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Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Investigating the Future of Investigative Journalism. Part III: Who’s Going to Pay For All This?

Posted By on Wed, Jan 16, 2008 at 9:05 AM

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Will the lifeblood of quality journalism flow away like so much ink? Today: If there’s a future for investigative journalism, who’s going to foot the bill?

Read Part I here. Read Part II here.

By Joe Eskenazi

When Robert Rosenthal took over the Philadelphia Inquirer 10 years ago, the paper’s profit margin was a hefty 20 percent.

And still, “the pressure on the newsroom over the next four years to increase the margin was astonishing. [Newspaper chain] Knight-Ridder made a shitload of money, and now they’re out of business.”

The Hearst Corporation, which owns the San Francisco Chronicle, has been losing a shitload of money. And, after they last year dismissed a quarter of their newsroom employees, “Rosey” resigned as managing editor to take over Berkeley’s Center for Investigative Reporting.

He maintains there is a future for investigative journalism in print media – so long as newspaper owners are OK with not making shitloads of money.

“If [real estate magnate and newly minted media baron] Sam Zell is happy with a profit margin of 7 or 8 percent, the Los Angeles Times may support a staff of 850,” notes Rosenthal. Also, he adds, if some nonprofit enterprise took over a paper, that, too, would solve the profitability-vs.-quality debate that often sees investigative journalism as its earliest victim.

If some nonprofit has billions of dollars...

to buy and operate a major paper or chain – well, that’d be swell. And if wealthy investors, such as Zell -- with non-news backgrounds, who invested in newspapers as just that, an investment – suddenly became altruistic – that’d be super swell.

Barring some innovative newspaper business model that the field’s top minds can’t formulate at this time, more and more investigative journalism is likely to be left to privately funded enterprises such as Rosenthal’s CIR or Pro Publica, the philanthropically endowed organization headed by former Wall Street Journal managing editor Paul Steiger.

“I speak to these people in the non-profit world who have large pots of money and are very interested in funding probative journalism because they’re starting to realize that it’s very rapidly disappearing,” says A.C. Thompson, former investigative reporter for both SF Weekly and the Guardian (one of the many places for which he currently toils is, in fact, the CIR).

And for those who believe tethering the future of investigative journalism to the beneficence of deep-pocketed, philanthropic benefactors puts one on shaky ground, Steiger notes that reliance on the traditional newspaper business model hasn’t exactly been the standard of stability of late.

Pro Publica “will probably be cool,” in Thompson’s estimation, but he notes that the 24 jobs it strives to create will hardly “offset the hundreds of jobs lost just here in the Bay Area, and thousands nationwide.”

Meanwhile, the movement of journalistic hotshots such as Steiger and Rosenthal to investigative outlets is being keenly observed within the news business. If such major players fail to make a correspondingly major splash, it will be one more piece of bad news for a bad-news industry.

“If someone like Rosey, with his track record, can’t do some big things, I’ll be really worried,” cops Thompson.

Rosenthal, for his part, admitted to us that he is feeling the pressure. And facing a future that will likely bring thinner and thinner papers with less and less investigative content, the challenge for Rosenthal, Steiger et al. to make a difference is great.

And yet, whether they succeed or fail, a future in which newspapers shunt aside investigative coverage as a luxury is bitter and antithetical to veteran muckrakers.

“To me, investigative journalism is at the heart of coverage of a local community. If we can’t do that, I’m not sure what our purpose is,” says Paul Grabowicz, a U.C. Berkeley journalism professor and former investigative reporter for the Oakland Tribune.

“Anybody can set up a Web cam and you can Webcast a city council meeting. Anyone can re-write a press release and anyone can cover a lot of prep sports and other very local news. What journalism, I hope, has to offer is context and availability to dig behind the scenes and find out what’s really going on. We spend time investigating something that the average person, even if he has expertise, doesn’t have time for and it’s not necessarily their job.

“That, to me, is where the real tragedy is. If you get rid of that, I’m not sure what we’re left with.”

Photo | Grove Pashley-Corbis

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" is a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly, which he has written for since 2007. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers... more


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