How to save investigative journalism

It’s no secret that shrinking newsroom budgets and a demanding 24-hour
news cycle are pushing investigative journalism to the sidelines. Enter
the non-profit, independent news media to save the day. The lesson is
clear: innovate or die. Bilbo Poynter reports.

Since I founded the Canadian Centre for Investigative Reporting (CCIR) in 2008 with the straight-forward mandate to produce thorough investigative research and reporting on under-reported stories, the landscape of non-profit or otherwise independent news media has changed significantly in Canada as it has elsewhere, most notably in the United States. It has grown crowded compared to what it was when the CCIR started, but this has also led some to think about that space now filled by non-commercial media and how the power of the independents can be leveraged in the public interest. What do I take away from all of this activity? Innovate or die.

Toronto daily news site OpenFile recently went live, fronted by veteran journalists Craig Silverman and Wilf Dinnick. They’re trying something new in Canada in the way they generate both stories and revenue. Readers suggest stories and topics to pursue, and OpenFile assigns a reporter to follow up. They’ve raised money through angel investors, and intend to have advertisers. They have plans to expand. They’re not the only ones: CCIR advisor Peter Klein’s students in the International Reporting Program at the University of British Columbia took home an Emmy last month for their documentary that followed the trail of e-waste from the West to Ghana and elsewhere. The program was seeded with a $1-million grant from Vancouver philanthropist Alison Lawson.

It seems there are new developments daily in the world of non-profit news delivery,  what American University I-Lab founder and CCIR advisor Charles Lewis calls the “new journalism ecosystem.” (Lewis is oft cited by me for reasons you will see). A number of these changes have happened since the last time I wrote a column — in fact a number of major developments have happened in the two weeks since I first pitched what you’re reading now to J-Source. These include:

$1 million to National Public Radio (NPR) to expand their states coverage

• The Huffington Post announces its I-Fund will merge and be absorbed by the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), growing their staff of investigative reporters and researchers to over 50

• $1.7 million to the CPI from the Knight Foundation (the single biggest foundation funder of investigative journalism in the U.S.)

• The co-ordinated release of dozens of regional articles derived from a Freedom of Information release the CPI obtained which revealed that many U.S. lawmakers publicly opposed to stimulus spending nevertheless privately campaigned for it for their districts (clearly a banner couple of weeks for the venerable CPI, whose own coverage appeared in the Washington Post.)
The events described in this last point were co-ordinated through the Investigative News Network (INN), a new body comprised of over 40 non profit news organizations — including the CCIR. In fact we’re the only group outside the U.S. — other than a Puerto Rican member — to be accepted so far. The INN includes several heavyweights, such as NPR, American Public Media, the Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley and WBEZ (producers of This American Life). Though it’s still in its early days, the benefits to us seem obvious: the CCIR is part of the innovation sweeping the journalism world.

Since 2006, Lewis’ I-Lab puts the number of new non-profit news outfits that have sprung up in the “new eco-system” at 38. He contrasts this beehive of activity in non-profit news delivery with the continued hemorrhaging of the mainstream commercial news media, specifically the bloodletting of resources for in-depth reporting and editorial jobs. He likes to cites Robert McChesney and John Nichols’ point that, “Even as journalism shrinks, the ‘news’ will still exist.” (Though the same conditions are widely held to exist in Canada, there hasn’t been any analysis yet of the scale of jobs lost or the availability of mainstream resources for in-depth stories.) 

Many of these new investigative groups will produce their stories primarily online. After a long and bumpy road that we’re still travelling, I’m pleased to say the CCIR is close to making our first stories public. We aim for these stories to be relevant and have impact, and while we’ve never settled on any one medium you can bet that the web will be a major way we do things.

The CCIR is still the only organization in Canada whose mandate it is to produce independent investigative reporting as our sole reason for being. We have a lot of exciting things planned in the weeks ahead, and though the media landscape continues to shift under our feet we’re confident that we’re among the innovators. Stay tuned.

Bilbo Poynter is executive director and founder of the Canadian Centre for Investigative Reporting. His reports have been seen and heard on CBC Radio,, and the Canadian Press. As a researcher, then associate producer with the CBC Investigative Unit he contributed to award winning series on workplace safety and hospital infections. He was also the first Canadian to work for the Center for Investigative Reporting in California.