A week after ProPublica accepts one of journalism’s top prizes for a story funded by foundations and universities, Cecil Rosner examines the growing trend of non-profit, non-partisan investigative journalism. Will it be the saviour the industry needs?

Alternative journalism used to be a kind of slur in mainstream media circles, a phrase describing journalists who couldn’t or wouldn’t adhere to conventional norms.

In truth, alternative journalists have produced some of the most groundbreaking stories throughout the history of investigative journalism. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was the alternative newspapers and magazines that dragged mainstream media outlets into a prolific era of muckraking work.

Today, as the economic crisis cuts deeply into the heart of the U.S. media mainstream, the alternative sphere has a whole new texture. Some outstanding journalists from leading media outlets have either quit or have been laid off, providing a strong pool for independent organizations to draw on. And such organizations have been proliferating in recent years, raising money from foundations and universities to practice a brand of investigative work that doesn’t place the profit motive at the head of the list of objectives.

This week one of those organizations, ProPublica, won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. It is a significant milestone that everyone needs to appreciate and try to analyze. In many ways, it marks an important turning point for American investigative journalism.

The Pulitzer went to Sheri Fink, who wrote a 13,000-word article called The Deadly Choices at Memorial. It chronicled one hospital’s activities in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina, and how some doctors gave lethal injections to patients they thought could not be evacuated.

Fink’s article appeared first on ProPublica’s website. Two days later, it was published in The New York Times Magazine. This was an example of the organization’s method of work, in which it researches an investigative story and then partners with one or more media outlets to ensure widespread circulation.

ProPublica is perhaps the biggest and best-funded example of the new breed of non-profit and non-partisan investigative institutes. With a significant endowment from the Sandler Foundation and support from other foundations, it has built an impressive team led by a former Wall Street Journal managing editor and a former investigations editor at the New York Times. With a newsroom in Manhattan, it has assembled a formidable staff of 32 journalists, some of them award-winning reporters and researchers from mainstream organizations.

In 2009, ProPublica produced 138 stories and partnered with 38 print, broadcast and online media organizations. The Pulitzer was the crowning achievement of the year, but there were other awards as well, including a George Polk Award, a Selden Ring Award and wins at the Investigative Reporters and Editors competition.

“The honors are gratifying, and we deeply appreciate them, but they are
not a goal in themselves,” wrote managing editor Paul Steiger on the group’s website. “We view them as a sign that our nonprofit,
nonpartisan model — publishing both on our own Web site and in
partnership with major print, video, audio and online news organizations
— can make a meaningful contribution to the information needs of the
American people in an era of explosive change in newspapers and other
media.”

The awards will almost certainly provide a boost to similar groups that have sprung up across America, and are only now trying to grow in Canada. But they are by no means a guarantee of the long-term success for the model. Grants from foundations, like other charitable contributions, are subject to economic and political considerations, and can be withdrawn as easily as they are awarded.

Those non-profits that forge close links with ordinary readers, listeners and viewers — audiences that are willing to pay for a high-quality product in one way or another — will likely be the ones to succeed in the long run.
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