A Historic Meeting: Plotting The Future Of Investigative Journalism

It's a difficult time to be an investigative journalist.

In addition to the usual stress of trying to pry uncomfortable truths out of obstinate bureaucrats, corrupt businessmen and fearful witnesses, many of the hardest-working reporters and editors in the country now live in fear of getting laid off. In an era of dwindling budgets, many newsrooms are slashing their investigative teams to save a few dollars. And I know at least half a dozen excellent veteran investigative reporters who've lost their jobs and gone over to the dark side - public relations - to earn enough of a living to pay for their kids' college educations.

So, I didn't expect much hope, let alone optimism, when I attended a conference that brought together nearly all the major nonprofit investigate groups in the country, from the Center for Public Integrity and the Center for Investigative Reporting to National Public Radio and American RadioWorks for two days of discussions about pooling their efforts and resources in an investigative news network.

But there on the grounds of the stately Rockefeller estate near Tarrytown, N.Y., almost three dozen of us could not contain our enthusiasm about the historic gathering and the potential it bodes for the future of our venture, the mission that drives us to "comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable."

We all agreed that the benefits of cooperation were impossible to ignore - as a super-team, we have the potential to do important, amazing work together.

The historic nature of the gathering was clear to Laura Frank, whose two decades at the Rocky Mountain News abruptly ended in February when the paper closed. Currently, she is helping launch the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network at the University of Colorado. Frank clearly stated the benefits of cooperation over competition when it came to media coverage of the financial crisis: "If all of us had collaborated, we could have seen what was happening in the housing sector."

Chuck Lewis, the respected news veteran who founded the Center for Public Integrity and now runs the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University, put it bluntly:

"The fact of the matter is that no one has attempted to bring together investigative journalism groups like this."

The benefits of collaboration were clear when it came to any number of projects. For example, a look at stimulus spending could use the databases of the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting (NICAR), the local impact could be reported by voiceofsandiego.org, MinnPost, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, St. Louis Beacon and Texas Watchdog and the political machinations could be explored by Capitol News Connection.

In addition to editorial collaboration, there was much discussion of fundraising strategies, marketing, and sharing administrative resources such as lawyers and insurance needs.

In the end, those gathered adopted a resolution, appointing an eight-member steering committee which is initially charged with securing a planning grant.

Within a year, the network should begin collaborating on stories and be established as a 501 (c)3 nonprofit.

Here's to the future!