Introducing the new Huffington Post Investigative Fund (And My Own Role in It)

Mar.
30

“The announcement of its birth, along with the $1.75 million starter budget, is really the launch of a new Internet-based news organization with a focus on original reporting. You might say the Fund’s operating principle is: report once, run anywhere.”

The news broke Sunday:

The Huffington Post announced today that it is launching a new initiative to produce a wide range of investigative journalism — The Huffington Post Investigative Fund. It is being funded by The Huffington Post and The Atlantic Philanthropies, and will be headed by Nick Penniman, founder of The American News Project, which will be folded into the Investigative Fund.

The full press release is here. I will have a role:

Jay Rosen, associate professor of journalism at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, will serve as a senior advisor to the project. Rosen, as a director of NewAssignment.Net, his research project at NYU, previously collaborated with The Huffington Post on OffTheBus — an experiment in citizen journalism that drew 12,000 contributors and gained widespread media attention for its coverage of the 2008 campaign.Said Rosen: “In addition to collaborating on OffTheBus, I’ve been writing for years about this possibility – distributed reporting projects that efficiently coordinate the efforts of volunteers, data-combing efforts that are open source, as well as teams of pros and amateurs working together — and I think The Huffington Post Investigative Fund is the next logical step.”

It is important to stress that the new Investigative Fund is separate from the Huffington Post as both a legal entity and an editorial producer. It is a new non-profit, and so the announcement of its birth, along with the $1.75 million starter budget, is really the launch of a new Internet-based news organization with a focus on original reporting. You might say the operating principle is: “report once, run anywhere” because work the Fund produces will be available for any publication or Web site to publish at the same time it is posted on The Huffington Post. (Probably through a Creative Commons license, but this has not been decided.)

Much about how the fund will operate has yet to be determined, but mostly what the money is for is to pay journalists and the costs of investigations. Some of those journalists will work for the fund as staff editors, some will be contracted for as freelancers on a story-by-story basis. Some of the money will, I hope, be used for innovative projects that move in an open source or pro-am direction. That is one of the reasons I am joining up, to advise on that portion. I also think the Fund is an important and public-spirited thing to do; I want to see it come out right, and to gain more resources than it has at the moment.

  • Jeff Jarvis is already thinking about how this fits into the new ecosystem of news.
  • I discuss my own thinking about the potential such a fund has in this 35 minute podcast with Dave Winer. We talk about it in the beginning and then return midway through. (One bit from it: “Just as modern professional journalism was optimized for low participation by the users, readers, viewers, modern professionalized politics was optimized for low participation by voters.”)

The Fund will be run by Nick Penniman, who has been heading up The American News Project. As a senior adviser to Nick and the Fund, my role will be to give sound advice. I will be a paid consultant to the fund during the initial phase (April-September, 2009.) I won’t have decision-making authority, and I don’t expect my advice will always be followed, but that’s probably a good thing. I’m particularly interested in the open source and distributed reporting possibilities, and in pro-am investigations that combine the talents of paid professionals with people who know stuff and want the story to come out.

But I also counseled Nick and Arianna (she will help raise money for the fund, and find partners for it) that the best approach is to have no orthodoxy and to support very traditional investigative reporting by paid pros who are good at it, as well as teams of pros and amateurs, students working with masters of the craft, crowdsourced investigations, and perhaps other methods. They were already there with an ecumenical approach, combining old and new.

The American News Project is all about web video, and that staff will be folded into the Fund. So it will have a strong video component. The Fund expects to hire editors in different topic areas—like the environment or high finance—who can commission pieces in those areas from freelance reporters. Nick Penniman and I have also discussed hiring web-friendly journalists with investigative chops who might blog intensively for the Fund about a key topic for several months and develop new information that way— Josh Marshall style. And there will be some money available for innovative reporting projects for which there is no template at the moment.

Obviously the Fund must also support a very high standard of verification. Its reporting has to hold up. Compared to that, everything else is a detail.

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After Matter: Notes, reactions & links…

For more details about the Fund and what’s potentially significant about it, see Bill Mitchell of the Poynter Institute: Huffington Post Investigative Team a Nonprofit Model in the Making. Nick Penniman explained the relationship with the Huffington Post, a commercial company, this way…

The nonprofit investigative unit will have “a sisterly or brotherly relationship” with the for-profit Huffington Post “as opposed to operating within it. This will be an important distinction for anyone looking at these models going forward. They’ve given us a financial contribution and essentially they’re giving us their name … but we’re a separate legal entity.”Unlike many nonprofit startups that hope to develop a sustainable business model beyond contributions, Penniman indicated that the HuffPo Fund will likely return to benefactors repeatedly. He said he does not anticipate selling ads on the investigative site.

“My guess is we’ll be more of a syndication service,” he said, but with a twist: content free for the asking.

As Mitchell points out, “That kind of no-favorites sharing of benefits is critical to preserving a nonprofit’s tax-exempt status because it demonstrates that the organization is not simply serving the interests of one of its backers.”

For the big picture, into which some of these developments may fit, see my previous post: Rosen’s Flying Seminar In The Future of News, with 12 key essays you need to read about the collapse of the old model and the struggle for journalism next.

Andrew Sullivan picks up on my phrase, “report once, run anywhere,” which I adapted from the original in geek. See Wikipedia: Write once, run anywhere.

Steve Smith, ex-editor of the Spokane Spokesman_Review, at his blog, Still a Newspaper Man:

The Huffington Post initiative, as is the case with so many other laudable experiments, will produce journalism for a national audience. What happens to watchdog, investigative journalism in midsize communities such as Spokane, or Boise or Wichita? What happens in small cities such as Yakima, Walla Walla, Eugene?

He also presents some calculations showing that for a local newspaper two full-time investigative reporters cost about $280,000 a year when everything (including legal) is factored in.

Martin Bosworth: Journalism Will Survive. Comments on this news.

The American Spectator blog with a colorful report:

The program’s startup budget will be $1.75 million. The money will be provided by the Huffington Post and the Atlantic Philanthropies. The Bermuda-based Atlantic Philanthropies is headed by Gara LaMarche, who used to be a vice president of liberal uber-philanthropist George Soros’s Open Society Institute. LaMarche is a member of Soros’s Democracy Alliance, a billionaires’ club that is organizing to impose socialism on America.Will the new program fund anything other than left-wing hit pieces? Your guess is as good as mine.

Hit pieces? Some said this was a hit piece. In my opinion, they were wrong.