Take one scoop of donors looking for new ways to affect public opinion and government policy, mix with three scoops of mainstream journalism bleeding red ink in the face of new Internet-based competition, and you get a layer-cake of donor-funded reporting operations. The grandaddy of these creations is ProPublica, founded by hyperactive liberal donors Herb and Marion Sandler to be a twenty-first-century muckraker, with a special focus on topics like gun control, civil rights, health care, fracking, campaign-finance limits, labor laws, the climate change, Guantanamo, and other policy hot buttons. With more than $35 million of checks written by the Sandlers, ProPublica quickly hired a deep stable of reporters and editors and started churning out heavily researched exposés. The organization posts articles on its own website and lets newspapers run them for free. The operation quickly became a favorite of the journalistic establishment, and was awarded the first Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting given to an online publication. It now receives support from large foundations like Ford, MacArthur, Annie E. Casey, and Hewlett.
Many local variants of ProPublica, and a few national ones, followed with their own angel funders. These range from the Texas Tribune, funded by Democratic Party donors in that state, to the MinnPost, launched by four public-minded families in Minneapolis, to the Honolulu Civil Beat financed by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. Watchdog.org, a project of the Franklin Center, was established as a miniature version of ProPublica digging from the right in 29 states as of 2015, and the American Media Institute is struggling to launch itself as another investigative reporting operation positioned on the right side of the political spectrum.
All of these are digital-only publications to contain costs, and they all depend on philanthropic support—primarily annual operating grants, supplemented by small donations from readers. All have demonstrated some ability to influence local or national debates on policy and politics.
- Philanthropy magazine reporting, philanthropyroundtable.org/topic/excellence_in_philanthropy/investigative_philanthropy