Canada’s only non-profit investigative centre shutting down

By Edward Tubb

As traditional newsrooms continue to shrink, the question of how to do in-depth reporting – and also make money – in this country has never been more daunting. And now, Canada’s only non-profit investigative centre is closing.

By Edward Tubb

As traditional newsrooms continue to shrink, the question of how to do in-depth reporting – and also make money – in this country has never been more daunting. And now, Canada’s only non-profit investigative centre is closing.

The Canadian Centre for Investigative Reporting announced its closure on April 23. “The funding environment for a project of this sort in Canada remains very challenging,” the group said in a statement. “As a result the CCIR has had to make the difficult decision to close its doors.”

Practically, the CCIR’s closure means there is now one less source of funding for in-depth investigations in Canada. It also means there is now no Canadian equivalent to the growing no-profit sector in American investigative journalism.

The CCIR needed “several hundred thousand dollars a year” to meet its goals, says co-founder and executive director Bilbo Poynter. However, he says the CCIR’s annual revenues never came close to that. “We did our level best to make a go of it,” he said.

While Poynter says CCIR’s failure shows that Canada is not ready for a non-profit model of investigative journalism, television producer Bruce Livesey, who has worked with CBC, says CCIR failed to develop the brand name recognition to succeed.

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Poynter and Quebec-journalist Alex Roslin founded the CCIR in 2008 and they modeled it after American groups like the San Francisco-based Center for Investigative Reporting. Poynter is currently a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor and has previously worked as an associate producer with the CBC’s investigative unit. Over the course of its five years, the CCIR funded a modest number of pieces, including a look at heroin trade in Afghanistan that was printed in The Georgia Straight and a series on development funding in Haiti published in the Montreal Gazette.

The decision to shutter its doors came just one month after the Canada Revenue Agency revoked CCIR’s charitable status after it did not file its 2011 taxes. “We missed some deadlines,” says Poynter, but declined to elaborate further on what happened. “This sort of overtook us.” Losing its charitable status, however, was not related to its closure. “The fact that the CCIR is a charity is distinct from whether or not the CCIR in some form would continue,” Poynter said.

“It’s a tragedy it didn’t work out,” said Livesey, who CCIR lists as a “journalist we work with.” In particular, Livesey says he’s frustrated that CCIR wasn’t able to use its charitable status more effectively as a tool to secure donations. “That’s hard to get – it’s a prized commodity.”

The group received some large donations from American investor George Soros’ Open Society Foundations in 2011 and the Chawkers Foundation – one of the early supporters of The Walrus – donated $37,000. But outside of organizational grants, CCIR had few donors and according to its last tax filing in 2010, it received less than $3,000 from individual donors, a number that Poynter says was typical. According to tax filings, its total revenue in 2010r was $29,335, with the bulk coming from other charitable organizations.

By comparison, investigative centres in the U.S. have larger budgets. ProPublica, for example, had a budget of $10 million in 2010 and American donors are supporting a large and growing number of investigative non-profits, including smaller state groups like I-News in Colorado and the Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting. And a relative unknown, Inside Climate News recently won a Pulitzer Prize for its reporting on oil pipeline regulations points.

It’s hard to imagine a success like that replicating in Canada, says Livesey. “The Canadian rich are bit more parsimonious, and they’re a smaller group,” he says.

Poynter has also written on the challenges of creating non-profit journalism work in Canada. In a 2009 J-Source column, he wrote that Canada lacks the charitable foundations and sheer wealth of the U.S and that American’s have a “decades-long tradition of philanthropic giving to media ventures specifically.”

“There’s no reason that model can’t work here,” says Julian Sher, “short of the willingness of some wealthy benefactors to come forward.”  Sher, who was briefly a board member of the CCIR, says there is money available in Canada and there is also a clear need for investigative journalism, “but the two aren’t mixing.”

The result is that Canadian investigative journalists have fewer options, he says. “Where do you go in Canada if you can’t get a job at the Toronto Star or the CBC or La Presse if you want to do investigative journalism?” Sher is himself part of the Star’s enterprise team – the paper’s new push to do national and international investigations through co-productions with media partners in Canada and abroad.

For unattached and young investigative journalists however, the way forward is foggy and untrod.

Sean Holman is one of the few journalists who’ve tried the go-at-it-alone approach. His Public Eye Online failed but he says there are ways to raise money online that didn’t exist a couple of years ago. “We’ve seen through Kickstarter and Indiegogo just how successful [crowdsourcing] can be," he says.

But for now CCIR is filing final reports with the CRA and closing its books.

“There’ve been a lot of very fantastic people that have given the CCIR their consideration, their time,” says Poynter. “I’m very appreciative of the support we’ve got.”


Edward Tubb is a freelancer and soon-to-be graduate of the Master's of Journalism program at Ryerson University. He's currently writing about source protection and tobacco farming.