For-profit or nonprofit, investigative reporting costs
Those birthed in the newspaper business during its heyday (circa 1975-2000) learned the trade during a time of fierce competition. Beat the other guy. Kick his butt. Make him eat your dust — a.k.a., chase your scoop.
That sort of zeal hasn’t disappeared, especially on thoroughly covered turf like Hollywood, where the fight for dominance and bragging rights can be downright vicious.
But elsewhere, the news business has turned from martial to missionary, shucking exclusivity for openness and sharing. The changes have become obvious inside the industry in the last couple of years, though they might just be dawning on the general public — especially as newspapers, TV and radio stations team with a platoon of newly minted nonprofits on investigative reporting.
The good news is that the new combinations revive some of the in-depth accountability reporting that had been slipping away as newspapers, in particular, slashed their staffs. The bad news is that the partnerships only replace a fraction of yesteryear’s reporting boots on the ground, positions once supported by advertising-fat news companies, many of which enjoyed near monopolies in their markets.
Still, the new “Kumbaya” of investigative reporting has become so vibrant we should celebrate it and hope for more — while recognizing that not-for-profit foundations and individual donors can’t shoulder the entire weight of journalism. A third, fourth and fifth way will have to be found — and all of them will have to paid for somehow if they are to survive.
This new normal of cooperation didn’t arrive at any single moment but seeped in over many months, with any number of milestones.
The New York-based nonprofit ProPublica last fall launched its Dollars for Docs project — a brilliant mining of previously obscure data that showed how much doctors were paid to promote drugs.
The lead reporters in the project, Tracy Weber and Charles Ornstein, may be recalled by Los Angeles Times readers for their earlier blockbusters — including the Pulitzer Prize-winning series they wrote for The Times on care that killed patients at Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center.
In the ProPublica exposé, tech whiz Dan Nguyen scraped the data from seven drug company websites, rendering it in a form that allowed it to be analyzed and cross-checked with state databases showing disciplinary actions against doctors.
That created the template for an amazing display of cooperation. Five initial partners — National Public Radio, the Chicago Tribune, the Boston Globe, Consumer Reports and PBS’ “Nightly Business Report” — customized the information for their audiences. That was just for the initial publication. Later, more than 80 other TV, radio, print and Web partners scanned the ProPublica data to create stories for their local audiences.
ProPublica and its reporters won George Polk Awards, among journalism’s top prizes, last month for their collaborations with National Public Radio and with PBS and the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
Closer to home, the less than 2-year-old California Watch — affiliated with the Berkeley-based Center for Investigative Reporting — has completed a couple dozen in-depth pieces. It worked last year with 11 partners — including the Long Beach Press-Telegram, Orange County Register and Riverside Press-Enterprise — on a project that revealed poor pay and staffing at about 250 nursing homes.
The homes had pledged to improve staffing and pay, after an infusion of $1 billion in tax dollars in mid-decade. But California Watch found that many took the money while reducing employment and pay. Many of the California Watch partners added value to the story. The Orange County Register, for example, wrote a sidebar to give the main investigation more local context.
“We’ve become like an extension of these newsrooms, not a foreign entity,” said Mark Katches, California Watch’s editorial director and a former editor at the Register.
While ProPublica and California Watch cover a broad range of topics, other non-profits have emerged to bore in on specific subjects: The Hechinger Report, based at the Teachers College at Columbia University, supports coverage of national education issues. Environmental Health News uses both staffers and freelancers to expose under-reported environmental hazards, such as the chemicals used to make ski waxes. USC Annenberg’s Center for Health Reporting puts its four reporters right in newsrooms, to help local papers build more robust stories, including a recent Modesto Bee series that showed how the middle class’ “new uninsured” struggle to get healthcare. And Fair Warning focuses on product safety and corporate wrongdoing; producing one piece, for instance, that showed how glass fireplace enclosures are severely burning small children. (Like ProPublica, these outfits employ top-notch journalists, including some of my former Los Angeles Times colleagues.)
Though nonprofit news start-ups have proliferated in the last few years, the concept is not new. One of the largest efforts, the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Public Integrity, celebrated its 20th anniversary last year and now employs about two dozen full-time reporters. California Watch is the largest such operation in the state, with 15 full-time reporters.
A spirit of collegiality pervades most of the upstarts. Besides cooperating with their for-profit cousins, more than 50 of the nonprofits have banded together into the Los Angeles-based Investigative News Network. The INN helps newcomers with not only news projects but the less glamorous back-shop necessities of news gathering, such as finding legal assistance and reasonably priced insurance.
Steve Proctor, managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, is like a lot of top news bosses today — reared in an era of frenetic competition and high walls between news organizations. “Now the whole landscape has changed,” said Proctor, who said the Chronicle has run about two dozen pieces from California Watch. “You just don’t have enough staff to create everything you would like to have in your newspaper. And you can get really great content with partnerships.”
Most of the nonprofits pushing the new cooperation are foundation-funded. But that charitable money can only go so far. Many of the founding sponsors are pushing hard for their news outlets to diversify their income to survive for the long run.
California Watch has begun charging a nominal fee to its for-profit partners, but that still amounts to less than 5% of its income. It’s looking at new partnerships with, among others, AOL’s hyper-local Patch.com.
“I don’t want to sugarcoat this,” said Robert Rosenthal, the former newspaperman who is executive director of California Watch’s parent, the Center for Investigative Reporting. “This is a bear to keep going, in terms of the funding. The last thing I am is complacent about sustaining this.”
So don’t be surprised, in a day not too far off, when a fundraiser from one of these new news outfits drops a note in your in-basket or sends a letter to your home. When that happens, you ought to think about kicking a few bucks their way. Like 75 cents for a newspaper, it’s a small price to know a little more about the world.
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