Susan Greene: Funding investigative journalism today as challenging as doing it

In late 2010, Susan Greene resigned from the Denver Post after learning her column had been canceled. She later wrote a Huffington Post piece that compared working for the paper to Stockholm syndrome. And since then? She's spent much of her time putting together "The Gray Box," a moving project made for Dart Society Reports, and learning firsthand about the challenges of doing investigative journalism in today's media environment.

"The Gray Box" looks at the issue of solitary confinement with the help of current and former prisoners who share the agonizing impact such confinement has had on them. Greene places their experiences in a larger context -- noting, for instance, that many of those who wind up in seclusion are relatively low-risk cons with no history of violence. And in a video she assembled with Debbie Zucker as a companion to the article, she gives them the opportunity to speak for themselves, either in person or by proxy. For instance, the footage begins with narration culled from the writings of 2007 Westword feature subject Tommy Silverstein, who's spent nearly three decades in solitary.

The results caught the attention of New York's Sidney Hillman Foundation, which this week designated "The Gray Box" as the February winner of the Sidney Award, a monthly prize for outstanding socially conscious journalism.

These days, fewer and fewer newspapers and major publications are willing or able to fund such a sweeping effort. As such, Greene needed to find alternative ways to finance "The Gray Box." The Dart Society, of which she's a longtime member, provided tremendous support. But while gathering the information, she says, "I realized I had way more than what I was going to be able to put in [the Dart Society Reports]. So I have grants from the Nation Institute and the Fund for Investigative Journalism to keep working on the project."

Seeking out cash doesn't come naturally for Greene or many others in her profession. "I hate asking for money," she notes. "I'm completely not wired for that. And I think journalists are uniquely bad at asking for money. It took me several months to sort of work up the gumption to get over the discomfort of having to do it, because it really is uncomfortable. But it's not about you; it's about the story. And it worked."

Not that her job is over. Greene is now trying to get as many eyeballs on this offering as possible -- another chore that didn't used to fall on investigative journalists. "It came out in late January, and it's been all over the blogosphere," she points out. "I've done several interviews with different journalism and human rights organizations, and I'm going to be on a panel in New York in a couple of weeks with several people from the documentary. And now that I have some grants, I've been talking to some big magazines about reaching a broader, national audience.

"You don't bring the finished product to the magazine," she continues, "but you say, 'I have this money from funders in D.C. and New York who are going to pay for a lot of expenses involved. Stuff that earlier in my career got covered by the newspaper now gets covered by these journalism grants. Basically, that's the landscape today: Nonprofits that are interested in preserving the tradition of investigative journalism now have to subsidize it."

The need for such beneficence is great, Greene believes.

"People know there are holes in investigative reporting in our state and our community," she says -- a reference that calls to mind the closure of the Rocky Mountain News and downsizing at many area media outlets, including the Denver Post, which recently offered buyouts to nineteen staffers, including Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Mike Keefe. "They're painfully aware of the holes. And a little money goes a long way toward filling those holes.

"There's a big need for investigative journalism today," she says, "and that's what I'm trying to do with this solitary project."

The documentary that accompanies "The Gray Box" is below:

Follow and like the Michael Roberts/Westword Facebook page.

More from our Follow That Story archive: "Solitary confinement: Isolating prisoners overused in Colorado, study suggests."

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