Ken Doctor, who writes well about Newsonomics, has taken apart the economics of a single investigative story with this report on the Nieman Lab site. He features a strong California Watch story about how state regulators have routinely failed to enforce earthquake safety laws for public schools, "allowing children and teachers to occupy buildings with structural flaws and potential safety hazards reported during construction." KnightBlog has written about this before because Knight Foundation gave a $1.32 million grant to the organization behind the stories as part of our Investigative Reporting Initiative.
Ken asked me why Knight Foundation supports investigative reporting. Here's what I said:
"No community can clean up a toxic dump, or remove a corrupt official, or fix dangerous schools, or right any other kind of wrong, if it doesn’t first know about it. Investigative reporting tells us what we need to know -- not what we want to hear -- what we need to know -- what good citizens need to run their communities and their lives. But today we seem to be in a weird kind of investigative reporting drought. Weird because the overall volume of news and information is exploding – but traditional news outlets, in their mad scramble to cope with the digital age, are producing less local accountability journalism.
"Without a lot of fanfare, Knight Foundation has been making investments in investigative reporting grant. Brant Houston’s web site explains some of them. We are interested in the development of new economic models for investigative reporting on digital platforms. Recent national support has gone to the Center for Investigative Reporting, ProPublica and the Center for Public Integrity. We’ve also supported the Sunlight Foundation and Sunshine Week, because you need freedom of information to investigate.
"We have funded university-based models at Boston University and through News 21 to explore how its 12-campus investigative reporting project might adopt a self-sustaining model. USC, the University of California at Berkeley, Nebraska, Arizona State, Missouri, Northwestern, Maryland, Syracuse, University of Texas, the University of North Carolina, Columbia and Harvard. In the past we’ve made two endowment grants that we count as part of our Investigative Reporting Initiative. The training endowment we gave to the Investigative Reporters and Editors and we endowed a Knight Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Journalism at the University of Illinois.
"We believe non-profit investigative reporting is gaining momentum across the country. Its practioners are winning top journalism awards and more than that they are creating major social changes worth many times the cost of these reports. The key to the sustainability of these enterprises is that they develop multiple revenue streams to augment their launch support from foundations. Several of them are making major strides in that direction. Especially important is that the local projects win local support. It’s a fact of life that local news must have local support, and it’s heartening to see community foundations coming into this field as part of the Knight Community Information Challenge."
Ken then asked "a big question," which was whether California Watch can expect continued foundation support: "There really isn’t a foundation community that thinks with a common brain (same situation as in the news community). Each foundation makes its own decisions using different criteria. Some foundations see their role as launching new things and letting nature take its course. Other see their role as helping orgs develop business-savvy and capacity for sustainability. Others want to fund particular content channels. Others only want to fund high-impact content. Others want to fund innovative new forms of engagement. How California Watch does with each of the different types will depend on how it has done so far on the different issues they care about: web traffic, community engagement, social impact, particular beats or topics, fundraising from the community at large. California Watch is supposed to do a report to the news community explaining how it is doing and that will be helpful information to all the foundations following them."
Eric Newton is senior adviser to the president.