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New Nonprofit Now Investing in Investigative News

When Larry Tisch , famous for Loews Hotels, Bulova Watch and Lorrilard Cigarettes , first purchased CBS Inc., he found out Tom Fenton in London was a full-time employee of CBS News, but like so many foreign correspondents, his work rarely made it on the evening news. Sensing this and other operations were a waste, Tisch cut the foreign news staff drastically.

Thus when Sept. 11 happened, many critics say we knew or should have known such an attack was likely.

The same or similar stories happen in newsrooms around the world when investigative journalism comes face to face with budgetary constraints of advertiser-supported media organizations.

At a Harvard University conference chaired by David Gergen, former adviser to three presidents and now director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard, he and his colleagues talked about the challenges such ignorance poses for the press and public diplomacy, and expressed their “concern that international news coverage nearly reached a vanishing point in the mainstream press before Sept. 11, 2001.”

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Unprofitable

They offered several reasons, not the least however was that international news did not generate large audiences, and therefore is unprofitable.

Yet our seeming insatiable interest in sports, entertainment, fashion and the topical events of the day, more likely did generate more consistent and loyal audiences.

Without being overly simple, more people watch, read or listen to programs like sports or entertainment than public affairs or certainly world news, and the more people that tune in, or open the pages of a magazine or newspaper, generally, the more profit a media enterprise earns.

To be fair, it is not just world news that we are missing. It is rather, all issues of public importance that a so-called “informed electorate” ought to know about.

It is about public education, affordable housing, safe and healthy community policies and so forth. It is, in essence, about creating livable and attractive places that nurture, attract and retain the most knowledgeable and creative worker.

It is, as Dr. Lee Bollinger, First Amendment scholar and president of Columbia University, has argued, about, “Journalism and the free press the most important institutions in the modern world. Democracies, civil society and free markets cannot exist over time without them.”

The history of America is clearly testament to that fact.

But a fact of life is that the old media that provided the “water cooler” environment to help shape public attitudes and to inform and engage the public are gone.

News operation budgets are being cut, reporters are being laid off in droves, and investigative reporting is becoming a thing of the past.

In a survey conducted almost two years ago by Arizona State University journalism students, they discovered journalists did little investigative reporting because there is little travel money, research assistance or training to do investigative work.


Not Enough

While most news staffers said they get some time away from daily assignments and a bit of money to purchase documents or data, it often isn’t enough.

In light of all this, some well-known policy thinkers are suggesting financial support for more nonprofit corporations.

This month, an unbiased nonprofit newsroom producing journalism in the public interest was launched under the name ProPublica. Paul E. Steiger, former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, is serving as president and editor in chief.

ProPublica, when fully staffed this year, will include 24 full-time reporters and editors, the largest staff in U.S. journalism devoted to investigative reporting.

ProPublica will be supported entirely by philanthropy and will post the articles it produces free of charge to its own Web site and submit them to leading news organizations, with an eye toward maximizing the impact of each article.


John M. Eger, Van Deerlin chair of communications and public policy in the School of Journalism and Media Studies at SDSU, is a member of the Envision San Diego partnership, a forum for discussing public policy issues affecting the region.

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