Neil Barsky, a former Wall Street money manager, became the latest Medici of journalism this week when he hired Bill Keller, former executive editor of the New York Times, to head his new non-profit journalism enterprise, the Marshall Project.
The Marshall Project, which will scrutinize the criminal justice system, joins a busy flotilla of non-profit journalism organizations already patrolling the news beat. Everywhere you look, a rich patron has founded, funded or seeded a substantial non-profit journalism outfit in the last half-decade: Herbert Sandler and ProPublica, John Thornton and the Texas Tribune, Pete Peterson and Fiscal Times, the Koch brothers and the Franklin Center, John Arnold and WNET, scores of other local and regional operations funded by minor Medicis, and well-established enterprises, such as the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Center for Public Integrity.
If you expand the definition of non-profit journalism to include for-profit outlets that aren't making any but depend on a reservoir of money earned elsewhere to keep them afloat, you'd factor in Jeff Bezos and his Washington Post, John Henry and his Boston Globe, the Scott Trust and the Guardian, Pierre Omidyar and the $50 million he has pledged to First Look, and Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani and Al-Jazeera. Widening the definition to include state-sponsored or licensed outlets such as the BBC and NPR, both of which walk the investigative beat, and the pool of cash grows larger still.
What looks like a lurch of patronage money to investigative journalism has coincided with the newspaper death spiral. As economist Mark J. Perry noted in a much-reproduced chart, newspaper advertising revenue peaked at $65 billion in 2000, with the most dramatic and steady rise of revenue coming between the early 1970s and 2000. These years happen to overlap with the golden age of both investigative and "accountability reporting." It's not that newspapers shunned watchdog journalism before 1971; they just didn't do that much of it, as a visit to the newspaper microfilm archives of your public library will confirm. Reportorial dependence on government and corporate spokesmen in those ancient times would appall most modern readers, who have become accustomed to investigative and adversarial journalism in their newspaper diet.
Investigative journalism, like far-flung foreign, domestic, state and regional bureaus were affordable only because newspapers had more money than they knew what to do with. Chains like Gannett used their profits to buy more newspapers, but papers like the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Knight Ridder chain, to name a few, spent on journalistic expansion. (Don't worry, the shareholders of these papers did okay, too, while the money poured in.) But as newspaper advertising revenues fell from $65 billion in 2000 to about $20 billion in 2012, investigative journalism contracted, as did coverage of foreign news, statehouses and localities. (I don't want to reduce the popularity of investigative journalism to economics alone -- see this learned paper (pdf) by Mark Feldstein on the role culture and politics have played.)