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Arianna Huffington

Huffington Post Investigative Fund Aims to Save Journalism, if Not Newspapers

March 30, 2009 03:00 PM
by Liz Colville
Arianna Huffington says the fund will be devoted to unbiased, investigative online journalism and will recruit laid-off newspaper employees.

Huffington Wants to Recruit Laid-Off Journalists

The Huffington Post announced on March 29 that it is starting The Huffington Post Investigative Fund, a nonprofit project with a starting budget of $1.75 million. The venture, according to Post founder Arianna Huffington, hopes to recruit laid-off journalists "to co-ordinate stories with freelancers and produce work which will be available to any publication or website while also appearing on The Huffington Post," The Guardian reported.

The Huffington Post receives contributions from upwards of 1,600 unpaid bloggers, including high-profile celebrities and politicians, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.

Nick Penniman, who founded The American News Project, will be heading the Investigative Fund. It is being financed by The Atlantic Philanthropies and The Huffington Post. Huffington wrote in a blog post announcing the venture that, "Nick and I first worked together back in 2000 when we organized the Shadow Conventions to address issues—poverty, the failed drug war, and money in politics—that neither political party was focusing on."

The announcement came on the eve of a report by the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism suggesting that online journalists and bloggers are optimistic about revenue in their industry but "concerned" about the quality of work being published.

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Background: Newspapers as nonprofits?

The newspaper publishing industry appears to be heading in the direction of nonprofit status. Last week, Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democrat of Maryland, proposed a bill that would allow newspapers to become 501(c)(3) organizations. This would permit them to write off donations and would make their advertising and circulation revenue tax-exempt. However, it would require them to be nonpartisan in their coverage, as The Huffington Post Investigative Fund will also have to be. The bill has not yet been scheduled for a hearing.

A model for Cardin's proposal, and for Huffington's project, is ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative journalism group headed by former Wall Street Journal editor and journalist Paul Steiger. Steiger is one of several high-profile journalists, including The New Yorker's Steve Coll, who propose nonprofit status as a viable direction for journalism.

Opinion & Analysis: The demise of newspapers; the rise of online news

In a blog post on what she has dubbed HuffFund, Arianna Huffington writes, "For too long, whether it's coverage of the war in Iraq or the economic meltdown, we've had too many autopsies and not enough biopsies. The HuffFund is our attempt to change this. It will also provide new opportunities for seasoned journalists who have been laid off or forced into early retirement."

In an interview with MediaBistro, Paul Steiger, the founder of the investigative journalism organization ProPublica, described his organization as "operating in an environment where [investigative journalism is] precisely the kind of journalism—one of two categories, along with foreign coverage—most hurt by the destruction of the business models of, in particular, big metro newspapers."

Journalist Steve Coll believes newspapers should turn to nonprofit status as well, because it will foster "the professional, civil-service-style, relentless independent thinking, reporting, and observation that developed in big newsrooms between the Second World War and whenever it was that the end began—about 2005 or so. And those qualities arose from the scale of those newsrooms, and the way the quasi-monopoly business model and high-quality family owners shielded them from political or commercial pressure—not perfectly, but largely."

The late John Walter, who was executive editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, was optimistic about journalism's future, but not about newspapers. In an essay discovered by his wife after his death and published on the Poynter Institute's Web site, Walter blames three figures for the demise of the medium. These people, he argues, changed newspapers' format for the worse, encouraged city newspaper monopolies and forged the path on which newspaper publishers became publicly funded conglomerates.

But in Europe, the future of newspapers looks brighter than Walter suggested. For example, Germany's Axel Springer, which owns Europe's largest newspaper, Bild, this month "reported the highest profit in its 62-year history," according to The New York Times.

"Instead of trying to protect existing publications," Axel Springer has "dared to compete with itself," according to its chief executive Mathias Döpfner. "[I]t acquired or created new [publications], some of which distribute the same content to different audiences."

Reference: Pew polls online news writers about future of industry

The Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, in partnership with the Online News Association, polled members of the Association for a report released March 30, the second of its kind. The report suggests that more online journalists believe their industry is headed in the right direction than did in 2007, and less believe it is headed in the wrong direction.

But many also felt that "the web is changing the fundamental values of the journalism—mostly for the worse," Pew concluded. "In particular, they are worried about declining accuracy, in part as the result of the emphasis that news organizations are putting on speed and breaking news online."

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