Monday, October 15, 2007

A New Approach to Investigative Journalism

In discussing Mark Cuban's Sharesleuth insider-trading website -- a project that really sticks in my craw for a number of reasons -- I've lamented how no public-spirited rich guy has stepped up to the plate to offer a real investigative journalism website for the public interest, not private profit.

Well, that has happened. The New York Times reports today that an organization named ProPublica has been established, to offer investigative reporting for magazines and newspapers.

The public-spirited rich people are Herbert M. and Marion O. Sandler, the former chief executives of the Golden West Financial Corporation. The Sandlers deserve a standing ovation from journalists everywhere for doing this, and creating a nonprofit operation in the public interest.

It's too bad that Cuban, in creating Sharesleuth, decided to create that supposed "investigative journalism" project to rake in a few extra bucks, masking his greed by calling that a "new business model."

I think ProPublica is an outstanding idea, and may well be the only really good news to come out of the journalism profession in... oh, I don't know.... fifteen years? Twenty?

ProPublica has a tough road ahead. As I recall from my brief tenure in the news syndication biz in the early eighties, newspapers and magazines are notoriously reluctant to punlidh investigative and enterprise stories from outside sources.

I note that my former boss Steve Shepard was quoted in the Times article. The reporter should have asked him how many outside stories we ran at Business Week. The answer, of course, was zero.

However, ProPublica will do fine as long as it is willing to swallow that, and accepts that some of its best work may be relegated to its own website. If so, that will reflect on the news business, not ProPublica.

UPDATE: A journalist I know wrote in with an interesting comment, which I'm quoting below with his permission:

Must say: I disagree with you about ProPublica... I think the venture will end up patronizing journalists. Are we now all charity cases? In the future will we all be working for the Poynter Institute or ProPublica or some other touchy feely nonprofit. Somehow I don’t see nonprofit groups as bastions of confrontational journalism.. Also makes journalism into another form of foundation-supported activism. Like: I work for NARAL, you work for Human Rights Watch, he works for Pro Publica. I think people will stop paying attention to journalism when that happens.

© 2007 Gary Weiss. All rights reserved.

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