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Increasingly, nonprofits fill a need for investigative reporting

NONPROFIT SCOOPS: Reports from the Center for Political Integrity.
NONPROFIT SCOOPS: Reports from the Center for Political Integrity.
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Ross calls the group "very valuable," saying: "They find good leads or key documents or sometimes a whistle-blower, and then we have to run it through our reporting process. They do good work, but they need the outlet."

True, but finding outlets hasn't been hard. In a major exclusive last month, the center gave Financial Times data showing that BP was responsible for 97 percent of the most serious safety violations in the U.S. refining industry in recent years.

This month, Solomon shared a double byline in the Times for obtaining Coast Guard logs showing that officials knew days after the Deepwater Horizon explosion that 64,000 to 110,000 barrels of crude oil could gush out each day.

In May, The Post collaborated with the center on a piece about federal investigators looking at a District organization that was helping mortgage lenders make high-risk loans that left the government at risk for default. Politico recently carried three pieces by center staffers, including a list of the lobbyists who serve as the biggest bundlers of campaign contributions. The center is also pursuing a long-term project with "60 Minutes."

When Buzenberg joined the group, "we had to dig out of a hole," he says, with budget deficits forcing him to lay off a third of the staff. But at last week's morning meeting (where all the faces around the table were white), development director Robin Heller described what she called "a million-dollar day" -- the total of grants just committed by the MacArthur and Park foundations. Other major donors include the Ford Foundation ($2.4 million) and Carnegie Corp. ($507,000), along with $356,000 from individuals -- adding up to a $5 million annual budget.

The center has also received grants -- including $300,000 last year -- from the Open Society Institute founded by liberal philanthropist George Soros, sparking questions about whether its news agenda leans to the left. "We have a very clear firewall editorially," Buzenberg says. "We decide what we want to do and how we want to do it." Donors, he says, "may hate it and they may never fund us again, that's their right. . . . It isn't free to produce. We've got to get money."

The larger issue is whether such not-for-profit outfits can become self-sustaining, or will forever be dependent on foundations and wealthy donors. If those checks stop coming, these operations could be crippled. Buzenberg says the center, which now sells e-books, is looking to generate more revenue.

After a long, cold season of layoffs, the climate has thawed enough for both Web companies and nonprofits to hire people to create content, rather than just repackage it. But investigative reporting -- with its labor-intensive digging and frequent dry holes -- remains the most expensive of journalistic pursuits. Even brand-name news organizations are no longer too proud to accept outside help. But here's hoping that doesn't become a tempting way to abandon such work to subcontractors.

Cable chatter

Eliot Spitzer, the former New York governor who resigned after he was caught patronizing prostitutes, is still looking for television work. Industry sources say that while his discussions with MSNBC never went very far, CNN -- which needs to replace Campbell Brown at 8 p.m. -- remains in talks with Spitzer about a hosting job. In fact, CNN has been looking for a female journalist to serve as a co-host if Spitzer signs up. CNN declined to comment.

Meanwhile, Fox News last week signed Greta Van Susteren to a new contract -- hardly surprising, since her "On the Record" show has been the top-rated in cable news at that hour for more than eight years. Despite earlier chatter that Fox might groom a new star, the network stuck with the versatile Van Susteren, whose recent guests have ranged from Sarah Palin to Ozzy and Sharon Osbourne.

She will soon be facing off against MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell, a frequent substitute for Keith Olbermann, who has been given a 10 p.m. show. O'Donnell, who keeps the network's liberal evening lineup intact, is a former "West Wing" producer who was also a top Democratic staffer in the Senate.

Olbermann, for his part, abandoned his periodic, 2 1/2 -year-old diary at the liberal site Daily Kos after a commenter scoffed that his criticism of President Obama's speech on the oil disaster was a ratings ploy. "To accuse me, after five years of risking what I have to present the truth as I see it, of staging something for effect, is deeply offensive to me and is an indication of what has happened here," Olbermann wrote in a parting post titled "Check, Please."

Howard Kurtz also works for CNN and hosts its weekly media program, "Reliable Sources."

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