New grassroots life for investigative reporting?

Might investigative journalism be ready to be re-born at the grassroots?

Until recently, this question wasn’t even asked much. If there was worry about what would happen to watchdog reporting with the decline of newspapers and other legacy media, it was expressed at the national level. It’s why the launch of ProPublica,, the investigative journalism non-profit, got such acclaim, and now why many of us will be paying close attention to the establishment of the Huffington Post Investigative Fund.

But look what’s happening now at the community level. Last summer came the launch of Texas Watchdog, which got one-year foundation funding to play watchdog over state government and other Texas institutions. Two months ago Investigative Voice in Baltimore sprang to life. Now David McCumber of the dear-departed Seattle Intelligencer is trying to rustle up funding for an investigative journalism site focusing on issues in the West. And a gang from the RIP Rocky Mountain News is aiming to launch InDenverTimes with the idea of making investigative work one of its centerpieces.

Meanwhile, investigative reporting centers in Wisconsin and Boston (plus likely additions in other locales) are raising the prospect of a state-by-state network that might have abundant university connections. Bill Buzenberg, director of the longtime giant of investigative reporting, the Center for Public Integrity, told me recently he could envision CPI as an umbrella organization fostering the growth and work of such a consortium. (Disclosure: My wife, Geneva Overholser, is on the CPI board.)

That all of this, or even some of this, might really blossom is speculative in the extreme. As Jay Rosen observed while helping preview the Huffington operation, investigative reporting is one area of journalism that is unlikely to have market support. Financing by philanthropists, foundations, readers, interested citizens will almost certainly be required.

But there’s little doubt that a head of steam is forming. And if grassroots investigative reporting takes off, one important moment will turn out to have occurred just last week, when the Voice of San Diego won a major award from Investigative Reporters and Editors. The four-year-old, muckraking Voice became the first community news site to win IRE’s online award – for its watchdog coverage of two downtown redevelopment agencies in San Diego.

Here’s how the Voice described its work: “The stories uncovered relationships between redevelopment officials and developers with lucrative development contracts and exposed a clandestine bonus system at (the agency) that the president used to pay herself and other employees $1 million over the course of five years. The result: The leaders of the agencies were fired or resigned, criminal investigations are under way, and the organizations have begun to undertake wholesale reforms.”

As IRE executive director Mark Horvit suggested in his lavish praise for the Voice’s work, the stakes here are not small. I’ve been arguing that it’s wrong to think just about I-team investigative units when pondering a future that does not include robust newspaper newsrooms. It’s better to describe the at-risk work as watchdog reporting, which I believe has a very large imprint on American journalism, and very large ripple effects in our country’s governments and other institutions.

So it’s been heartening, to say the least, to see a rising level of concern and action on the watchdog reporting front. Buzenberg has the Center for Public Integrity back on track after weathering a near-death experience. Robert Rosenthal’s Center for Investigative Reporting is exploring all manner of networking possibilities. And Paul Steiger is off to a fast start at ProPublica, demonstrating the value of partnerships with the New York Times, Washington Post, CBS and more. Steiger’s recent hiring of Amanda Michel will help kick-start the promising proposition that distributed reporting might assume a powerful role in the investigative world. (On that front, we already have the fascinating experiment that David Cohn is conducting.)

The mainstream press is part of this movement as well. Editors increasingly are talking not just about the threat to watchdog reporting, but of how they can preserve it as one of their core missions even as resources dwindle.

There are multiple strikes against the idea that watchdog reporting can actually gain a foothold as a grassroots movement. Practically any business model has sharp limitations when it comes to investigative work, which is time-consuming, treacherous in its predictability and certain to be controversial. So is there a financing mechanism that legions of out-of-work journalists and others could adopt that would at least partially bankroll accountability reporting projects?

The answer is likely many months or years away.

Even for the Voice of San Diego, with its budget of about $800,000 and eight full-time reporters, the reality of a sustainable investigative reporting operation is a distant hope. (See Update below.) Voice is financed partly by foundations and mostly by philanthropy, and neither the foundations nor philanthropists are intending for their funding to be permanent.

But it’s an island of stability compared to the challenges facing other sites. Texas Watchdog got first-year funding from the Sam Adams Alliance, but now is looking to other potential revenue streams, including advertising and money made off a citizen journalism training program. Baltimore’s Investigative Voice is in a different situation. It basically began with no start-up funding, and exists now with a few advertising dollars and contributions, but mostly free labor.

“The business model is a challenge,” said senior reporter Stephen Janis of Investigative Voice. The site has signed up several advertisers, he said, but ultimately will rise or fall on whether it can get readers to make voluntary payments – perhaps coupled with premium items such as a subscription to the Voice’s print-on-demand publication.

And yet both sites have quickly shown how critical it is for local watchdog reporting to thrive. Texas Watchdog has gotten notice with its reports on dead people on voter rolls. Investigative Voice has landed several scoops in its first two months of operation, including coverage spotlighting questionable trips to the Caribbean approved by Baltimore’s pension board.

Scott Broom, a blogger and reporter at WUSA-TV in Washington, wrote that Investigative Voice “is a wake-up call to traditional print reporters and broadcasters” and is demonstrating the power of “one-man-band digital reporting.”

Janis said others who want to start a watchdog reporting site must be willing to “rethink how they work, how they report, and what merits reporting. The Web is a very fluid information outlet, so you have to work much harder to find readers.”

And worth it? “Despite all the challenges, he said, “this has been the most interesting endeavor of my career.”

UPDATE: Scott Lewis of the Voice of San Diego pushes back on my assertion that the Voice, which he leads with Andrew Donohue, is a long way from attaining sustainability.

In an e-mail he wrote: “Yes, the grants we received from foundations aren’t permanent. But our number of donors is exploding. We now have 822 donors… None of our donors have indicated to me that they plan to pull back. Quite the contrary, they are more passionate than ever.

“While I don’t think we’ll always have the donors we have now, I don’t understand what is so exotic about our model. Why are we so unsustainable compared to, say, public radio? The local NPR affiliate raises $20 million from donors and grants who may or may not think of their annual funding as permanent. Our budget this year has been expanded to just over $1 million. Why is it so crazy to imagine that, using almost the exact same fundraising formula, we could reach one-tenth of the funding that KPBS gets?

“This year, we’re projecting a massive increase in our corporate sponsorships. And the number of $1,000 to $5,000 donors is going up each week. Is it really that crazy to think that, like the opera or museum of art, we’ll be able to significantly diversify our funding to sustain a $2 million organization?”

About David Westphal

After almost four decades in newspapering, I've made the jump to academia at USC's Annenberg Journalism School in Los Angeles. I hope to use my recent experience as head of McClatchy's Washington Bureau to write about the revolution that's taking place in journalism -- and in particular to study new-media business models. I'm a senior fellow at Annenberg's Center on Communication Leadership and Policy, and also affiliated with the Knight Digital Media Center.


  1. Absolutely spot on. Great piece…

  2. The newspapers that I have dealt with would love to hire investigative journalists, but the cost is uneconomical. Hiring juniors to re-write the news that others break is a fraction of the cost and so long as the stories strong enough to bring visitors back and therefore keep advertisers happy I doubt this will change.

    online news content

  3. says:

    I was very pleased to read this article. I spent 14 years in the mainstream print media and left for an online non profit: the Michigan Land Use Institute, to perform meaningful, investigative journalism. I am now convinced non profit is the way to go.
    Congratulations to the author.

  4. I was pleased read this article. Nice.
    Congraltulations for you, david.

  5. I thought there was a bill in the house to subsidize the printed newspaper company’s