“It’s like a good virus that is spreading around the world”

David Kaplan is director of the Global Investigative Journalism Network, an association with 82 member-organizations in 38 countries. Kaplan lately published a report on the spread of non-profit organizations supporting investigative journalism: Their number rose to 106 organizations worldwide coming from just 39 five years ago. Kaplan thinks that more and more investigative reporting has to be done with the help of international cooperations. Smaller non-profits are adaptable and can afford the long-term view, says Kaplan. He would like to see the funding of such a news-org in Germany.

[I did a 12.000-character-report for the biggest German media magazine „journalist“. It’s about the chance to found and fund investigative non-profit newsrooms like ProPublica or the Center for Investigative Reporting in Germany, the legal situation and the political support. The report will be published in the upcoming issue, being published this Friday. The „journalist“ published on its website a short version of this interview in German and an interview with the media economist Marie Luise Kiefer.]

Until now there is no investigative non-profit reporting center in Germany. How do you fund a non-profit newsroom? Do you have any tips for Germany?
David Kaplan:
The bigger question is not about non-profits, it’s about new models and about how to increase the depth and the spread of investigative journalism around the world. What is the best we can do to support this kind of journalism, that is so essential to modern media, to society? We like to think of investigative reporters as the special forces of journalism: They are better trained, they go after harder targets, there are fewer of them and there is a lot of pressure, but they also have more impact. So: How do we preserve and expand this tradition?

The Daily Show reported on Kaj Larsen, the former investigative reporter of CNN who was fired and now works for the fictional HBO-series “The Newsroom”. Is investigative journalism in danger?
We have more investigative journalism today than ever before in history. And despite problems with media economics in the US and Europe, there is a lot of exciting work being done and the growth of investigative reporting is exploding globally. We have investigative teams at news-organizations in India, China, Brazil, we’re seeing some terrific reporting take place in Africa. I recently went to Latin America to an investigative journalism conference. The stories I saw were world class, same level like in Europe or America. And much of this has happened in the last ten years.

Is this the work of traditional media companies or of non-profit reporting?
The non-profits have played a key role in this. They really where the backbone of this movement that has spread globally. There is an enormous amount of activity. We have a global community that follows great investigative journalism around the world. That’s why we need the Germans more integrated into the global movement. They have so much to contribute: They have resources, they have the methodological knowledge of how to do complex investigations. And the Germans need the rest of the world, too: It’s more and more about collaboration and cooperation. Our stories are international and you need help to chase suspect money and people across borders. That’s why we see even the greatest media like the New York Times working with outside organizations like non-profits.

Why is there still no investigative non-profit established in Germany?
We have traced nearly 110 non-profits worldwide that specialize in investigative journalism. There are a lot of models of them and non-profit means different things in different countries. So if there is a place for one in Germany, it will have to be a German model. About half of the non-profits are in the United States and there are very good social and economic reasons for that. Under US tax-law you get a big tax-incentive for giving money to a non-profit, it’s why our non-profit sector is so large. But we give very little to public broadcasting. Germany is giving more than 30 times per capita to public broadcasting than the US does. Because the public media sector is so big in Germany you may need a different model, you Germans figure that out. But the good news for Germany: Your people expect the media to have a public interest. That’s a good start to build an investigative non-profit.

In Germany we have of course a big public sector, but you do get tax deductions, too, for giving to non-profit organizations. And at the moment we have a media crisis in Germany, too. Different newspapers shut down the last couple of months, so perhaps now it’s the time to try.
I think a lot of the non-profits have a structure like an online-startup. There was a study on why Germany has fewer online-publishing-startups than other countries and the reason was: There is so much public broadcasting and so much public media money. So you have to look: What are the niches that need to be filled? Spiegel, stern, public broadcasting and a couple of the other papers have very good reputation for doing great investigative journalism. But in a big country like Germany – and with additional complex international stories – you can’t do it all. We are behind in the race: The bad guys have got the good tools a long time ago. They can move money with the click of a button. The food we eat in the morning, the toys our children play with in the afternoon, the medicine we take at night – it’s all international and it’s very hard to follow those trails around the world. Some of the best work is now being done by non-profits specifically set-up to do that. They are almost like research institutes but on a much faster scale and formed by the attitude and culture of a newsroom.

Are these non-profits more flexible and more open to cooperation? What’s the reason these institutions can do international research which isn’t done by traditional media companies?
You can’t generalize because some large media are pretty aggressive and flexible. But a lot of these smaller non-profits are very adaptable, they can change projects quickly, they can afford the long-term view. Because you get funding from grants and donations you can set your own priorities, you can go after your own stories that mainstream media doesn’t want to.

Which stories?
Look, commercial media has blind spots, we all know that. I don’t know about Germany, but American newspapers traditionally don’t go after department stores, car dealerships and travel agencies because those are the big advertisers. And doing big international stories, doing complex domestic investigations are time intensive, they can be legally risky and not every media outlet wants to do that. Organizations that are set up by their charter, by their core philosophy to do investigative journalism, have a very important role to fill.

Which structure do these non-profits have?
There are several different models among the non-profits. One model is a reporting center, you are basically a non-profit newsroom. Many of the members of the Investigative News Network in the US are like this, ProPublica is a non-profit newsroom. They are publishing short stories every day, lots of features, they do some beat reporting and then they do big, months-long investigative projects. We have these reporting centers at the local, regional, national and international level. Then you have professional associations. Netzwerk Recherche is a non-profit. A third category are grant-making organizations, funds for investigative journalism. Giving micro-money can be effective, it needs a lot less money than creating a reporting center. One of the German states was considering setting up a fund. Do you know about this?

It’s Northrhine-Westphalia.

Kaplan:Yes, Yes. What has happened with that? That was a really interesting development.

It’s in the making. Some people fear that the funding is not really independent and too much controlled by the state and the politicians. It’s not clear how it will be organized.

Kaplan:That’s really interesting. This idea would be impossible in the United States, no journalist would trust state-funded investigative journalism. But in Europe there is more openness to this kind of thing. Last year EU journalists tried to get the EU commission to start an investigative fund. But the Eurocrats wanted to see the story ideas beforehand and that was the end of the idea.

A scientist in Germany says: When you look at the countries with non-profits you can see the interest of western democracies in these countries. Only if for example the US is interested in, let’s say, Serbia they are founding a non-profit. If they have no interest in this country there is no chance for a non-profit. He says that’s not a good model for journalism.
I think that is generalizing too much. He may be right about places like the Balkan: Without foreign assistance the non-profits there probably could not survive. But in other places they are doing really well. In Latin America they have developed sources of local funding. The second largest association of investigative journalism, “Abraji” in Brazil, takes no government funding at all. They have more than three thousand members, they are backed by major media in Brazil. The Philippines Center for Investigative Journalism, the original one of the developing-country based centers, was started in 1989. It’s still alive and thriving.

So I think there is no basis to say that they will disappear and are not as durable as the groups in the US. The fact is that there is demand for this kind of reporting, there is public interest in it and there is long-term support available. The pool of support is growing. Investigative Journalism is getting increasingly recognized as being fundamental to a democratic society. The reason there is international aid money for these groups is because it is effective. Just like you fund honest elections, train police and prosecutors and help create a good industrial policy – you also have to create a watchdog media. That takes investigative skills. And that’s what is spreading all over the world. It’s why you need the non-profits as one very good and effective model of an entire movement. The model is even spreading in the academic world, to journalism schools. Transparency International recently did a survey of business people in 30 countries asking “What is the best effective tool to fight corruption?”. And in 21 of the 30 countries most of them picked investigative journalism. More than local laws or international treaties or corporate due diligence. The business community understands how important it is to have an investigative trust.

That’s a good ground to build upon.
We got hit twice very hard in western news-media. First with the internet and the loss of advertising revenue and then the recession came. We’ve lost more than 20.000 newsroom-jobs in the United States, it has been very hard for us. That’s the bad news. The good news is: It has really forced us to look at new models. If you look at the membership of the Global Investigative Journalism Network it’s not just traditional non-profit: It’s online-newsrooms, it’s academic centers, it’s funds for investigative journalism, it’s professional associations. It’s like a good virus that is spreading the methodology of investigative reporting around the world. We are actually really excited about what’s going on. That brings me to my original point: That is why we want the Germans more involved. The Germans can make really important international contributions as well as to your own media.

Let’s say there is a big funder, making an investigative newsroom possible. How do you become investigative journalism sustainable?
That’s the big question. How do you become sustainable? Just because you are a non-profit you can still do profit-like things to generate revenue. You can get foundation money and donations that help you to do the long-term stories but you can also accept advertising or you can do public events. A lot of groups do training, they affiliate with universities and do teaching. They get free help through interns and students, others do day-rate work for big media organizations. They become almost like a news-agency. But you still have to keep focused on doing the long-term investigative stories that were your reasons for starting. That’s the problem we see now: to keep focused while becoming sustainable.

David, thanks for your time.

David Kaplan and the Global Investigative Journalism Network are responsible for the Global Investigative Journalism Conference, organized every two years. The eighth conference will take place in October 2013 in Rio de Janeiro. A focus will be on data driven journalism and international cooperations. Kaplan invites all interested German reporters to join the global community of investigative journalism. You can get in touch at gijn.org, on Facebook, and Twitter @gijn.

„Read this and become an investigative journalist“ – The best manual I’ve seen so far.

2 Responses to “It’s like a good virus that is spreading around the world”

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