Outsourcing the Search for Truth

In an implied rebuke to junk journalism, a rich California couple is underwriting investigative reporters to give away their work to mainstream media. It won’t work.

Acting in a free-lance role, a nonprofit organization, Pro Publica, will offer long-term projects to uncover misdeeds in government, business and organizations on an exclusive basis for newspapers, magazines or other media outlets.

To start, their offers won’t thrill thin-skinned editors. Bill Keller, executive editor of the New York Times, is quoted as being “open to using work from an outside source, assuming we were confident of its quality,” but adding that “we’ll always have a preference for work we can vouch for ourselves.”

Beyond that hurdle is the fact that the backers are Herbert and Marion Sandler, former chief executives of Golden West Financial Corporation, one of the nation’s largest mortgage lenders, who are major Democratic political donors and critics of President Bush.

Pro Publica will be staffed by distinguished journalists, but even so, how will it overcome the long-standing prejudice against outsourcing the search for truth along with the current climate of distrust over ulterior motives?

Over eighty years ago, in “Public Opinion,” Walter Lippmann wrote that journalism suffers from “the failure of self-governing people to transcend their casual experience and their prejudice by inventing, creating and organizing a machinery of knowledge.” He proposed that social institutions use reason and intelligence to “work by a steady light of their own” so that journalists could concentrate on amplifying and transmitting that light to the public.

Now we have machineries of knowledge, but their aim is to hide the truth. If the Sandlers want to use their money to remedy that, it might be better spent training motivated poor kids to become journalists with the now outdated ambition to do good rather than do well.

Cross-posted from my blog.

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Author: ROBERT STEIN

  • stevesturm

    You’re right, it won’t work. The MSM won’t touch anything critical of liberals (whether in-house or outsourced) and they’re already hot after anything that makes Republicans look bad.

  • G. Weightman

    It’s fascinating how today’s Left has no compunction about accepting big bucks from currency speculators, insurance magnates, and mortgage lenders. If Old Man Potter came to life today, he’d be contributing to MoveOn.org. Ah well, pecunia non olet.

  • http://itsthe21stcenturystupid.wordpress.com Jim Satterfield

    Wow. Two posts and neither of them stating anything meaningful. A more cogent post might point out that maybe the idea wouldn’t have occurred to anyone if the media had been doing their jobs properly for the last few years. But it seems that too much reporting has devolved into taking the handouts provided by those in power without asking nearly enough questions, pointing out inaccuracies or questioning motivations.

  • domajot

    There would be a problem of responsibility for whoever prints independent material, it seems to me. Unless they invest time and money of their own to cross check, they run the risk of printing embarrassingly erroneous articles. Better to do their own publishing, perhaps as an on-line mag.

    That aside, the first two comments show why it wouldn;t work. For some folks, everthing is a lie unless is echoes their own minds.

    That’s also at the root of a good part of the crticism of the media. While they deserve much criticism, there is no news report possible these days which isn’t seen as biased by someone.

    That there is not nearly enough investigative reporting done is more than clear.
    That no offer to fill the gap will satisfy is also clear.

    Too bad. We lose either way.

  • Robert Bell

    Hmmm. Outsourcing usually works under fairly specific conditions.

    One is that there is a lower cost source of labor outside, which is explicitly stated not to be the case here.

    Another is if the cost of work, especially the rist of fixed costs sitting idle, can be factored across multiple outsourcing customers. That’s probably true here – Steiger will be in trouble, not any particular newspaper, if this high-powered team is left sitting idle.

    So it seems to come down to a tradeoff. Obviously a newspaper that sources a meaty, investigative, story from the outside is going to derive less cachet and brand enhancement from it, but they will get the story at an effectively much lower cost because they are buying it piecemeal.

    There is also the issue of whether or not a single story will be sold to multiple papers, and under what terms.

    To me a clearer business model is for them just to publish independently on-line, subscription only, and develop their own high quality brand and collect their own Pulitzers.

  • Idiosyncrat

    Guys, the media has been using stringers forever. If the work is quality and stands up to third-party scrutiny, I couldn’t care less what the motives are of the people behind the work. If the scandal-highlighting work of a W hater is accurate, their findings are no less valid. Same goes with a Hillary hater.

    Power must be investigated — left, right, elected, corporate — PERIOD.

    Remember when journalists used to actually do this stuff?

    There are a few still around… I know some of them. Unfortunately many of those remaining gems don’t feel like they’re wanted, valued, or otherwise feel comfortable in what their profession has generally morphed into and are increasingly taking refuge in PR firms, private investigative companies and other organizations to which 10 years ago they wouldn’t have contemplated moving.

    Bring it on.

  • domajot

    Idio-

    In principle, I agree with you absolutely,

    I’m not sure that this would work out in practice, though. Now that even printing a nursery rhyme can be controversial, reporters are exposed to political attacks from powers that can go as high up as the governemtn.

    Staffers have the backing of the parent company when that happens. Would this non-profit be able to provide the same support?

    With all their misteps, I really pity reporters of all kinds these days. If the news is bad, it’s often made out to be the reporter’s fault, and killing the messenger is a national sport.

    A good investigative reporter needs strong support to survive. An intermediary printer would not provide it and may impde it if that turns out to be to their advantage.

  • Sam

    Idio, preach on brother. I think this is long overdue and shoddy work or no it will grow into something solid or disappear after the first catastrophicly wrong report that hits it big. Besides, forms of it are already abounding.