Dick Tofel ProPublica
ProPublica President Dick Tofel

While the amount of true investigative journalism on network television today has dwindled to next to nothing, the future looks good for digital investigative journalism, particularly for non-profit publishers.

Thanks to contributions from a more diversified group of donors than ever, news sites like ProPublica (an award-winning investigative journalism newsroom) are looking to the future with optimism.

Funding Investigative Journalism

“ProPublica had its best year ever in fundraising and in diversifying funding sources during 2013 with over 3,000 donors,” says ProPublica President Dick Tofel. “In fact, we’ve seen an annual increase for years, and we’re not unique in that experience. There is greater recognition by donors that non-profit investigative journalism needs to be done, and it’s important to help fund this important work.”

In 2013, ProPublica donors helped fund big stories, including groundbreaking reporting on Medicare Part D where investigative journalists were able to obtain government records to draw conclusions about waste and fraud within the program. Another investigation into assisted living facilities revealed the lack of government regulation at the federal level, significant differences in care between facilities, and patient harm.

Distributing Content

For non-profits like ProPublica, funds are needed to support the mission of getting stories out to the public. Working with other news organizations on joint reporting, editing, and publishing helps non-profit investigative journalism sites expand their content reach. For example, a partnership with The Guardian enabled ProPublica journalists to investigate and report in 2013 on the NSA using documents provided by Edward Snowden.

In total, ProPublica has had 104 news organization partnerships but also gets creative with new ways of storytelling to expand its content reach. For example, by giving access to its databases to local news organizations, ProPublica shows them how to turn a national story into a local story.

“We also publish most of our content using a Creative Commons license so people can share, reprint, and respond to stories across the web,” explains Tofel. “A lot of traffic to ProPublica content comes through free reprints on other websites, which supports our mission to get important stories out to wider audiences.” To get in front of key offline audiences and professional audiences, ProPublica licenses its content for syndication through Newstex.

Investigating Trends

Tofel identifies two key trends that are shaping the future of investigative journalism: big data and new ways to tell stories. Tofel explains, “Investigative journalists can cover new and different kinds of stories using big data sets and digital storytelling. Using data to let people localize national stories is just one important way that investigative journalism is changing for the better. The question is how will this get funding, and that’s where the role of non-profit donors in funding investigative journalism increases.”

Based on year-over-year gains in donations reported by organizations like ProPublica, it looks like the future is, indeed, bright for digital investigative journalism.