AP Will Distribute Non-Profit Investigative Groups' Stories

Last Updated Jun 13, 2009 3:00 PM EDT

The Associated Press announced today that it will begin distributing investigative reports from four nonprofit news organizations to its member newspapers beginning next month.

The AP says this is a "six-month trial" to bolster the ailing newspaper industry, which by virtue of staff and budget cuts, has few resources left to pursue the long-term, expensive investigative projects that are the very core of the U.S. journalism tradition.

The four groups are the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity, and the Investigative Reporting Workshop.

In AP's press release this morning, SVP Sue Cross (under)stated: "It will make it easier for editors to find this content and it will make it easier for these organizations to get directly into newsrooms."

For the four groups, this is in fact a huge opportunity to leverage the AP's massive online distribution channel.

So now, this post turns personal. I was one of the co-founders of CIR, back in 1977, when a small band of us decided to start the organization and dedicate ourselves to carry on that grand old American tradition that Teddy Roosevelt dismissively labeled as "muckraking."
We applied for, and after a protracted battle received, a 501(c)3 tax exemption from the IRS, which made it clear that we were to charge for our work and not become a hidden subsidy for the highly profitable media companies who agreed to publish or broadcast our work.

As Executive Director of CIR during its formative first 12 years, one of my responsibilities was to raise the money to keep the place going. This often wasn't easy, but that warning from the IRS turned into one of my sharpest tools. In numerous telephone and written exchanges with editors at magazines and newspapers, and with producers at TV and radio networks here and overseas, I drove the hardest bargains possible, more or less like this:

"Hey, we'd love to give you our work for free but it is my understanding that that would violate our tax-exempt status, so I need you to pay X for this story."

It usually worked.

That was then, and now is now. Then, our media partners like "60 Minutes" at CBS and "20/20" at ABC, and dozens of others were rolling in cash and scaling up the audience hockey sticks of their era. Newspapers routinely returned annual profit rates of 20 percent and higher; magazines were true cash cows.

But, even then, when they were flush, original investigative stories were being scaled back at many media operations. Why? Because by the early '80s, the typical media executive was schooled in not "rocking the boat," i.e., not to upset the advertisers, who were providing most of that precious cash.

Investigative reporting, by contrast, is a messy business, often bringing to light the kinds of financial abuses that led, for example, to the current recession. (Reference: The S&L Crisis of the '80s.) This kind of work presented problems for certain nervous media execs back then, as it still does today.

On the other hand, investigative reporters have a knack at riling up pretty much everybody, sooner or later. Whether right-wing, left-wing, or no-wing, any person or group that begins wielding power inappropriately is likely to come under scrutiny when muckrakers are allowed to operate freely in a community.

Which is precisely how we operated at CIR. Death threats were not uncommon.

Despite my history with the group, and my current role as a board member, I didn't know that this development was in the works until the two other people who did the most heavy-lifting for CIR from the ground up 32 years ago forwarded me a New York Times piece this morning. So...

Thanks to Dan Noyes and Tamara Baltar for alerting me to this story!

  • David Weir

    David Weir is a veteran journalist who has worked at Rolling Stone, California, Mother Jones, Business 2.0, SunDance, the Stanford Social Innovation Review, MyWire, 7x7, and the Center for Investigative Reporting, which he cofounded in 1977. He’s also been a content executive at KQED, Wired Digital, Salon.com, and Excite@Home. David has published hundreds of articles and three books,including "Raising Hell: How the Center for Investigative Reporting Gets Its Story," and has been teaching journalism for more than 20 years at U.C. Berkeley, San Francisco State University, and Stanford.