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For-profit or nonprofit, investigative reporting costs

Traditional media are embracing partnerships with nonprofits for in-depth projects, but the work still takes money. It's worth pitching in.

March 05, 2011|James Rainey
  • The homepage for Propublica.org.
The homepage for Propublica.org. (propublica.org )

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.)

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