Is news becoming a charitable cause?

Kelly Toughill

Kelly ToughillThe CBS television show 60 Minutes helped forge the model for investigative journalism on television four decades ago. Last Sunday night it broke that model by showcasing an innovation that has sparked both hope and despair among journalists around the world.

Charity news.

The lead story on the show last Sunday was not produced by CBS staff. The real work – the digging through records, tracking down sources and key interviews – was done by staff at ProPublica, a non-profit experiment in public policy journalism.

Everyone knows that newspapers and network television are in trouble, primarily because advertisers are losing interest in mass media. The casualties of the downturn are not just reporters, editors and shareholders. The casualty list includes the important stories about how our cities, schools and nations are run. Stories such as the famous Watergate scandal in the U.S. or the Toronto Star‘s series on charity fraud, daycare licensing and restaurant inspections are very expensive to produce. They require hundreds, sometimes thousands, of hours of research by highly skilled and trained professionals.

Many worry that as the big publications are replaced by a bevy of niche players, no one will have the money – or perhaps the interest – to fund the kind of public policy journalism that is crucial to a healthy society.

Enter ProPublica. Former Wall Street Journal managing editor Paul Steiger and a few buddies were musing over threats to public policy journalism last summer when they decided to do something about it. That something was an innovative website that partners with traditional media to produce the kind of groundbreaking investigative journalism that traditional media can rarely afford to do on their own.

The ProPublica site launched quietly on June 10 and had its first major story – with CBS’s 60 Minutes – on air and online June 22. The site has hired top-notch professional journalists and is run with an annual grant of $10 million from the Sandler Foundation.

“Our work will focus exclusively on truly important stories, stories with `moral force,'” the site states. “We will do this by producing journalism that shines a light on exploitation of the weak by the strong and on the failures of those with power to vindicate the trust placed in them.”

ProPublica is a very ambitious project, but it is not the first attempt to marry philanthropy to journalism. The Toronto Star was supposed to turn into a non-profit corporation upon the death of seminal publisher Joseph Atkinson in 1948. The Ontario Legislature foiled that plan, but the Atkinson Foundation continues to fund a project in public policy journalism each year that is available to any journalist in Canada. And there are others.

It is easy to see why ProPublica has sparked so much hope among journalists who love their craft and their public mission. But despair?

Well, yes. The very existence of ProPublica suggests that news has become a charity case. Is the creation of important news stories now a cause that can be lumped in with housing the homeless, preserving wetlands and advancing cancer research? Is it really something that individuals want to see in theory, but don’t actually want to pay for?

There has always been tension in the world of news between the drive to make money and the drive to help society. Most of the world’s great newspapers were not launched primarily to generate cash for their owners; they were launched to push a point of view. Then, as original owners died and the newspapers matured, they adopted a more neutral stance in the world and became dedicated to a broader notion of public interest – and shareholder returns.

The launch of ProPublica is an important development, but it is not a long-term solution to the demise of public policy, investigative journalism. Its non-profit model will likely not be replicated in cities and small towns around the continent.

Still, its crucial contribution will be to keep the light of investigative journalism alive through this period of turmoil until the new business models to fund journalism that matters are figured out

Kelly Toughill is a J-Source contributing editor and an assistant professor in the School of Journalism at the University of King’s College, Halifax. She is a former deputy executive editor at the Toronto Star. This column originally appeared in the Star.