Three years ago, when Hamilton reporter Bilbo Poynter first mentioned his idea of starting a centre to support investigative journalism, I thought, Yes! Just what we need at a time when newsrooms are pole-axing in-depth reporting budgets and trying to outdo each other with reality-show guano.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed watching Josh Koschek’s antics on the last season of The Ultimate Fighter. Sure, that was some good fun, but it’s also not far removed from bread and circuses.
Poynter’s idea of a non-profit centre that would provide financial support to investigative projects was also timely: it came just as North American media were swan-diving into their biggest crisis in ages. The recession put several badly managed media empires into bankruptcy, while the internet was siphoning off readers.
Some out-of-work journalists thought they could make new careers for themselves with non-profit, web-based news start-ups, but that model is about as solid at this stage as Orville and Wilbur Wright’s first flying contraption.
But to get it off the ground? The challenges were big. Lots of people have good ideas, but those who have the perseverance, luck, and courage to get anywhere are rarities.
Today, the Canadian Centre for Investigative Reporting may be Canadian journalism’s best-kept secret. It is Canada’s only non-profit registered charity with an exclusive mandate to produce investigative journalism. (I joined the CCIR as a founding board member and am now its president.) Drawing on a U.S. tradition of similar non-profits like the Center for Public Integrity, we’ve started bringing to light important stories.
Our first major piece was picked up across Canada in 10 Postmedia Network dailies: an investigative feature that Poynter and I co-wrote on how Canadian officials have ignored an explosion in Afghan opium production, which has caused a surge of heroin addiction in Canada and worldwide.
We’ve had challenges, to be sure. While the U.S. has a rich history of donating to non-profit causes, Canada seems to have no such tradition. We’re still working hard to secure a stable stream of individual and institutional donations to support work on the numerous stories waiting to be unearthed and brought to the attention of Canadians.
But thanks to hundreds of largely unpaid hours on Poynter’s part, we’ve also had great success in building an advisory board of leading Canadian reporters (among them Gillian Findlay, Linden MacIntyre, and Stevie Cameron) and securing help from several generous donors who believe in our vision. We’ve had the satisfaction of going back to the roots of reporting and working on the kind of exciting stories that drew us into journalism and that are vital to any democracy.
And through it all, we’ve had more fun than a bare-knuckle brawl in the Octagon.
Alex Roslin Then: Contributor to This Magazine, receiving two Canadian Association of Journalism awards and six nominations for CAJ and National Magazine Awards for his work. Now: President of the Canadian Centre for Investigative Reporting.