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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?

How can journalists make the funding of investigative reporting a priority for the public, foundations and civic-minded corporations? Perhaps investigative journalists need to do a better job of telling their story and making the case for the value of their work. After Watergate, its value was celebrated. Today, it's not really part of the national conversation.

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.



I can't speak for the rest of the U.S., but investigative journalism seems to be taking less precedence. With sites like WikiLeaks, there's a blur between reporter and 'net idiot.

I tracked this link from Frontline's Twitter (twitter.com/frontlinepbs); I follow Frontline chiefly because the pieces their staff do are relevant several years down the line (example: their Darfur piece).

The chief problems of investigative journalism are money and how to sustain it. Few readers will pay for something that will take months or years to uncover; blame that on the "now, dammit!" attitude of many readers today.

I can only wonder how things will change in 5 years time, let alone 10. Cross your fingers boys 'n girls; the next decade will prove to be interesting times.

sng-ign / June 11, 2010 1:32 PM

The value of investigative journalism would increase if it were directly connected to mechanisms that solve the problems addressed.

Will / June 11, 2010 3:38 PM

So what I'm hearing here is journalism based on long-term demand? With a target audience of education, news eaters, political-checking sustenance, and more education, the essence of the field would ultimately have to change if advertising, a capitalistic model, becomes a driving point.

It certainly won't be the same journalism that we used to have.

atmzeal / June 11, 2010 8:01 PM

If you could get this to Nathan Tobey, I would appreciate it.

I am vice president/news for the Gannett company and would love to meet him at IRE. Would like to tell him about Gannett's involvement in investigative journalism, in response to his posting from here.

Kate Marymont / June 12, 2010 11:41 AM

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