Introducing the Investigative Reporting Initiative by Eric Newton

Remarks by Eric Newton, vice president of journalism program, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Announcing Knight Foundation’s Investigative Reporting Initiative

Investigative Reporters and Editors Conference

Saturday, June 13, 2009, Baltimore

My name is Eric Newton.  I am here because of the generosity of Jack and Jim Knight, the newspaper owners who gave away their personal fortunes to create the Knight Foundation.

We do two things. We help advance journalism excellence in the digital age. We build the vitality of communities where the brothers owned newspapers. 

These days, you hear a lot about bottom lines. Well, here’s our bottom line:  No community can clean up a toxic dump, or remove a corrupt official, or right any other kind of wrong, if it doesn’t first know about it. 

Investigative reporting tells us what we need to know. Not what we want to hear — what we need to know — what good citizens need to run their communities and their lives. 

But today we seem to be in a weird kind of investigative reporting drought. Weird because the overall volume of news and information is exploding – but in our mad scramble to cope with the digital age, we appear to be producing relatively fewer of the really high-impact stories, the more difficult-to-get stories. 

So quietly, during this past year, we have been making new grants for investigative reporting. 
Our focus, and I will repeat this, is that we are interested in the development of new economic models for investigative reporting on digital platforms. 

These grants are starting to add up. We have some new ones to announce today. We would like to do several million dollars more of these in the coming months and years, particularly to new kinds of investigative reporting startups.  

We thought it would encourage other donors to come forward if we rounded up the things we are doing and gave it all an official name.  

So today, I’d like to announce that the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has established an investigative reporting initiative that is formally beginning with an initial investment of $15 million.  
We are interested in new economic models, new ways of rallying local support for the work you do. We’re interested in people who are leaders but also collaborators. Comfortable with tough, high-impact journalism but also ever-changing digital platforms.  

Here are three new grants we are announcing right now: 

The first is for $1.3 million to the Center for Investigative Reporting. CIR is building a creative new, California project with foundation support. Robert Rosenthal and staff, please stand. Give him a hand. We’re convinced Rosey’s California project will work because of the success of the Chauncey Bailey project, which we also funded. 

A second grant is for $1 million to ProPublica, because all startups, no matter how small or how big, need to figure out the same thing: how to survive. Its important to everyone that all of us doing this work focus specifically on the development of  workable ongoing revenue and fundraising models. That’s what our money will focus on. ProPublica people, please stand up! 

The third grant, to Sunlight Foundation, is for $565,000 to develop news ways of getting at the bricks and mortar of what you do. Their new, free, open source software will allow you, just by clicking on a name, to see how a Congressperson has voted, their earmarks, their campaign contributions, federal contracts in their district. Sunlight rep, please stand! 

Now let’s add the folks from the past year.  

We’ve funded the Center for Public Integrity, which is pioneering new ways of raising money directly from the public for its high-impact investigative reporting. Center folks, please stand! 

We’ve funded Boston University to try to a university-based, regionally funded investigative non-profit. Boston University folks, please stand! 

Universities seem to have a big role to play in this field. We’re funded News 21 to explore how its 12-campus investigative reporting project might adopt a self-sustaining model. USC, the University of California at Berkeley, Nebraska, Arizona State, Missouri, Northwestern, Maryland, Syracuse, University of Texas, the University of North Carolina, Columbia and Harvard. Anyone from any of those universities who feels like it, stand! 

We fund startups like crowd-funded investigations at Spot.Us, as well as Voice of San Diego and Minn Post and too many others to list. You know who you are. Stand! 

Two endowment grants are part of this initiative. The training endowment we have given to the Investigative Reporters and Editors – so your director can now stand up — and the grant we have given to endow our Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Journalism, your own Brant Houston. Brant held a meeting here Thursday of these folks you see standing before you, the first of many, we hope. 

Everyone who is standing, look around at each other for a second. 

You are the folks whose institutions are part of something that is gaining momentum around the country – non-profit investigative reporting. 

You are the folks who have won a significant chunk of the awards of this year’s IRE competition.  
Now, everyone who is sitting, look at the people who are standing. 

These are very important people. They are the ones who can tell you how to get money from the Knight Foundation. 

I’ll tell you to go to our web site, Knight and send in an online application. I’ll tell you about things like “new economic models on digital platforms.” I hope it helps you. But these are the folks who have done it.  Be sure you talk with them.
Let’s give them all a hand.  

One last thing. When you talk with these nonprofit reporting folks you get the feeling this is their time, that they have come of age. I think what our next speaker — with her very interesting announcement — is going to provide evidence that they have a point. 

Please join me in welcoming Sue Cross, senior vice president of the Associated Press.