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Why Investigative Reporting Is On Life Support

Nonprofit muckraking organizations are mushrooming, but most of these have budgets less than $50,000 and five or fewer people on staff.

Nonprofit muckraking organizations are mushrooming, but most of these have budgets less than $50,000 and five or fewer people on staff.

Five years ago, there were 39 nonprofit investigative reporting organizations in the world. Today there are 106 of them in 47 countries. According to David Kaplan, director of the Global Investigative Journalism Network and author of a new study that maps this space, this number includes reporting centers, training institutes, professional associations, grant-making groups and online networks dedicated to investigative journalism.

These nonprofit groups range from lean, one-person operations to multimillion-dollar newsrooms like the Center for Public Integrity (the parent organization of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists) in Washington DC,  the Center for Investigative Reporting in San Francisco and ProPublica in downtown New York. They are everywhere – from Bosnia to Brazil, and from Iowa to Iraq.

The newest centers – in Italy and Pakistan – have been formed only in the past month. But most of these, says Kaplan, have budgets of less than $50,000 and five or fewer people on staff. Yet, many of them wield clout that is disproportionate to their size, producing or enabling high-quality, high-impact journalism that holds wrongdoers to account.

Most of these organizations have been formed only in the last decade. In the U.S., the growth has been spurred in part by the demise of newspapers and the downsizing of investigative staffs in traditional newsrooms.

Elsewhere, the formation of investigative reporting groups has less to do with collapsing business models than with the emergence of new democracies and the dysfunctional meda systems that have taken root during the democratic transition.

Kaplan attributes the phenomenal expansion of the nonprofit model in part to donor support. He calculates that annually, some $12.5 million in donor funds go to investigative reporting organizations outside the U.S. That’s just two percent of the nearly $500 million that donors spend every year on media assistance.

I ran a nonprofit investigative reporting center in the Philippines for 17 years, and so have intimate knowledge of the challenges faced by these investigative reporting organizations. For sure, physical threats and legal harassment are difficult to deal with, but more routine problems – like training and keeping talented staff, managing partnerships with mainstream news organizations, and perhaps most formidable of all, ensuring a stable revenue stream – can be even more challenging.

I’ll wager that for the most part, directors of investigative nonprofits stay awake at night thinking about next year’s payroll rather than contemplating jail time because of a controversial story.

The sustainability issue is a difficult one. Investigative reporting has mostly been subsidized – in profitable newsrooms, by money-earning sections of the business, and in unprofitable ones, by owners with deep pockets or political agendas (or both). Independent nonprofits can be brave and nimble because they don’t have to please press proprietors; neither are they saddled with legacy newsrooms or news products. They can afford to be experimental and innovative; they can take risks – and reap the rewards accordingly.

The downside is that they are in an unending race to raise money, whether it is from foundations, rich individuals or earned revenue. At the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism, we made at one point up to a third of our annual budget from the sale of books, the syndication of stories and training courses. We tried everything, including selling DVDs, magazine subscriptions and even a game that could be downloaded on mobile phones (it was a nice experiment but flopped as a revenue-earner). We’ve contemplated setting up money-making businesses, including café, a conference center, even a Kinko’s type of operation but chickened out because we were fundamentally journalists, not businesspeople. Besides, investigative journalism was risky enough as a business.

In a forum sponsored by the Center for International Media Assistance in Washington, D.C. last week, Kaplan argued for more donor funds for investigative reporting organizations around the world. He said that the funds could go to supporting national organizations as well as regional and international networks. These groups need help with training and with sustainability, he said, and the international support that they currently get is miniscule, especially compared to their impact and potential for bringing about reforms.

Both he and Drew Sullivan of the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project want donors to take a more coherent and strategic approach, eschewing things like one-off training courses for more programmatic support that includes funds for reporting as well as sustainability, capacity building and legal and physical safety. (A video of the forum can be viewed here; Sullivan also wrote a critical report on donor funding for investigative journalism in emerging democracies.)

I was in that forum as well, and expressed concern about the capacity of these organizations to spend say, twice or thrice more than their current budgets. Most of them, given their current size and capabilities, can grow only incrementally.

I believe many groups deserve more support than they are currently getting, but also worry that if they become accustomed to certain levels of foreign support, they will be left holding the bag as donor attention shifts before they can develop revenue streams.

The truth is that nonprofits occupy only a small, albeit important, place in the watchdog space. Commercial media, especially independent media, are doing accountability journalism as well. Publications like Tempo in Indonesia, The Mail & Guardian in South Africa, Caixin in China and Tehelka in India are producing prizewinning watchdog reporting. Support for independent media, like the loans and investment provided by the Media Development Loan Fund, is therefore as crucial. [Disclosure: I am on the MDLF board.]

Meanwhile, as the investigative capacity in traditional newsrooms in the West declines, advocacy groups like Human Rights Watch and Global Witness are filling the watchdogging gap, fielding researchers, many of them former journalists, to dig up the dirt. And this is how the future looks: A watchdog ecosystem that professional journalists share, rather than dominate – a space that includes advocacy groups, citizens, bloggers and partisan muckrakers. If we get it right, that space will be vibrant and alive.

This article was originally published in Watchdog Watcher and is reproduced with kind permission. Lifesaver image by Shutterstock.

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