May/June 2010; Source: Columbia Journalism Review | The Nonprofit Quarterly has noted regularly in the Nonprofit Newswire the emergence of primarily online local, regional, and national nonprofit investigative news sites, almost all of which were capitalized with large front-end grants from big foundations. An article from the Columbia Journalism Review asks the elephant-in-the-room question: can these nonprofit journalism sites be sustained and survive? By all accounts, a great deal of the reporting coming from venues such as California Watch, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, the Huffington Post Investigative Fund, and the recent Pulitzer Prize-winning ProPublica is pretty phenomenal stuff. But do a few great investigative pieces add up to long-term sustainability? The J-Lab at American University estimates that approximately $143 million in foundation grants has gone to news media enterprises since 2005, half of it to 12 investigative-oriented sites. It’s too early to declare these entities, even the well-funded ProPublica and HuffPo Investigative Fund, long term successes or failures.
The deputy managing editor of the Los Angeles Times warns, “I’d hate to see this work given over entirely to nonprofits.” We would too. We’ve seen very little investigative work done by these outlets focusing on their big funders or institutional partners (the CJR article cites an example of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting charged with having gone easy on Boston University, which houses the Center).
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Philanthropy seems to be willing, at least at the front end, to support nonprofits to investigate government and corporations, but how do they feel about an investigative tack toward the investments and grantmaking of the billions in foundations’ tax exempt endowments? Ultimately, as we at NPQ know all too well, these investigative nonprofits will have to wean themselves away from too much dependence on too few mercurial philanthropic supporters, lest the loss of a big grant mean the demise of the entire enterprise.—Rick Cohen