KURTZ: Increasingly, nonprofits fill a need for investigative reporting

June 21, 2010
Howard Kurtz

In a seventh-floor conference room festooned with framed articles and journalism awards, Managing Editor Gordon Witkin leads the morning discussion of stories his staff is pursuing.

Their latest scoop -- on members of Congress dumping their BP stock -- "was a big success," he says. "It was in an AP story that sent it everywhere, including Yahoo and Google News."

On the front burner, a dozen staffers around the table explain, is a joint series just approved by the New York Times. A piece underway with The Washington Post is being edited. There was a "tough conference call," says international director David Kaplan, with eight London producers on a 10-segment project with the BBC.

Investigative reporting is increasingly being outsourced, and these offices off K Street serve as a boiler room for research that the big boys are less able to afford. The Center for Public Integrity is hardly a traditional news operation, but it is taking on a more prominent media role, fueled by a recent hiring spree that has added more than half a dozen journalists to its 45-person staff.

"We see all our friends dying on the vine," Kaplan says. "The irony is we're doing pretty well, and we have a chance to fill these gaping holes." And the center fills those holes free of charge, furnishing information -- and sometimes staff-written pieces -- to the media outlets.

After years of feeling unloved and unwanted, some fortunate journalists are again finding their services in demand. While most print newsrooms remain shrunken and some major newspapers are mired in bankruptcy, new media incarnations are giving the restless and the jobless a second lease on life.

AOL says it plans to add hundreds of journalists to its stable over the next year. Yahoo has opened a Washington bureau. The Wall Street Journal just created a New York section. And TBD, owned by Politico's corporate parent, is recruiting for its online effort to cover the Washington area.

"There is a good buyer's market for people who want to do this work," says Bill Buzenberg, a no-nonsense former vice president for news at National Public Radio, who became the nonprofit group's executive director in 2007.

One of his latest hires -- as "journalist in residence" -- is John Solomon, who resigned as editor in chief of the Washington Times days before a management shakeup last fall that led to the paper shedding half its staff.

"It is really invigorating to be part of an organization that is committed to doing accountability journalism at a time when so many for-profits are shrinking from it," Solomon says. "I had a lot of offers from other news organizations. I saw that the center was doing a lot of things we were trying to do at the Washington Times before the implosion." Buzenberg's operation has also brought in veterans of the Wall Street Journal, Reuters and National Journal.

The center is not a new Washington player, having been founded more than 20 years ago by Charles Lewis. And it is hardly the only nonprofit making a splash: The two-year-old ProPublica, based in Manhattan, shared a Pulitzer Prize with the New York Times Magazine this year for a probe of hospital deaths during Hurricane Katrina.

But the center -- and any group with "public integrity" in its name is setting a high bar -- has been on a roll. Last week, ABC's Brian Ross teamed up with Solomon, who got a tip from a government official, for a "World News" story on security problems at the Thai factory that makes computer chips for American passports.

Ross calls the group "very valuable," saying: "They find good leads or key documents or sometimes a whistle-blower, and then we have to run it through our reporting process. They do good work, but they need the outlet."

True, but finding outlets hasn't been hard. In a major exclusive last month, the center gave Financial Times data showing that BP was responsible for 97 percent of the most serious safety violations in the U.S. refining industry in recent years.

This month, Solomon shared a double byline in the Times for obtaining Coast Guard logs showing that officials knew days after the Deepwater Horizon explosion that 64,000 to 110,000 barrels of crude oil could gush out each day.

In May, The Post collaborated with the center on a piece about federal investigators looking at a District organization that was helping mortgage lenders make high-risk loans that left the government at risk for default. Politico recently carried three pieces by center staffers, including a list of the lobbyists who serve as the biggest bundlers of campaign contributions. The center is also pursuing a long-term project with "60 Minutes."

When Buzenberg joined the group, "we had to dig out of a hole," he says, with budget deficits forcing him to lay off a third of the staff. But at last week's morning meeting (where all the faces around the table were white), development director Robin Heller described what she called "a million-dollar day" -- the total of grants just committed by the MacArthur and Park foundations. Other major donors include the Ford Foundation ($2.4 million) and Carnegie Corp. ($507,000), along with $356,000 from individuals -- adding up to a $5 million annual budget.

The center has also received grants -- including $300,000 last year -- from the Open Society Institute founded by liberal philanthropist George Soros, sparking questions about whether its news agenda leans to the left. "We have a very clear firewall editorially," Buzenberg says. "We decide what we want to do and how we want to do it." Donors, he says, "may hate it and they may never fund us again, that's their right. . . . It isn't free to produce. We've got to get money."

The larger issue is whether such not-for-profit outfits can become self-sustaining, or will forever be dependent on foundations and wealthy donors. If those checks stop coming, these operations could be crippled. Buzenberg says the center, which now sells e-books, is looking to generate more revenue.

After a long, cold season of layoffs, the climate has thawed enough for both Web companies and nonprofits to hire people to create content, rather than just repackage it. But investigative reporting -- with its labor-intensive digging and frequent dry holes -- remains the most expensive of journalistic pursuits. Even brand-name news organizations are no longer too proud to accept outside help. But here's hoping that doesn't become a tempting way to abandon such work to subcontractors.

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