If You Can’t Make Journalism Profitable, Make It Not-for-Profit
The Canadian Centre for Investigative Reporting, this country’s pioneer of non-profit investigative journalism, models itself on successful US groups such as ProPublica, but the charitable funds just don't match up
A few of Hamilton’s top-ranking police officers and their communications director gather in the Mulberry Street Coffeehouse, as rain gently falls outside on an August morning. They are still in uniform, hats off, looking relaxed as they joke with each other and ease into their chairs in a secluded corner. As investigative journalist and Canadian Centre for Investigative Reporting (CCIR) executive director, Bilbo Poynter walks by the group. He can’t help but think that if his centre had more steady funding, he might just go over there and see what was going on in the city’s police department. But he has to spend his resources carefully.
For Canada’s only charitable organization dedicated solely to investigative reporting, funding is the biggest problem. With fewer dedicated investigative journalists now, the country is starting to see more non-profit groups filling the gap. The trend has a longer history in the U.S., but in Canada it’s still “frontier territory,” says Poynter. As the country catches up, organizations such as the CCIR deal with not only building a respectable profile to convince foundations, organizations and individuals to donate, but also with battling the ethical questions that arise from accepting that money.
Non-profit journalism goes back at least as far as the start of the Associated Press in 1846. The first group dedicated solely to investigative journalism was the Center for Investigative Reporting, which started operating out of co-founder Lowell Bergman’s house in Berkeley, California, in 1977. Journalist Charles Lewis founded the Center for Public Integrity in 1989. Since then, several other non-profits have popped up, including ProPublica, which started in 2008. Taking advantage of alternative funding models, these organizatons have contributed significantly to investigative journalism; ProPublica, for example, recently won its second Pulitzer Prize.
The Investigative News Network (INN), formed in 2009, brings these groups together and provides support. It currently has 60 members, though Canada’s CCIR is the only international one. To be part of the INN, members have to be a registered charity and be transparent in their funding. Only one organization chose not to sign because they couldn’t comply with the transparency requirements of membership.
The first question the CCIR asked its board of journalist advisors was what acceptable funding sources were. That question has been at the core of the debate about alternative funding models; American organizations, for example, have recently faced criticism for accepting money from foundations backed by financier and philanthropist George Soros. The CCIR’s editorial statement says that “at all times the CCIR retain[s] editorial control over its research and reporting, free of the influence of stakeholders and, in particular, that of our funders.” It also states that although investigative journalism is sometimes advocacy journalism, it is not an advocacy organization and cannot guarantee any conclusions.
The CCIR relies heavily on individual donations, which average $100 to $200 and make up 30 to 50 percent of its funds. Donations over $1,000 are listed on the website; so far there are 11 of these. The advisory board’s general consensus was that money should not come from corporations or direct government funding. But this could all change in the future, says Poynter. “There’s not the same environment as there is in the U.S., so we will be faced with the prospect of going to a funding source that may present certain ethical concerns.”
But he is adamant that no matter what happens, all potential donors will have to agree to the CCIR’s mandate. “Ultimately what you’re trying to do is improve journalism, and if you’re going to do that at the sacrifice of journalistic principals it might not work very well,” says Peter Klein, acting director at University of British Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism and founder of its International Reporting Program. Klein also says it’s important to diversify funding because that gives journalists more freedom to investigate stories that a donor may not like. He is currently fundraising to create an even bigger centre for underreported stories in global journalism at UBC.
When Poynter heard anecdotes from sources about heroin on the rise in Canada, he wondered if there was an Afghan connection with Canadian troops stationed there. It resulted in the group’s biggest story to date. Poynter and CCIR president Alex Roslin filed access requests and researched the piece for a better part of the year before pitching it to the Montreal Gazette for a freelancer fee. After the initial story, they realized they needed to report on the global implications of the story. Since they couldn’t afford to travel, they approached a European arm of the Open Society Foundations with an interest in drug policy around the world. While looking for Canadian funders is always priority, this was the best fit. The foundation donated approximately $23,000. At no time was there editorial interference, says Poynter—just a pitch in the beginning and a report in the end. “You hope that you can have an ongoing relationship because it makes your life infinitely easier, but at the end of the day we pursue the story to where it takes us.”
Journalism organizations, including non-profits, connected to Soros recently have faced criticism from FOX, which believes he is using these groups to further a liberal agenda. “The first thing they’re doing is judging based upon what they believe to be the political slant of the foundations that are funding it and I think that they’re missing the boat,” says INN CEO and executive director Kevin Davis, adding that by dismissing a story because it was funded by one foundation, “so it must be X,” readers are doing themselves a disservice. He laments the politicization of media in the U.S. and Britain: “Read the content. Make your own mind up. Educate yourself.”