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Diane Francis

Diane Francis

Posted: March 30, 2009 05:58 PM

HuffPost Finally Liberates Journalism with Investigative Fund

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Journalism and broadcast entertainment have both been subsidized by advertising in North America -- a business model which has been imploding for years and is entering its final stages.

My guess is that within a handful of years half of the world's networks and newspapers will be out of business. The current crisis will speed up the destruction of an industry which was going to disappear in its traditional form due to the technology of the Internet with its access to free news, information and entertainment.

The public has just begun to realize this. Many media outlets are in bankruptcy or shuttering operations. Many are now starting to understand that newspapers and some broadcasters have performed a role in democracies by disseminating information and even occasionally exposing scandals.

Now the model is ending and a new one has yet to be invented. But the model itself was flawed.
The dirty little secret about the legacy, or traditional, media is that proprietors and their advertising-based business model have always had far too much influence on what was written, spoken or investigated. The reality has been, for too many media outlets, that if the mayor's brother, the advertisers' products or the President's sex life was involved punches were pulled, stories were spiked and proprietors were either threatened, co-opted or censorious.

There were a few exceptions, but too few.

Lest anyone forget, it was not great investigative organizations such as the Washington Post, Time Magazine or the venerable New York Times which broke anything about the sex lives of the Kennedy brothers, or, more recently, the Monica Lewinsky stain story that led to impeachment. The story that nearly brought down a popular president was posted by blogger Matthew Drudge.

The Watergate story was a rarity which is why it was so special.

Since the 1970s, privately-owned journalism "industries" rarely supported investigative efforts. As advertisers shrank, along with audiences, the "news holes" and staff dedicated to cracking wide open corruption or scandals shrank too. Investigative journalism is very expensive whether results are rich or not. It also costs plenty if legal action follows.

As readership ebbed, the business model that made sense was consolidation of the industry which led to leviathan media companies often owned by non-media holding giants, who were not run by ink-stained wretches dedicated to the principles of the Fourth Estate.

These organizations were run by suits whose concerns about their other divisions caused them to dumb down, dilute or downsize troublesome units within their control or to cosset individuals who could embarrass any of their advertisers.

At the same time, everyone was financially stretched thin as the news cycle became 24/7 and wars proliferated, forcing them to embed people under the watchful eyes of the Pentagon. They had to be there, but investigative journalism it was not.

The other journalism model has been public ownership or public-private partnerships. Unfortunately, publicly-owned broadcasters have become too politically correct and fossilized to respond to audiences or events.

That's why the notion of independent financing of truly investigative journalistic projects is a grand idea. It means that strings are not attached and that efforts are judged by results on a case by case basis. This is the future of investigative journalism, along with funding from foundations, think-tanks and universities.

And it's about time.