Does shaky start for nonprofit newsroom portend bigger woes?

July 8, 2008

Amid the dismal reports of cutbacks, layoffs, fear and trembling in the country’s newsrooms, the birth of Pro Publica has been reason for cheer. It’s the dazzling new investigative reporting outfit, a nonprofit venture funded with $10 million a year from a California philanthropy to hire two dozen top-dog journalists to “focus exclusively on truly important stories, stories with ‘moral force,’” it says.

In the eight months since it was announced, Pro Publica has staffed up and opened up in Lower Manhattan. Its smart and good-looking website,, links to investigative work from elsewhere and posts follow-ups and summaries of that work. The site is already an indispensable daily guide to the sharpest national reporting around.

Fine, but Pro Publica is meant to do more than aggregate the work of others. It’s supposed to originate its own first-rate investigations, and here, its recent maiden voyage was not auspicious. It strengthened my fear that structural problems in Pro Publica’s organizational model may yet bedevil the initiative and keep it from sparking the transformation U.S. journalism needs.

On June 22, Pro Publica collaborated with CBS News’ “60 Minutes” on a televised segment, “U.S.-funded Arab TV’s credibility crisis.” It was a scathing examination of Al-Hurra, a key element in a $500 million Bush administration effort to woo hearts and minds in the Mideast with an Arab-language news network, and it was a distressing chronicle of ineptitude and incoherence. That morning Pro Publica posted on its website a lengthy print version of the expose titled, “Lost in Translation.”

The following day, The Washington Post ran the first of two front-page articles by its Cairo correspondent on the lackluster U.S. information war in the region. Monday’s story was, “U.S. network falters in Mideast mission.” Though not as richly reported as Pro Publica’s, it too was a distressing chronicle of ineptitude and incoherence, and it too was all about Al-Hurra.

So questions arise. First, why was Pro Publica using its philanthropic funding to, essentially, subsidize the cost of a segment for “60 Minutes,” the most financially successful news show in the history of U.S. television? Second, how can Pro Publica be filling a grievous gap in the information available to the public when its story is duplicated simultaneously by a major newspaper?

Appearing on Jim Lehrer’s “NewsHour,” Pro Publica chief Paul Steiger argued the highly rated “60 Minutes” “was a perfect place for us,” since “what we’re seeking is the best possible way of getting that information to the public.”

But therein lies a problem. With no means of reaching its own audience, Pro Publica has to negotiate for someone else’s, and will inevitably find itself cadging channels from the biggest and richest media — the very organizations that need investigative journalism from outsiders the least.

As for the redundancy, isn’t it possible that the embarrassing parallel coverage by the Washington Post suggests we should examine more closely this supposed scarcity of “investigative journalism.” Maybe the problem is not that high-end, national stories aren’t being done. Would U.S. bungling in the Mideast be on anybody’s list of badly neglected topics? (Indeed, excellent earlier stories on Al-Hurra arose from governmental inquiries and hearings.) True, such coverage may not get the attention it deserves, but that’s a different problem.

As I’ve argued before, there is a dire shortage of investigative reporting, but that’s because U.S. journalism is being hollowed out, with big media focusing on wide-angle coverage of national affairs and local media scattering toward market-wise, hyperlocal micro-news. What’s vanishing is that vast mid-range of solid, investigative sleuthing that used to be integral to the work of the country’s better local and regional newspapers — the stories of judicial corruption, cronyism, crooked zoning, crummy schools, contracting scams — problems that rarely have national resonance, but which foul the civic air we all breath.

Increasingly, nobody’s doing those stories, and the next wave of nonprofit funding should go to creating positions in regional newsrooms for reporters who will. Just as universities use outside endowments to lure faculty to desired areas, so should news organizations. Five million dollars could provide 100 newsrooms with $50,000 apiece, a generous headstart on a salary for an investigative ace who has roots in a community where there’d be no danger of duplicating coverage.

I’ll continue to root for Pro Publica. But as a model for the future, we’ll have to see.

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