Searching for a new business model

 California Watch is the latest offshoot of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Founded in 1977 as a way to promote and support investigative journalism (during the last crunch in traditional, mainstream media), the center has formed a special team to examine issues in California.

   The latest effort by California Watch deals with how Homeland Security money has been spent since 9/11. Here is the lead on the main story, which ran in more than two dozen outlets in the state:

   Soon after hijackers obliterated the World Trade Center towers eight years ago, Marin County received more than $100,000 in surveillance equipment to keep its water treatment system safe from a terrorist attack.

But four years after the funds were awarded, state authorities found more than $67,000 worth of the gear still boxed in its original packaging.

It had never been used.

    The package also includes a slideshow narrated by reporter G.W. Schultz. caliwatch

    The package is good, in-depth, detailed and important. Its significance, however,  is less about the reporting (which is rather standard investigative stuff), but how CIR paid for it. The center reports that its funding comes from a variety of non-profit foundations, partnerships with media outlets and universities and donations. The center’s Website pushes heavily for donations and offers for sale a variety of books, primarily environmental and racial investigations.

     Its mission, as explained on the center’s Website:

We are living in an age of upheaval, institutional collapse, and historic unforeseen change. And journalism is not immune. The only “business” protected by the Constitution, the business of informing the public, has been eviscerated in recent years. The role that journalism plays in a functioning democracy—informing the public and holding the powerful accountable—is at serious risk. Major issues affecting the very fabric of this nation and the world go uninvestigated. As we struggle to find solutions to two wars, climate change, immigration, a recession, and myriad other global issues, a thriving media is more important than ever.

         While a non-profit, the center clearly hopes to make money from its California Watch program. (It is interesting to note that of its three newest board members, two are business executives with successful track records of making large pots of money; the third is Len Downie, the former executive editor of the Washington Post.)

          My point is this: Good journalism and money are intimately linked. Someone must pay professional reporters to do professional, independent work. The non-profit model (shilling for donations in much the same way the Red Cross does) is one option that is gaining traction. I am skeptical. What do you think?

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