How Philanthropy Can Aid the Plight of Freelance Investigative Reporters

A new survey, “Untold Stories,” by the group Project Word has sought to assess the challenges faced by freelance public interest journalistsnon-staff reporters who reveal “facts, images or stories that powerful interests may not want known.”

Seymour Hersh’s 1969 exposé of the massacre of civilians in My Lai, Vietnam stands as probably the most famous example of freelance investigative reporting. The story by the former writer for the Associated Press, the New York Times and the New Republic was rejected by several magazines. His neighbor's Dispatch News Service picked it up. Hersh’s story won a Polk Award. His follow-up became his second book, which won a Pulitzer Prize. Most importantly, his work helped galvanize opposition to the Vietnam War.

Today, it's well known that many traditional media outlets like newspapers are cutting back on investigative reporting, a trend that some funders have been combating through support of groups like ProPublica and the Center for Investigative Journalism. But far less is known about the state of investigative reporting by freelance journalists, and this is where Project Word's survey sheds enormous light. The picture is not pretty. Of the 212 who responded to the question, 81 percent of respondents said they abandoned “otherwise viable and important public-interest reports” in the last five years. Stories that were shelved included those on health care for America's active military to the U.S. role in mass killings in the country of an ally.

Compensation for freelance investigative journalism has fallen so low that freelancers often subsidize their own work. Forty-four percent said that they were being paid less today than for comparable pieces five years ago. Seventy percent of the journalists draw upon other income sources, while most now do public interest journalism less than half the time.

“I exist only on Social Security, food stamps, Medicaid,” commented one survey respondent, a print reporter and former newspaper staffer, age 64 to 73 years old, with over 20 years experience freelancing. “I live in one room and buy clothes at thrift shops. As a prize-winning investigative journalist, I find this disgusting.”

Inside Philanthropy has often written about funders that support investigative reporting, including Pierre Omidyar (First Look Media), the Ford Foundation, the Driehaus Foundation, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, and the Bullitt Foundation.

To be sure, some of this money finds its way to freelance journalists. So what can funders learn from Project Word’s survey?

One telling number is that 92 percent of respondents experience financial anxiety on at least a monthly basis, and that nearly half are more than five thousand dollars in debt. For reporters lucky enough to get a grant, fewer than one in three said that the grants covered a majority of their reporting expenses. Reporting suffers. The likelihood of a journalist like Hersh hopping on a plane to Ukraine to interview a potential war criminal has fallen.

As the report states about funding shortcomings:

Fellowships are far too rare. Applications can divert valuable time from the reporting. And grants fall short, providing only partial support for specific stories.

A lack of general support for investigative freelancers often means that these reporters must seek issue-specific support from funders that have an agenda, which is problematic. 

In addition to providing more overall funding, foundations could make a difference by standardizing grant applications, which are now all completely different. 

Foundations have done a lot of good work in picking up the slack in investigative reporting. But clearly, much needs to be done in this area, and funders could find no better source for refining their initiatives than the feedback offered by reporters on the front line, as covered in the Project Word survey. Addressing their concerns would enable reporters to spend more of their time doing the work that Chicago newspaperman Finley Peter Dunne described as making an effort to “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.”