The set of crises facing publishing today is enough to make the most hardened of journalists curl up in the fetal position: a waning advertiser base, demands from advertisers that remain, depleted and overworked staffs, declining circulation-the list goes on and on. But there is a subset of journalistic visionaries who are hoping that this time of tumult will allow for real innovation in media, resulting in fresh ideas and, perhaps paradoxically, a return to the basics of investigative reporting.
Such is the case for the Huffington Post Investigative Fund, which launched in the spring of 2009 as an off-shoot of The Huffington Post. The fund, an independent and separate legal entity from The Huffington Post, is a nonprofit dedicated to investigative reporting by both in-house staff members and freelancers, with an initial focus on the economic crisis.
As Arianna Huffington described it at the launch: "The pieces developed by the Fund will range from long-form investigations to short breaking news stories and will be presented in a variety of media, including text, audio and video. And, in the open source spirit of the Web, all of the content the Fund produces will be free for anyone to publish."
The fund kicked off with an initial budget of $1.75 million and seed funding from The Huffington Post and The Atlantic Philanthropies. It has since found additional backers in the Schumann Center for Media and Democracy, the Markle Foundation, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, a longtime supporter of innovative journalism, which announced a $200,000 grant in December.
"The Huffington Post Investigative Fund is experimenting with a new way of providing important journalism, functioning as a non-profit that draws audience from a popular for-profit," said Eric Newton, vice president of Knight Foundation's journalism program. "It's a worthy test of a new idea, and since we really don't know how investigative reporting is best supported in the future, an interesting experiment."
Which is precisely what makes it an ideal fit for the Knight Foundation. "We shifted our strategy two or three years ago to a strategy of experimentation," explains Marc Fest, vice president of communications for the Knight Foundation. The foundation now supports projects deemed innovative and experimental, "even if it's risky. This way we find out what might stick and what might work, ..." he says. "That's an unusual modus operandi-most foundations invest in what's tried and true. It makes our work exciting."
The $200,000 from Knight is part of a $15 million initiative the foundation announced in June 2009 to help support investigative reporting projects on digital platforms. Early grants were awarded to the Center for Investigative Reporting, which received $1.32 million to launch a multimedia endeavor that allows print, digital, and student journalists in California to collaborate, and the Sunlight Foundation, which received $565,000 to create programs that allow constituents to access government data.
According to Nick Penniman, executive director of the fund and founder of The American News Project, which has been folded into the fund, it is simply not feasible for investigative journalism to survive within the confines of a traditional for-profit, ad-supported publishing model. "There's no way we could have launched a project like this with ad support," he says, in part because "online advertising isn't as robust as people think ... with the internet there is-and always will be-unlimited real estate, so ad rates are very low. Second, advertisers generally don't like contentious content, especially contentious content that hammers away at big corporations and high-level government officials. And that's a lot of what we do. Third, because we're an independent nonprofit organization that syndicates its content for free to anyone who wants it, there's no way for us to monetize the eyeballs that end up viewing our work."
Penniman goes on to add that "there's another point to be made here: This kind of journalism really should be seen as a public good, and not subject to the whims of the marketplace. It should be thought of in the same way people think about other major nonprofit causes, like the public arts, education, and the environment. If you really care about the environment, then you've probably donated either your time or some of your money to environmental groups. If you really care about the public arts, you probably do the same for arts groups. And, so, if you really care about accountability and transparency in our democracy, then hopefully you'll consider donating your time or money to investigative journalism."