Charles Lewis: How to Start a News Nonprofit

[Interview conducted May 2008]

A former 60 Minutes producer, Charles Lewis hit hard limits on what he could cover in the commercial sector. So he jumped ship, and embarked on the “tough slog” of building his own nonprofit news outlet at a time — the late ’80s — when the industry was still flush, and the Internet largely unknown. The Center for Public Integrity went on to break ground as a new type of public-interest news outlet, while Lewis has since founded the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University, and played a key role in forming the Investigative News Network.

Notable Quotes

• STARTING UP: “The first time we got a six-figure grant was in ’94. For the first four years I could not get a major foundation — a well-known, large, kind of iconic foundation — to even answer my letters. So, y’know, it was a tough slog, a very brick-by-brick thing.”

• SPREADING THE WORD: “When I started the Center, the Internet was not really used by the public — the late ’80s, early ’90s. And so when we released something, we’d go to the National Press Club, and it’d be on C-SPAN, or the wire services would move stories based on what we had found, and it would be framed as findings even though it was a news story. And it worked, and people started noticing us. But the Web obviously helped, because instead of printing up a few hundred copies of a report, you could obviously put it on the Web and it would be available everywhere.”

• SIGNAL TO NOISE: “The problem is the Web and the blogosphere … doesn’t easily distinguish between quality and crap … That, and you start to be lumped in with a lot of things that you’re sheepish to even be associated with …. So the Web has its downsides, too, I would say. The viral nature of something exciting moving — we’ve seen that. And the Center saw lots of very big studies that got instant global attention when it hit … but the other side of that is, it’s getting lost in the din.”

• SELF-LIMITING JOURNALISM: “My worry is the extent to which both political sensibilities and intellectual squeamishness, about covering or not covering certain subjects, will creep into any new systems or forums. Most of these things come down to people and they come down to large bureaucracies — and whenever that happens, generally you’d better look out, because people get kind of strange, and frankly kind of closed-minded about what they’re willing to do. We’ve seen some of the results of the sort of calcification, and what I’d call a sort of nervous anxiety, about what the outcome of investigative journalism might be, who might be offended, etc.”

• THIS MAGIC MOMENT: “I think the opportunities are just breathtaking, and I actually think this is the most exciting time to be alive, or a journalist — ever. It’s sort of like what it was like in the end of the 1940s, with the advent of television — except it’s multimedia, it’s every potential form of communication imaginable, all exploding at once.”

• THE FUTURE: “Whatever happens is going to be a startup; it’s not going to be an existing entity trying to adapt. Entrepreneurialism always works better at new platforms, unencumbered by the past, or bureaucracies, or precedents, or cultural sensibilities that date back decades.”


CHARLES LEWIS, TALKING PUBLIC MEDIA
Interview by Josh Wilson, May 2008Let’s talk about your path into nonprofit and noncommercial media. I know the basic story — that you got frustrated at 60 Minutes and needed to strike out on your own — but I’m sure there’s more to it.

[Laughs] Yeah, yeah, that’s an understatement. I had done investigative reporting at two networks, ABC and CBS, over an eleven-year period — and I basically came to a sense that there was a lack of seriousness and sincerity, really, about doing thorough, substantive investigative journalism, and I began to realize that I had done my time there, and it was time to move on.

This occurred in a number of specific cases of specific stories where they were not aired, or parts of them would not be aired. And I mean, I’m giving you the sort of Cliff’s Notes version …

But this happens in every sort of major news organization. There are these pressures we all hear about — and it does happen, and I experienced it firsthand, and I saw my colleagues experience it.

And I’m an old-fashioned, meat-and-potatoes guy that likes to investigate the bastards, whoever they are, and I don’t like anybody telling me that I can’t do this or that when it comes to that kind of work. The reasons would have to be really compelling, and they weren’t. [Laughs.]

So I didn’t have any idea what was out there; I just knew the world I was in was not working for me.

I was familiar with some models; I knew the Center for Investigative Reporting had been around; I knew about the Better Government Association in Chicago, which was really more of a nonprofit watchdog entity than a journalism entity — although it was a partner with many journalism outlets in Chicago.

The two of them had different models, in the way they were funded and their backgrounds and their approaches … and CIR, as you know, is the oldest nonprofit investigative journalism entity, actually I suspect in the world, from everything I’ve done and research I’ve done.

And I was close friends, still am, with Lowell Bergman — so I was familiar with the CIR model, but I had issues with the model, there were some things that I would want to do differently and ended up doing differently.

Everyone adapts to whatever they’re encountering and whatever they’re approaching based on experiences, tastes, biases [and] life experience. And I had a slightly different idea in mind. And I didn’t know it would be nonprofit at first. I mean, I didn’t know what IT would be — capital I, capital T — I just knew that I needed to be in charge of it [laughs], not anyone else telling me what I could do or should do.

That’s how it all started. And I explored all kinds of possibilities. I explored for-profits, I explored nonprofit, I had offers from numerous commercial news organizations, I had offers from Hollywood folks [laughs] — I had lots of possibilities.

But the one that I was most intrigued with was a nonprofit, and that’s really what became the Center for Public Integrity.

It wasn’t a short, quick odyssey; it took, literally, a long time. From start to finish — I left in November of ’88 and began working full time to make the Center happen, having obtained some funding, about a year later, actually, October 1, 1989. But it was a tough slog to get just to that point, and of course the next two or three years were really a tough slog.

So starting nonprofits is not a simple matter. And when you’re trying to control it, you deliberately have a board that will not be involved in fundraising, because they’re journalists. [Laughs]

And you have certain rules or sensibilities about what money you’ll take, and from whom, and all that stuff — and when you start down those roads, you’re starting to shut doors off to yourself, in terms of opportunities to grow the organization.

And in your earnestness for moral and ethical purity, or at least the perception thereof — hopefully both — you know, it actually does affect the level and degree of your success, in terms of your capacity, your size, all that stuff.

The more earnest, the less capacity?

Yeah, the more earnest and the more fastidious you are about your funding sources, in other words, the more limiting you become … to what money is worthy of your enterprise. I’m being slightly humorous here — my feeble attempt at humor.

But that degree of earnestness can impede the growth and the capacity of the enterprise — because if you’re too picky, you won’t accept money from anybody, and you won’t have any money.

At some point, you have to come off the ivory tower and come down into the village. [Laughs] And anyone who has started anything has had to do that. No matter how lofty the original notion.

So probably about five or six years to get it to a state where you considered it –

The first time we got a six-figure grant was in ’94. For the first four years I could not get a major foundation — a well-known, large, kind of iconic foundation — to even answer my letters. So, y’know, it was a tough slog, a very brick-by-brick thing.

Do you feel that’s changed?

No, I still think it’s hard to start things, actually — because it’s a very complicated dynamic between resources you need, what is your mission, what exactly is your self-imposed mandate.

And I hate to say it, but then it comes down to those intangibles, like the buzz factor — are you being noticed?

And if you’re doing something that’s counter to, or even in competition with existing major media, you are almost by definition not going to be receiving news coverage.

And so, off the bat … you’re certainly not assisting yourself, helping yourself in terms of publicity and attracting attention to yourself in the community, whatever that community is.

And it’s very, very hard.

So, there’s a direct relationship between the media discovering something and the availability of philanthropic funds. [Then] the hot commodity — or one of other cliches, the flavor of the month — gets all the funding, because it’s exciting, and that entity is a player and donors are thrilled to be associated with it.

And they feel what they’ve done is important, and it’s showing that it’s important because others have seen it as well, and there’s this exciting moment when that all happens.

But if any piece of it’s not worked right, if you don’t have the people, if don’t have the right projects, and you don’t have folks noticing what you’ve done — in other words, if what you’ve done is not terribly significant or even new, or impressive, or whatever word you want to use — then the funding will be affected by that.

I don’t care how many soapboxes you get on, how many phone calls you make, how many meetings and luncheons you attend. You will not be able to go beyond your own performance, or your record as an entity.

And — that part is a very, very tricky dynamic to understand — because without money you will not be able to function. And if you don’t function well, you don’t get money. It’s a little bit like a cat chasing its tail. It’s exceedingly difficult.

And the reason, I think, that nine out of ten new enterprises, companies or nonprofits fail is because getting the balance down — between the resources needed and the ways in which they are expended and the impact from those expenses — y’know, it’s a very, very delicate equilibrium.

With a startup, you don’t have a lot of people …

The capacity issues for a startup …

Yes — capacity is just a very big deal.

What’s the potential of the Internet to change or open up this situation, or will it?

Well, I’ve seen it on both sides. When I started the Center, the Internet was not really used by the public — the late ’80s, early ’90s. In Washington, most usage of the Web didn’t start occurring most places until the mid-’90s.

And so when we released something, we’d go to the National Press Club, and it’d be on C-SPAN, or the wire services would move stories based on what we had found, and it would be framed as findings even though it was a news story. And it worked, and people started noticing us.

But the Web obviously helped, because instead of printing up a few hundred copies of a report, you could obviously put it on the Web and it would be available everywhere. From the mid-’90s to today, we’ve seen a exponential explosion in terms of how many people that is. And of course you have the global component, which you didn’t have with news conferences at the Press Club.

So, yes, the impact of the Web is astonishing in that sense, in terms of what you can do journalistically, but also, most importantly of course, your economies of scale, your costs of this and that, in many ways go down. And your reach and your dissemination of course is the most exciting part, because it’s global.

And that’s all great. The bad news is that now there are tens of millions of people who have websites or blogs …

The info glut.

Yeah, there is a glut. And the problem is the Web and the blogosphere … doesn’t easily distinguish between quality and crap … That, and you start to be lumped in with a lot of things that you’re sheepish to even be associated with …. So the Web has its downsides, too, I would say.

The viral nature of something exciting moving — we’ve seen that. And the Center saw lots of very big studies that got instant global attention when it hit — I mean, the excitement of the Web is quite real and quite palpable and thrilling to behold — but the other side of that is, it’s getting lost in the din.

Do you think that there’s an opportunity for what I’m going to broadly call “public media” to provide standards or credibility amidst this undifferentiated glut? And if so, do you have any thoughts about what that would look like?

I have ideas about what everything should look like [laughs] … but I don’t know public media and what public media will become, both from the standpoint of technology, and the so-called spectrum, and the new digital channels …

I have friends who are authors of books about it, and I can get answers when I need ‘em, but there’s good news and there’s bad news about the PBS/NPR model: The good news is that nonprofit institutions were created in our lifetime, at least mine — 40 years ago — and it’s thrilling and inspiring to know that new things that have high impact can be created. We sometimes forget that, frankly, certainly in the public context.

So just the vision and possibility that it could happen at all is inspiring.

Yeah … when I see that a news organization today has 30 million listeners throughout the nation, and it started out of thin air forty years ago, that’s terribly exciting. And when I see it’s doubled its audience in the last decade, that’s thrilling.

When I see that they have over thirty bureaus around the world when CBS is down to five or whatever it is — that is remarkable.

So we have to stand back and acknowledge what we do see, before we go forward, and so — some of the things that have been created are magnificent.

On the other hand, you’re talking to an investigative reporter kind of junkie. I mean, I’ve been doing it for thirty years, and that’s all I really mostly care about.

And, with the exception of some of Bill Moyers’ programs and specials and Frontline, some of the Frontline shows, there’s not much of that on PBS — and NPR generally speaking does not do investigative reporting.

And so, in all the things that are contemplated, do I know what new structures and new systems will be created to enable investigative journalism, or to ensure that quality in-depth journalism occurs?

I’m not persuaded we’ve ever achieved that, number one, and number two, I don’t know what that is. And I don’t think anyone does, honestly. Is there a lot of discussion about it? Of course there is. I mean there’s an event in Washington, I know the American University Center for Social Media has been involved in mapping —

The Beyond Broadcast project …

Beyond Broadcast and folks, and — and I’m on faculty with Pat Aufderhide, who is in the AU School of Communication, and I myself am starting a new research center at American called the Investigative Reporting Workshop, which will be I think the first entity that I know of, at least in the U.S., looking at new models to do investigative reporting, both creation and dissemination or delivery of investigative reporting, as the sole mission of the enterprise …

I think what you’re asking is the question of the hour in many ways, certainly regarding the public realm, and public journalism, and what’s possible and all that.

But my worry is the extent to which both political sensibilities and intellectual squeamishness, about covering or not covering certain subjects, will creep into any new systems or forums.

Most of these things come down to people and they come down to large bureaucracies — and whenever that happens, generally you’d better look out, because people get kind of strange, and frankly kind of closed-minded about what they’re willing to do.

We’ve seen some of the results of the sort of calcification, and what I’d call a sort of nervous anxiety, about what the outcome of investigative journalism might be, who might be offended, etc.

I’ve been hearing people saying or discussing this and thinking about it for years and years and years, and I’m into the — I’m into investigating. Period.

Everything else kind of follows…

Yeah, everything else follows. If you’ve got the information, and you’ve got the quality journalism that you’ve been able to either do yourself or work with others to achieve, you’ll find a way to get it out these days — and that is one advantage of the Web.

But back to your question, it’s a great question, I don’t think we have what you just asked, and I don’t think anyone has any idea where it’s headed. And anyone who would say, “trust me, it’s gonna be great,” I would also hold onto my wallet and lock my doors.

There’s a mixed record here of setting up federal and national systems and guaranteeing they won’t be politicized in recent years, but they do become politicized — so let’s just get over that idea [laughs].

So you’re hearing a suspicious, independent cuss here, on the other end of the phone.

That’s fine. You know, independence is one of the bullet points in the SPJ Code of Ethics, to “act independently.” This is a bit of an aside, but I did leave SFGate.com after Hearst took over because of a lack of opportunity, because of people telling me what I couldn’t do. I started Newsdesk.org because the Internet appealed to me as a place where it was possible to be more independent.

I wonder if there is the opportunity to create a model or system or method — maybe not an institution, but a method — by which journalists can act independently within the classic decentralized Internet structure, where there is no center, everybody’s independent — but if they’re all signed on to a set of standards, for example, suddenly you have the professionalism and the support network that lack the hierarchy. That’s the theory behind Newsdesk.org. And that might be pipe dreaming.

No no no. I may be misinterpreting what you’re asking, but I think that could be very useful and there’s a need for it.

In fact, I’m on the advisory committee of a new thing called the I. F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence — it’s going to be an annual prize and it’s going to be administered by Harvard’s Nieman Foundation — and there have been discussions with I. F. Stone’s son, Jeremy Stone, about what constitutes an independent journalist and independent journalism, and what are the criteria, and we’ve been in deep discussions really in recent weeks.

And you know, I have been asked by them to write about this very subject, and to discuss that is and how to define it. And most journalists, no matter where they work, assume they’re already independent. Also the phrase “investigative” — “Oh, I’m investigative.” What do you mean? “Y’know, I ask questions …”

So these definitions and these terms are still not well understood, even inside the profession of journalism itself.

One of the things that we made a point of at the Center for Public Integrity when I ran it for the first fifteen years was that, to have a code of conduct and standards for — and this really more along the lines of ethics and integrity, about news-gathering techniques — but I was very very strict, as or more strict than the news organizations and networks, places like that, that I have worked.

Given the name of the organization, the Center for Public Integrity, I had very clear ideas about what was reasonable in news-gathering and what was a violation of privacy, or other sensibilities.

And so there’s a way to do investigative reporting and not violate any laws or do things that are just simply unreasonable, I would say.

And even something that basic [as having a standard] is actually borderline revolutionary, because you have lawyers telling you for libel reasons “don’t do it,” because then you’re charged with libel later in some civil situations; they’ll hold it against you that you had a standard — anyway, you can basically lose your mind splitting hairs on any one of these questions, and that’s just the ethics dimension, but the independent one is almost as vexing. It’s not a simple question of what constitutes an independent journalist.

I’ve just interviewed nearly two dozen great journalists of the last half-century about their truth-to-power journalism at the national level, as part of a book I’m writing, and I would dare say in 45 hours of interviews, I would never have asked them to define what we’re discussing — do you know what I mean?

Because not a single one of them — which is probably collectively several hundred years of experience in journalism — would have said the same thing, I suspect.

About what?

About what is an independent journalist. Or — they would all insist that they were independent — and they were — but they all worked for news organizations that at one time or another were not so independent.

And so, I don’t mean to make everything overly complex… but the fact is that these are not simple questions. I mean, they’re great questions, but they’re not simply answered.

So I think it’s something we need to come to grips with as a profession. I think going forward in the Information Age or Internet Age, we need to know better what the answers are to these questions.

But the fact is, there’s no — because we have something like 45 or 50 journalism nonprofit organizations alone in the United States, not to mention a few hundred colleges and universities that teach journalism — there is no single arbiter of anything about journalism, as you know.

There are no professional standards; this is a profession that prides itself on not having any standards [laughs].

I always go back to the SPJ Code –

Well, it is, it’s true — although that code, no offense to SPJ, I mean I’ve been a member for, gosh, a long time — but the SPJ code is actually not the most demanding code.

It’s a perfectly nice and reasonable code. It says some good things, and that’s why we put it on the website, but it doesn’t get down and dirty in the precise techniques and things that are useful for investigative reporting to be discussed, I guess you’d say.

So you can have internal policies that are different, or even go further than the SPJ Code of Ethics, which we did try to do at the Center in some cases.

It’s particularly delicate when you’re dealing with international journalism, where the language is different, the mores are different, the practices even about something that’s verboten in the United States — paying sources — is actually done quite a bit around the world.

One source versus two sources, a lot of the standards and techniques and practices of journalism vary according to geography, and in terms of the duration of their democratic experience, I guess you’d say.

And so — and existing laws in place — do they have criminal libel? Turns out 158 of 168 countries have criminal libel in the world, which is an astonishing thing to say, but it’s true. Article 19 has recently apparently found this in an international survey.

So if you not only risk getting civilly sued, but also thrown in jail in almost all the countries in the world, you can see how delicate this is in setting a standard.

So … now the public space is a global space. It was always kind of global, but it was in the context of the U.S.

Now it’s not — and that may sound like a small point, but it’s actually a rather significant point, because basically there are no global standards for this kind of stuff … I don’t mean to make everything so complicated, but these things are complicated.

It sounds like we have starting points for lots of important issues and ideas.

It’s also not rocket science. These things can be formulated and can gain currency over time, in terms of both the profession and the business of journalism, including the public sector part of journalism.

There are ways this can occur, but especially today there’s a lot of work to be done.

Which would you like to talk about: past or future? Legacy of public media, or opportunities for public media in the future?

I don’t know much about the future. I’m trying to forge it as much as anybody, and I have entrepreneurial leanings in various ways which will play out in the months and years ahead. So I have ideas about the future. But I don’t know about the systems that are going to be established in the future.

Then think in terms of opportunities, as an entrepreneur.

Well, I think the opportunities are just breathtaking, and I actually think this is the most exciting time to be alive, or a journalist — ever. It’s sort of like what it was like in the end of the 1940s, with the advent of television — except it’s multimedia, it’s every potential form of communication imaginable, all exploding at once.

So what’s possible in terms of what you could do journalistically to tell a story, to explain a story — but also even to get a story … some of the various new techniques, from computer-assisted reporting to satellite imagery — all the different techniques now are just breathtaking.

It takes journalism so far, centuries beyond Lincoln Steffens or S.S. McClure or whatever. So I mean, when we see what the technology enables, it is thrilling.

And from an entrepreneurial standpoint, we are obviously seeing a rather significant historic economic transformation — a euphemism everyone uses — but it’s true, the transformation.

And for an entrepreneur, the question is, who is going to pay for this information, this particularly difficult-to-get information, that is the most expensive, time-consuming and slightly riskier information to prepare?

What we have been seeing is [that] most of the for-profit models rely on folks without journalistic sensibilities or concern for community … those folks are into their shareholder earnings and their quarterly profits, and keeping them rather high — uncharacteristically high, vis-a-vis the rest of the industry sectors, even.

And so … the question is — what will emerge in the months and years ahead, and is there a way to redefine this landscape, or even this information that’s so crucial and so important? Is there a way that this information will become suddenly more attractive to the mega-players out there that dominate the global landscape economically?

And I actually think the answer to that is yes. Will it happen? The answer’s yes. Do we know exactly in what form? We don’t quite yet.

But whatever happens is going to be a startup; it’s not going to be an existing entity trying to adapt. Entrepreneurialism always works better at new platforms, unencumbered by the past, or bureaucracies, or precedents, or cultural sensibilities that date back decades.

And so, we’re going to see new startup for-profits, nonprofits and hybrids of the two emerge. We’re seeing it already — but we’re going to see it, I think, on a larger scale, in an economic way that finally takes, so to speak.

So far, the for-profit model has not had any success lately — not really, not substantially for this kind of work — and it is what is terrifying most journalists and most journalism production shops, so the owners in other words — and somehow that’s got to shift.

And I predict it will shift, and I think it will shift even in the next three to five years — but what do I know? I mean, no one really knows. But there are enough signs of ferment and enough signs of where things are going to suggest that it’s possible.

And I do find that utterly thrilling.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

*