Non-profit investigative reporting sites do one thing, do it well

Kristen Lombardi at Dan Kennedy's Reinventing the News class, March 22

Investigative reporters are probably seen by accountants and others who stare at spreadsheets as big money losers. It’s not totally unwarranted. A daily newspaper is pretty much in the business of writing daily news, and investigative stories take months, if not years, to report. That means investigative reporters aren’t exactly turning over stories quickly.

Kristen Lombardi works for the Center for Public Integrity, a non-profit site started decades ago by an ex-“60 Minutes” reporter who was “frustrated by commericail media and an inability to do deep-digging investigative projects,” she said.

“Much of my work at the center has been what you’d call an investigation hidden in plain sight,” Lombardi said. “It’s not as if these stories weren’t out there for mainsteam reporters to seize upon. Nobody, I think, had the time or resources to deal with them.”

Lombardi, who is a 2011-12 Nieman Foundation fellow, said she came to the center after taking a buyout from the Village Voice. Out of a job, she said she didn’t want to go back to daily assignment reporting and wanted to work at an online publication, seeing that as “being ahead of the curve.”

Her report on “The Hidden Costs of Clean Coal” and its accompanying video supports that notion. The video is filled, she said, with information that didn’t even make it in her two-part series. The lengthy investigation took two months of living in coal country, something she said no daily news organization would go for.

“It was the only way I was able to get to that story,” Lombardi said. “People in Appalachia are very reluctant. It took me some time to get people to open up to (landowners).”

The investigation on how colleges handle rape and sexual abuse cases, she said, is her crowning achievement.

“It probably best epitomizes how non-profits can work,” she said of the seven-part series that took 18 months of reporting and research and cost the Center an estimated $250,000 to produce.

The cost and weight on resources is why she said the Center often partners with mainstream media outlets who add prestige and prominence to reporting and stories they probably could not produce on their own, especially when big companies – burdened with employee and other legacy costs – have shoestring budgets for reporting.

For me, this is the future of reporting, not just investigative pieces. Daily publications need to think about daily stories, because readers devote less and less time to lengthy pieces. But investigative journalism still has a place in society as a whistleblower and a public good. That’s why the non-profit model is the best method to make sure this type of journalism continues.

“Change in new media has driven a major shift towards nonprofit journalism,” Lombardi said. “When I started there were two (non-profit investigative outlets). There’s been an explosion, because people really want to find a way to make it work.”

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