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The Future of Investigative Journalism

If you were watching our feature stories closely this week, you glimpsed what may become the future of investigative journalism.

I'm talking about this story: "Auditors Get Blame for Weakness in Bank Reserves," by Jake Bernstein of ProPublica. It's a deeply researched piece revealing that some of the nation’s largest accounting firms failed to properly examine the reserves that banks set aside to cover losses.

Okay, it's a little wonky ... but it points up an important failure in our financial checks and balances system that led to the current financial cow pie. And, frankly, we probably wouldn't have done this story ourselves. Not that we aren't inclined to.

It's a resource issue. Investigative journalism, done properly, takes a lot of time and effort. In these times of tight budgets and lean staffs, no one has a lot of that. You have to pick your shots carefully. Do you devote someone to days of digging on a story that may or may not pay off, or do you have that person do several market analysis stories that you know readers are likely to eat up?

That said, we do take shots from time to time. Check out David Faber's recent "House of Cards" work, for example.

But those shots, by necessity, will come few and far between. That's also part of the handwringing over the ongoing retrenchment of newspapers. Papers are traditionally the front line of investigative journalism.

But now we're getting entities like ProPublica. It's a non-profit news site headed up by former Wall Street Journal managing editor Paul Steiger. It gets funded through philanthropy ... so it doesn't care about its page views and ad counts. It just wants people to read its stuff.

So they give us the story and let us run it in our template. That means we get the page views and ad counts (which I DO care about) and they get the readership. (Of course, we ran it as a guest blog ... akin to a newspaper op-ed piece ... to give credit where credit is due).

That model will let us run some investigative pieces that otherwise would have a limited circulation. In these tough economic times, it's a model that works for us, ProPublica, and our readers. It should flourish ... in fact others are already starting ... as long as the philanthropy holds out.