Franklin Center’s Take on ProPublica’s Pulitzer

By: Jason Stverak

ProPublica’s Pulitzer Prize win shows two things:

1. Nonprofit journalism organizations are producing quality, accurate, unbiased, real investigative pieces that are changing the way citizens get news;

2. Investigative journalism is not dead nor is its massive decline at traditional journalism outlets a sign of a waning interest by the public.

Investigative journalism, the most effective weapon of the press, all but disappeared from newsrooms. Many traditional newsrooms no longer have the staff or financial resources to send a reporter across town, let alone cross country, to investigate a story. As such newspapers are curbing reporters’ ability to spend the time and money to investigate difficult stories in addition to covering their daily beats.

The staggering statistics related to the decline of journalism jobs are signs of the changing nature of journalism. According to The Nation, of the 60,000 print journalists employed in 2001 at least 10,000 lost their jobs while newspaper circulation dropped 7 percent. An American Journalism Review study found that only 355 full-time newspaper reporters still cover state capitols and 44 statehouses have fewer full-time reporters than they did six years ago.

The journalism crisis became evident when newsrooms were forced to slash staff and resources as local and regional media pushed for higher margins only to see revenues flatten, then decline, then crash.

The combined power of the rise and sophistication of search engines like Google and the increased ease and accessibility of blogs and bloggers has provided a medium and market for this new generation of would-be news gathers. Along the way, niche publications launched and investigative work increasingly drifted to the faceless, zero-cost herd of anonymous online contributors. At least that was true on the national stage. In state capitals and on regional beats, the public continued to lean heavily on local reporting that spoke in terms they could understand and in a manner consistent with what they had come to expect and identify as dependable news.

Until relatively recently, these local papers had experienced staffs and the wherewithal to invest the time, energy and resources needed to chase down a story wherever and to whomever it led. And once they had a story in their hands, these papers had the confidence in themselves and their standing in the community to tell it fairly, objectively and without fear or favor. However, the recent degradation of the national, mainstream press gradually trickled down to its respected regional counterparts – depriving these outlets of financial and human capital in service of marshaling all available resources to save the leaders in their field.

But as traditional media outlets experienced dark days, it soon became apparent that the reanimation of journalism is in new online news ventures. The blogosphere is no longer just for the ranting ideologues. Increasingly, straight-shooting professional journalists are leaving newsrooms and joining online non-profit journalism organizations. These organizations give journalists the opportunity to investigate stories and reemerge as the legendary beat reporters from yesteryear. By decentralizing the news business, investigative reporters for online nonprofits are creating quality coverage of America’s most important issues.

ProPublica is a terrific example of the success that comes out of investigative nonprofits. Another success story is the emergence of a series of state-based watchdog groups that are reporting on local, investigative news around the country. These watchdogs are showing that online news websites can churn out substantive investigative pieces, which have included stories on voter fraud, taxpayer abuse, political corruption.

Watchdog.org, an initiative of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, is responsible for highlighting numerous important national, regional, state and local stories since its creation in September 2009. It was a citizen reporter in New Mexico who broke the “Phantom Congressional District” story about the chaos in tracking American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds. A Watchdog in Texas recently discovered that the Department of Homeland Security lost nearly 1,000 computers in 2008. And it was a Watchdog in Nebraska who uncovered that their state’s educators were using taxpayer-funded credit cards to purchase a first class plane tickets to China for $11,000.

Nonprofit journalism organizations are providing journalists from all over the nation an opportunity to investigate and report on the stories that matter. By utilizing technology and the internet, nonprofit journalism organizations have the potential to extend their audience reach and create a community of loyal readers. With specific targets, commitment to using highly trained and professional journalists, and novel strategic approaches to using and distributing resources, online nonprofits are the future of journalism.


Jason Stverak is the President of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, a leading journalism non-profit organization. The Franklin Center is dedicated to providing investigative reporters and non-profit organizations at the state and local level with training, expertise, and technical support. For more information on the Franklin Center please visit www.FranklinCenterHQ.org.

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