Keeping investigative journalism alive

October 29, 2007

Surely it’s good news when a super-rich couple pledges $10 million a year to found a crack team of investigative journalists whose mission will be to dig out the best stories they can find.

After all, elsewhere in the news media budgets are bled white to slake the thirst of Wall Street predators, seasoned reporters are coaxed to pasture so their pay can be banked, out-of-town bureaus are shuttered, and editorial energy is redirected onto online initiatives to engage and cultivate twitchy market segments that shrug at boring old tales of exploitation, injustice and corruption.

When today’s chieftains of the news business consider its future, they’re more likely to drool over Facebook, the social networking sensation, than to draw inspiration from the great reporting of the past.

So who’s going to pay journalists to do the grimy, old-line work of holding the rich and powerful accountable?

Enter Herbert Sandler, a Northern California financial services billionaire, and his wife Marion. The outfit they’re funding, Pro Publica, is to be a New York-based reporting powerhouse of 24 investigative journalists led by Paul Steiger, for 16 years managing editor of the Wall Street Journal and a highly respected guy.

Pro Publica’s staff will work on the elusive, important, long-range stories that few news organizations have the stomach or money to take on. Once the stories are done, they’ll be offered to newspapers and broadcasters or posted on Pro Publica’s own web site so the public can read them.

This is good, bold stuff. Yet the plan does have flaws, some of them serious.

First, Pro Publica’s own ambitions are a problem. Its backers make it plain they’re in the business of hunting big game, “stories with significant potential for major impact.” In finding outlets for the stories, they’ll “likely be offered exclusively to a traditional news organization, free of charge, for publication or broadcast … with an eye toward maximizing the impact of each article.”
Together, as the Chicago Reader’s Michael Miner wrote in one of the few criticisms of the plan, these elements suggest that Pro Publica will proffer top-notch journalism to big, powerful news organizations, the ones that need it the least.
Second, is it even true that we have insufficient coverage of tough, front-burner national stories from the high-impact media Pro Publica wants to feed? I wonder. With the Bush administration leaking like an overripe melon, and a torrent of first-rate books about high-level deception and stupidity, the real problem may not be what’s out there  in newspapers, magazines and online, from domestic and foreign sources  it’s what the public can be induced to pay attention to.

Breaking stories is one thing; setting the public’s agenda is quite another.

Third, the implication of the plan is that the stories that truly matter are national. Many are. But many more aren’t. The isolated and beleaguered reporters who are breaking their picks hacking away at local zoning scandals, crooked landlords, corrupt courts and local environmental disgraces fall beneath Pro Publica’s gaze.

Unfortunately, the Pro Publica model suggests that if these people want to make their mark they need to pack up and head to Manhattan, which already has the richest concentration of journalistic talent on earth.

This country’s journalism profession is already being hollowed out, and it’s hard to see how that process won’t be aggravated by creating an elite squad of ace reporters composed mainly of top talents who can readily find work elsewhere  many of them drawn from places where the need for their unique skills is acute.

A culture of accountability, to be truly national, needs to be built in the provinces as well. If the Sandlers are thinking about shedding another $10 million, they might consider bringing aboard a second kernel of supervising editors of the integrity and skill of Steiger and his colleagues. Then they should use most of the money to seed newsrooms throughout the country with endowed investigative positions, whose occupants would be advised by these editors and whose sleuthing would be focused on the small-bore social and political outrages that affect people most directly and most insidiously.

So let’s welcome Pro Publica, and acknowledge the role that philanthropy can play in funding the indispensable coverage that market incentives cannot alone guarantee. But let’s also hope this is the first step, not the last.

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