that will.
Ending yesterday's panel on an up note, Maggie Mulvihill, associate director of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, said: "It's absolutely the most exciting time to do investigative journalism in the 20 years I've been doing this. Many people and organizations are interested in partnering with us and supporting our work. And we are finding ways to do what we love. I would gladly scrub the floors three days a week, if I could do this the other two days." Moreover, the Internet has created more opportunities for audience engagement and true interactivity than ever before.
As a side note, if you have not checked out Demand Media, take a look. They have mined search-engine data and relied on freelancers to take the Internet ad-based funding model to its logical and disciplined extreme. In the process, they've come up with one of the few genuinely profitable models for creating content. It is fascinating, and a bit disturbing.