Online journalism coming of age

Reporting, analysis and commentary
by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post

The Pulitzer Prize is the measure by which excellence in journalism is measured.

Until recently, newspapers won by default. There was no alternative (with apologies to the Emmy Awards). But in recent years, entrepreneurs have established online-only news publications.

There are for profits, including Politico, Talking Points Memo and, of course, Huffington Post.

There are even more non-profit investigative reporting centers, lead by ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting and its affiliated California Watch, and regional centers including Voice of San Diego and MinnPost, headed by former Courier-Express editor Joel Kramer.

These young pups are proving capable of going toe-to-toe with their print brethren.

ProPublica won Pulitzers in 2010 for investigative reporting and 2011 for national reporting. This year, Huffington Post won for national reporting and Politico for editorial cartooning. California Watch was a finalist for local reporting . Here’s a complete list of winners and finalists.

Nieman Journalism Lab offered this take:

The Huffington Post’s and Politico’s wins, in particular, feel like victories for their editorial models. While different from one another, both are fueled by aggressive web-native approaches — HuffPo built much of its audience on aggregation and free content from bloggers, and Politico’s fast pace aims to “win the morning” (and the afternoon, and probably the overnight shift too). But those strategies don’t have to be in conflict with doing the kind of quality work that can win Pulitzers — in HuffPo’s case, an eight-month, 10-part series on returning war veterans.

After decades of having a comparatively narrow frame for potential entrants — television, magazines, and radio were kept out, for instance — the Pulitzers (have) been open to online-only sites since 2009. With ProPublica becoming the first online news organization to win a Pulitzer for investigative reporting back in 2010. That same year, independent cartoonist Mark Fiore won the prize for drawings of his published on SFGate.com. ProPublica won another Pulitzer in 2011.

Keep in mind that newspapers, despite their declining profitability and shrinking staffs, still have far more resources than their media competitors and break the lion’s share of news. But the growth in online journalism is a wave of the future.

Online news ventures aren’t held back by the status quo culture of legacy media outfits. They provide niche coverage at a time when niche is hot and mass is not. And online operations tend to do a better job of drawing on the data-rich, multi-media story-telling techniques that digital provide.

Here at Investigative Post, we’re trying to straddle both worlds. We’re been in operation just two months and are striving to grow our website to provide niche, multi-media coverage. At the same time, we’re working with partners in the legacy media sectors – print, television and radio – to deliver our content to their mass audiences.

We’re also building a foundation to work with university partners to draw on their expertise to compliment the work of our professional journalists.

All this will take time and resources to accomplish. We’re off to a solid start, as evidenced by our investigation last week into the campaign finances of Common Council Majority Leader Demone Smith. The story not only generated traffic on our website, but was picked up by The Buffalo News, WBFO and Artvoice.

We take heart in seeing the recognition other new ventures are garnering, especially fellow non-profit investigative reporting centers. While we don’t pretend to be a substitute for newspaper and television news operations, investigative reporting centers and other online news operations are becoming a part of the landscape, providing quality, in-depth coverage at a time when established media sectors are becoming more hard pressed to deliver on that front.