By: Jean E. Herskowitz
Under the heading “necessity is the mother of invention,” investigative reporting nonprofits have popped up like journalists at a magazine-sponsored soiree offering free hors d’oeuvres and alcohol.
Using industry-renowned editors and staffers, the nonprofits take on in-depth investigations that newspapers no longer have the time or the staff to conquer. The larger nonprofits generally report on any number of public policy issues with the goal of exposing wrongs and making corporations and institutions — governmental and nongovernmental — accountable. Smaller outlets tend to focus on only one or two issues but with the same transparency and policy reform goals in mind.
These tax-exempt newsrooms, which provide paying jobs for journalists at a time when those are hard-won, give (and some recently sell) their stories to for-profit print, broadcast, and online news entities, as well as governmental institutions, NGOs, and others — the result being thorough and accurate investigative reports available to an eager public otherwise awash in a sea of Internet news and blogs whose information is at best unknown, and at worst inaccurate.
For newspapers and other media entities, including broadcast, the nonprofits are a windfall. “One third of the newspaper newsrooms in America have disappeared,” said Charles Lewis, executive editor of the Investigative Reporting Workshop out of American University’s School of Communication. “But the papers still must cover their markets; they need content. The nonprofits have content but need eyeballs. So there’s a natural marriage between for-profit newspapers and nonprofit news publishers.”
Dozens upon dozens of traditional media outlets have picked up hundreds of stories from these investigative newsrooms. While the smaller nonprofits share their stories with local outlets, distribution partners of larger nonprofits include all the major players: “60 Minutes,” National Public Radio, Salon, The New York Times, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Washington Post, and others. And in the truest spirit of cooperation, the nonprofits trade among themselves as well. Most of them have interactive features to give the public a direct voice and tools to data mine for themselves, for instance, the Center for Public Integrity’s searchable online databases.
Are there ethical issues newspapers must consider before allying with nonprofits? “I think you have the basic editorial question, which is you need to satisfy yourself about the skills and the integrity of anyone you would partner with in any way,” said ProPublica general manager Richard Tofel. “That would apply to a freelancer or any outside organization from which you’d take content. You need to have some insurance that people are up to the job you’re asking them to do.”
Funding is a major source of concern. Though a couple of the nonprofits have some mileage on them, most are still ventures, and without a sustained source of donations, they could, as they are all too aware, disappear overnight. This being the case, to what lengths are these news networks willing to go to keep donors’ dollars coming?
The overlap between nonprofits’ board members and their donors is definitely incestuous — fairly common in charitable organizations. Connections, however, aren’t everything in the nonprofit investigative news industry.
The head honcho of Manhattan-based, Pulitzer Prize-winning ProPublica, Paul E. Steiger, doubles as a trustee of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, which gives magnanimously to journalistic enterprises. And Knight Foundation president Alberto Ibargüen is on ProPublica’s board. But, as Tofel pointed out, “The Knight Foundation made a much larger grant to the Center for Public Integrity than to us.” (CPI had 51 employees to ProPublica’s 47, according to the groups’ respective 2009 Tax Form 990 filings.)
In fairness, Steiger actually became a Knight trustee more than a year before ProPublica’s establishment was announced and has recused himself from any Knight decisions about ProPublica.
And many foundations back more than one nonprofit investigative group. Both ProPublica and the Center for Public Integrity are backed by the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Ford Foundation, the Open Society Foundations, and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation (which also funds the Chicago News Cooperative). The Knight Foundation also gives to the Chicago News Cooperative and California Watch.
Though some nonprofits post their financial data on their websites, not all are as transparent. Lewis, whose Investigative Reporting Workshop was founded in 2009, researched 60 domestic and international nonprofit investigative reporting groups and found that “only 13 out of 60 organizations, or 22 percent, post their annual IRS 990 form on their website or otherwise make their annual operating budget and salary information available on their website.”
Just the same, he’s not discounting them. “I think people can trust them as much as they can a commercial, for-profit entity,” said Lewis, who founded the Center for Public Integrity in 1989 and still sits on its board. “People should look at who’s publishing it, look at their reputation, have they won awards … It’s an evolving space, and it needs to be tracked and watched.”
Two of the largest nonprofits, ProPublica and CPI, have started to sell advertising, which brings new layers of concern. Lewis doesn’t think advertising jeopardizes nonpartisanship, but that it may compromise values. “Will the nonprofits only do quick stories to feed the beast of having a daily story all the time? That’s the issue. Will the dynamic of doing high-quality journalism, which takes months and years, be affected by the need to always have advertising, which requires new content every day, several times a day?”
As well as the ProPublica/Knight marriage, Pro-Publica, at launch, received a major, multiyear funding commitment from the Sandler Foun-dation, headed by Herbert Sandler — chairman of ProPublica’s board. However, the Sandler Foundation has been funding progressive activist groups long before ProPublica came into being, and certainly some of its goals — particularly the exposing of corruption and abuse, and the advocating for vulnerable and exploited people — mirror ProPublica’s, so the funding is logical.
The president of the Pew Charitable Trusts, Rebecca W. Rimel, was on ProPublica’s board but stepped down before Pew gave them a grant. The latter prohibits its members from sitting on the board of an organization with which it has a grant relationship.
ProPublica boasts a venerable list of leaders: Steiger is a former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, managing editor Stephen Engelberg is a former managing editor of The Oregonian and was a New York Times investigative editor for 18 years, and Tofel is a former assistant publisher of The Wall Street Journal.
When asked if the monetary contributors lean left, Tofel said, “There is no question that the Sandler Foundation and the Sandlers personally have been more closely associated with Democrats than Republicans, and liberals than conservatives. And there are a couple of our other donors about whom you could say that, but many of our donors would consider themselves quite strictly nonpolitical.”
ProPublica lists its tax statements, donors, and board members openly on its website. Its 990 form shows only one anonymous donor giving $7,500. “The overall point,” Tofel said, “is that our board has essentially no editorial involvement. We have very strict rules here and have from the beginning; the board never knows what we are working on journalistically. They never see stories before we publish them or know what we’re going to publish or when we’re going to publish it. That applies to Mr. Sandler and everybody else. That’s something the board itself instituted at its first meeting before we ever started publishing.”
ProPublica’s 2011 budget, which must cover paychecks for 34 journalists, eight full-time non-news staff, and a number of paid news interns, is approximately $10 million. ProPublica states that nearly 85 percent of its total expenses go toward news coverage, compared with the 15 percent most leading newspapers and magazines direct toward reporting.
Center for Public Integrity
The 22-year-old Center for Public Integrity, based in Washington, D.C, covers a broad range of issues, including public health, the environment, public accountability, and federal and state lobbying — and within these issues nothing is off-limits for fear of alienating CPI funders, said executive editor John Solomon. “Anything that is accountability is fair game. It can be the media one day, a corporation the next day, and a government leader the next. It’s not uncommon for us to have a story linked on Drudge Report and Huffington Post on the same day, and I think that speaks volumes to the breadth and nonpartisanship that the center’s journalism reflects.”
Solomon worked at the Associated Press for 20 years and held an executive editorship at The Washington Times before joining CPI in 2010. “We make editorial judgments separate of the funding decisions,” he said. “There are people who would fund environmental coverage, but they don’t say what stories to cover, only, ‘We hope you have an environmental reporter who can do environmental coverage.’ No one has ever come to me and said, ‘you’d better write this or we can’t get a donation,’ nor would we ever allow that to happen.”
Being in the editorial department, in fact, shields him from a thorough knowledge of the latest grant-giving. “Obviously I know we’re supported by donations and know some of the big names, but … I’m sort of blinded to the day-to-day fundraising so that it doesn’t affect the editorial decisions I make.”
Why are the nonprofits getting so much play from the newspapers and other traditional media? Because they can take the time to do complex stories, Solomon said. He cited a story CPI broke on White House visitors’ lists — “No one had taken the time because that’s a big undertaking to go through 1.2 million records” — and other stories that take “weeks and weeks and weeks of research to accomplish.”
“We fought a two-year battle to get Medicare to release five years worth of records. No news organization has ever done that,” Solomon said about a Medicare abuse piece. “Those were the sort of things that 20 years ago, when for-profit newsrooms were flush with cash, they would do. Now most of them don’t have the time or resources or can’t bring the lawsuits and other things to jar information loose — the nonprofit world has done a great job filling that void to make sure the public remains informed.”
Solomon said that 73 percent of every contribution to CPI goes directly to investigative projects. The website touts that no support comes from labor unions, governments, or anonymous donors. “No corporate money,” Solomon said, adding that the foundations are mostly blue chip.
Chicago News Cooperative
The Chicago News Cooperative, covering Chi-town arts, culture, policy, and politics, is a smaller nonprofit — approximately eight salaried reporters and six freelancers.
Speaking thoughtfully, CNC co-founder and editor James O’Shea said he doesn’t see the need for the nonprofit to post its tax and financial statements on its website. “I mean I just don’t know why … Why would we do that? We tell people who the donors are, but I don’t particularly put amounts by the names.”
A moment later he amicably reconsidered. “Part of this could be that we got up and running pretty quickly.” He points out that their refurbished website — about three weeks old — replaces an elemental one dating back to November 2009, when CNC started producing content. “We have to sit down and maybe go back over that and say, ‘OK, what do we need to disclose and what don’t we disclose.’ We have no problem with disclosing. We want to disclose everything we can.”
As to administrative vs. journalism costs, O’Shea —former managing editor of the Chicago Tribune and past editor-in-chief of the Los Angeles Times — said, “Ninety-five percent of the money we receive goes back into journalism. Very little goes to administration. We’re very thin and lean.” He compared that to the 12 to 13 percent of the Chicago Tribune’s revenue dedicated to producing news.
O’Shea is dedicated to the cause. He is paid $150,000 a year now, but worked his first 16 months at CNC without a salary. He would have continued to serve gratis but was reminded that to be sustainable he had to generate revenue to cover salaries. “It was also nice to get a salary after almost two years without one.”
CNC is the first outside news organization to produce entire pages for The New York Times, publishing a section in the Chicago edition of the paper on Friday and Sunday. The association adds another level of reliability to CNC, as the nonprofit must adhere to the Times’ ethics policies.
While most of the nonprofit’s individual donors are board members, the newsroom doesn’t cater to them, he said. “If we would write a story that involves any one of them in any way, we would disclose it. There may be a subject where someone says for instance, ‘Why don’t you guys do a better story on education reform.’ But no board member has any kind of influence on whether we cover something or not. In fact, we’ve angered a couple of them with stories that we’ve published.”
“I wouldn’t know who most of our donors are if they were standing in front of me right now,” said California Watch editorial director Mark Katches.
Launched in 2009 by the Center for Investigative Reporting, California Watch exposes California’s dirty deeds (injustice, waste, mismanagement) in myriad areas and employs about 20 full-time and part-time journalists apart from CIR.
Although still technically a nonprofit, California Watch and CIR (founded in 1977) currently syndicate content to newspapers, television, and radio. “All for-profit organizations pay us,” Katches said. “It’s not a lot of money. It represents a fraction of our costs.”
While Katches is aware that many, “if not all,” of the reporting initiative’s donors are also board members, he said there is a wall between development and news at the organization and that the writers and editors are directed by “good journalist instincts and judgment, not donors. Frankly, he said, “we’re working on a story that directly looks at one person who has given us money. I can’t go into detail about that, but we don’t shy away from good stories in California.”
Are its donors leftwingers?
He acknowledges that there are backers who lend themselves more to democratic causes, but “we should be judged not on who gives us money, but on the product we produce.” He points out that California Watch has published articles taking Gov. Jerry Brown to task on some major initiatives, including the way he prosecuted elder abuse cases when he was attorney general before the campaign. They also exposed the special relationships Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) had with some major democratic donors. “So, if you look at the body of our work you’ll find that it’s very even-handed.”
Tax-wise, California Watch is not a separate entity, so any contribution to it is made to the Center for Investigative Reporting, Katches said. CIR’s website donor page announces its gratitude “for the gifts of several anonymous donors.”
“The nonprofit model is not static; it’s dynamic,” Lewis said. “We went from a few nonprofits, and suddenly we’re seeing a stunning number.”
He gives the organizations the benefit of the doubt. “CPI has won over 40 national journalism awards. ProPublica has won two Pulitzer Prizes, and they’ve only been around since 2008. The Center for Investigative Reporting, started in ’77, has also won dozens of national journalism awards — and an Oscar, for God’s sake. No one has filed more Freedom of Information requests in America than The National Security Archive (a Washington, D.C.-based independent non-governmental research institute and library), which has filed 40,000 FOIA requests and, again, has won dozens of awards.”
Jean Herskowitz is a freelance writer and lawyer living in Pittsburgh.