Can investigative reporting survive through online grassroots efforts?

ReporterJay Rosen posted a link on his Twitter a few days ago to the Knight Digital Media Center article “New grassroots life for investigative reporting?”  In it, author David Westphal discusses recent efforts to revive and sustain watchdog journalism through grassroots efforts, funded by foundations and philanthropy.  He mentions organizations like Texas Watchdog, which received a year of foundation funding to keep an eye on the Texas state government, and ProPublica, a recently launched investigative non-profit.  Westphal seems to believe there is hope for these attempts to prioritize watchdog journalism, and he highlights some of the creative ways that these organizations are working to sustain themselves in the long run.

There are multiple strikes against the idea that watchdog reporting can actually gain a foothold as a grassroots movement. Practically any business model has sharp limitations when it comes to investigative work, which is time-consuming, treacherous in its predictability and certain to be controversial. So is there a financing mechanism that legions of out-of-work journalists and others could adopt that would at least partially bankroll accountability reporting projects?  The answer is likely many months or years away.  

Voice is financed partly by foundations and mostly by philanthropy, and neither the foundations nor philanthropists are intending for their funding to be permanent.  But it’s an island of stability compared to the challenges facing other sites. Texas Watchdog got first-year funding from the Sam Adams Alliance, but now is looking to other potential revenue streams, including advertising and money made off a citizen journalism training program. Baltimore’s Investigative Voice is in a different situation. It basically began with no start-up funding, and exists now with a few advertising dollars and contributions, but mostly free labor.

I think it’s great that Texas Watchdog gets some of its money from a citizen journalism training program – what a creative idea.  Hopefully organizations like these keep up the search for a business model that will work long-term for investigative journalism.  Be sure to check out the whole article.


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