When Diana Jean Schemo co-founded 100Reporters, a news organization dedicated to fighting corruption through investigative reporting, she wanted to give citizens a way to leak material confidentially, knowing it would be reviewed by trusted journalists.
Even before Schemo launched her news site in 2011, she invested in Whistleblower Alley,1 a secure, digital exchange and communication point that allows anyone, anywhere to transmit information. Schemo built on the Wikileaks model, which uses sophisticated encryption technology to protect sources. But unlike Wikileaks, which makes information available publically or to the press, Whistleblower Alley is used only by 100Reporters. This guarantees a secure review process by journalists committed to reporting on corruption issues for a global audience. Schemo is now revamping Whistleblower Alley so that it can handle large volumes of data.
Investigative journalists like Schemo, once called muckrakers, play a critical role in uncovering abuses by corporations, governments, and other power holders. Despite the benefit to society, major news publications across the country have slashed their investigative capacity.
Now, journalist and social entrepreneur Schemo has a vision for how watchdog reporting will not only survive the digital news age but also transcend it.
Investigative journalism budgets have telescoped over the past 25 years, first because of pressure for high profit margins, and then as the byproduct of digitization. Eric Newton, Senior Advisor at the Knight Foundation, says that the migration of classified ads to the web and mobile devices, where earned income is lower, was devastating because, “the U.S. has news that is 85 percent supported by advertising, higher than any country in the world.” Newton says these changes hurt investigative reporting disproportionately: “investigative reporters are the ones who work on more difficult stories, stories that other people don’t want revealed. It takes longer, it’s more expensive, and it doesn’t always work out.”
Rushing the Digital Age
By 2008, Schemo had worked at The New York Times for 17 years, staffing almost every desk and serving as bureau chief in Rio de Janeiro. In those years, fear was in the atmosphere at the Gray Lady. Schemo says, “there was a threat from Wall Street that was pushing the paper to cut manpower and costs on the editorial side… People were afraid of their jobs.”
Yet even as the old order was crumbling, the digital age offered opportunities, and Schemo wanted to rush to it.
In parallel to cuts at traditional newspapers, the nonprofit sector grew and diversified. Now, there are four types of nonprofit institutions producing investigative journalism. National digitally native news outlets, such as The Center for Public Integrity,2 have been producing high quality investigative reporting for over 25 years. Regional or local digital news outlets are growing quickly in number, consolidating and replacing to some degree the lost capacity at smaller papers. Public broadcasting, such as the television program Frontline,3 produces reporting that captures a broad interest, and public radio at times partners with digital organizations. Lastly, teacher–student teams formed through News21 and other university centers are publishing with major media partners.4 Other organizations provide training, conduct advocacy, and offer services to media organizations.
When Schemo co-founded 100Reporters, she surveyed the field and found that only a few nonprofit news organizations were tackling international issues. While focusing on accountability and corruption, Schemo helps fill the void. Schemo describes her approach as “horizontal.” She leverages her network of reporters around the world, asking them for insight rather than determining what to cover up front. Working with whistleblowers and citizen-watchdogs, as well as local investigative teams, gets her access to stories that Western media could miss. Schemo also uses crowdsourcing to tap citizens for evidence on governments that misuse taxpayer money.
David and Goliath
Professor Marilyn Greenwald of the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University says that investigative journalism has been hurt by fear of litigation. According to Greenwald, “a lot of media outlets are not as courageous as they were before. They fear lawsuits… and now we have so many media outlets owned by five, six, or seven corporations and they could fear doing an investigative report on a sister company of the media outlet.” Greenwald says nonprofits may have an advantage as “they don’t have to worry about stepping on anyone’s toes.”
But independence isn’t enough to take on powerful adversaries. Nonprofits need legal representation and insurance. In 2012, 100Reporters ran a story about the Eurasian Natural Resources Corporation (ENRC), a Kazakh mining firm that filed a report with a British law enforcement agency disclosing suspected corruption in their plans to acquire mining rights in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Despite this, they asked for and received fast track authority to approve the deal. A newsletter in the U.K. ran the story only to retract it after ENRC’s lawyers threatened legal action.
100Reporters wrote about the mining company’s use of intimidation to prevent inquiry by the newsletter and other papers. When ENRC threatened 100Reporters with criminal charges, Schemo’s pro bono lawyers at Arnold & Porter supported the decision not to stand down. 100Reporters published another article citing ENRC’s lawyers’ threats.5 U.K. news organizations, observing that no charges were filed against 100Reporters, began to cover the story.
Schemo says that after the floodgates were opened, the BBC, News Corps, and others, “came in and resumed their watchdog function.” The U.K. government investigated ENRC and delisted it from the stock exchange. The chairman stepped down and the U.S. government launched a separate investigation.
100Reporters aims to write stories that are difficult to cover in the country where they occur. I recently wrote an article for 100Reporters on education for Syrian refugees in Turkey.6 Schemo covered education for the New York Times for eight years and saw the opportunity to address a complex issue affecting a vulnerable group. I found that the Turkish government is both generous to Syrians and reticent to let UN officials and international nonprofits have full access to the refugee population. The UN, protective of the access they have gained, cannot easily talk about the restrictions they face. For some local and even international news outlets, the relationship with the government is more important than relating these facts.
Funding Against the Wind
Although many foundations prioritize media projects, investigative journalism is not a focus area of philanthropy. A report conducted by the Foundation Center, Knight Foundation, and Media Impact Partners showed that foundation support for the media is growing at nearly four times the rate of domestic giving.7
Of the $1.86 billion invested between 2009 and 2011 in media projects, only five percent went to investigative journalism. Although watchdog reporting often reaps multifold social and economic returns, according to Newton, “you never know for sure what topic is going to be dealt with in the report, and you never know for sure whether the community is going to act on it. These are uncertainties and when people invest they like to give to some kind of specific, certain thing.”
Almost $28 million was awarded to investigative journalism between 2009 and 2011 from private and community foundations. During those years, among national, digitally native investigative journalism organizations, the Center for Public Integrity and the Center for Investigative Reporting received top funding at $8 million and $7.4 million, respectively.
For smaller investigative news outlets, the funding landscape represents a major challenge. Unlike nonprofits that provide education or health services, many funders expect media organizations to develop earned revenue streams after a few years. Schemo says it’s difficult because many consumers believe that news should be free. According to Schemo, “the only organizations that are making headway are earning their keep by doing other things… events, training… not by making the news. That is troubling.”
Widening the Lens
In the news media landscape, philanthropy has muscle, with potential to encourage innovation and diversity. And with the rise of charitable giving, new approaches are emerging from nontraditional outlets. Human Rights Watch provides reporting and collaborates closely with journalists on reports that regularly make the front page of the New York Times.8 InsideClimate News was the first non-journalistic outfit to win the Pulitzer Prize for an investigative series on the Enbridge pipeline oil spill in July 2010.9 Few philanthropic institutions, however, explicitly work to promote diversity in leadership at the board, executive, and editor levels in investigative reporting. Professor Greenwald commented on the benefit of women and minorities in leadership roles and as reporters in news organizations: “whenever you have someone with a different perspective, you will always widen the subjects of stories.”
Among the premier digitally native national nonprofit news organizations, most leadership posts are filled by men, although in other news organizations, women are increasingly represented. Schemo says she’s embraced what some might consider a female management style: “studies show that… women tend to feel like they’ve got to accomplish something before asking for outside support. By and large, we’ve taken that approach, demonstrating a concept in action, and then seeking support to grow what we’ve shown can work.”
Outraged for Good
Brant Houston, chair of the Investigative News Network, writes that the term “muckraker” was a pejorative one for journalists coined by President Theodore Roosevelt in reference to John Bunyan’s seventeenth-century fable, Pilgram’s Progress, about men who rejected salvation in order to focus on filth. Journalists later took up the term themselves, using it as a badge of honor.
Because investigative journalism undresses power, the forces that threaten the profession are as old as the first report. Consolidations, profit margins, lawsuits, and digitization are formidable obstacles. Yet investigative journalists persist, and some, like the old muckrakers, even take these challenges as an opportunity to bare sharpened teeth.
100Reporters recently won a Best Investigative Report prize from Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism for a story on Nouri al-Maliki’s use of bogus land titles to buy votes in the spring elections, stacking the parliament with al-Maliki’s family and cronies. The story was part of a larger effort at 100Reporters to train indigenous investigative reporters in Syria, Iraq, and parts of Africa. 100Reporters is also planning it’s inaugural Investigative Film Festival, with backing from the Knight Foundation, for debut in September 2015. Read the article here: http://uprooted.100r.org/packingthehouse