Can investigative journalism thrive without profit?

Cecil RosnerWith non-profit and foundation-sponsored institutes of investigative journalism emerging across the U.S., Cecil Rosner examines the burning question of sustainability.

The U.S. has seen an explosion of non-profit efforts aimed at providing investigative journalism to communities that are witnessing cutbacks in conventional media operations.

In most cases, private foundations have provided the start-up funds to hire journalists and launch the operations, many of which have their primary presence on the web. Universities are also partners in many of the enterprises.

As these organizations mature and enter their second and third years, they all have to figure out a sustainable business model. Although a number of foundations have been very generous and have pledged multi-year support, it is not at all clear that these commitments will continue indefinitely. In short, the question will soon be: how will these ventures survive?

Perhaps the largest start-up is called ProPublica. Under a tab that says “steal our stories,” it announces: “You can republish our articles and graphics for free, so long as you
credit us, link to us, and don’t edit our material or sell it
separately.” With headquarters in Manhattan, ProPublica employs 32 journalists and has generous support from the Sandler Foundation and a host of other philanthropic groups. bills itself as the only professionally-staffed, non-profit provider or online local news in the state. It has a funding model very different from ProPublica’s, relying on a mix of revenue from foundations, private individuals and advertisers on its website.

The Texas Tribune
doesn’t accept advertising, but it has already raised more than $3.6 million from foundations and corporations. It doesn’t hurt that its chairman has been a venture capitalist in Austin, Texas for nearly 30 years. It claims to be non partisan, and its focus is exclusively on public policy, politics, and
“Because we’re non-profit, we don’t have to sacrifice our mission at the
altar of commercial considerations.” A surprising sentiment from a Texas venture capitalist.

One of the new players on the scene is California Watch, a Sacramento-based venture that will launch in earnest next month as a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting. They too have lined up significant start-up money from foundations, but their strategy is not to give away their content or invite anyone to steal it. Their hope is to syndicate the material to news outlets that wish to buy it.

In September, California Watch whetted the appetite of news outlets by distributing a successful package of stories on homeland security spending. It charged just a nominal fee for stories that reached 1.8 million newspaper subscribers and millions more on TV and online. But that was just a teaser.

“The mission of California Watch is to distribute high-impact
investigative and enterprise journalism,” it says on its website. “But we won’t last long if we
give it away. Over the coming months we plan to explore all types of
distribution models. The goal will be to develop an equitable payment
structure that works for us and for our partners. No one knows exactly
what that will look like.”

Of course, reliance on advertising and commercial models may eventually land the new ventures back to the same problems that are currently hurting conventional media outlets. When success is defined by the number of eyeballs that can be delivered to an advertiser, the founding principles of some of the outlets might take on less importance. It is the same conundrum that non-profits in many fields face.

But if a non-profit news venture is truly filling an important niche, and doing a consistently good job at it, there is reason to believe it could rely on ongoing support from charitable foundations that believe in the work. A good example is, which has published online every  weekday since Jan. 25, 1999. It was founded by the Pew Charitable Trusts in response to shrinking news coverage of state government in the U.S.

Ten years later, the site remains a thriving and credible source of news about state governments. There is no reason to think the same pattern couldn’t hold true for investigative journalism sites.

Cecil Rosner is managing editor for CBC Manitoba and editor of J-Source’s Investigative Journalism area. He teaches investigative journalism at the University of Winnipeg, and is the author of Behind the Headlines: A History of Investigative Journalism in Canada.