Accessibility Settings

color options

monochrome muted color dark

reading tools

isolation ruler

Charles Lewis with Cindy Choi, who was then a fellow at the Investigative Reporting Workshop, in the IRW newsroom in 2018. Image: Courtesy of IRW



GIJN Honors Chuck Lewis: Pioneer of Nonprofit Investigative Journalism

Like democracy itself, investigative journalism must be actively protected and cultivated to survive, and hold the most powerful bad actors accountable.

No one has done more to innovate and grow the field — and preserve it in the face of existential headwinds in the ‘90s and ‘00s — than Charles Lewis, one of the chief architects of nonprofit investigative journalism.

Lewis, known as “Chuck” to his friends, helped usher in the current global era of investigative collaboration by recognizing and filling journalistic blind spots, and persuading fellow editors that their true adversary was secrecy, not competition.

In an extraordinary 50-year career that pioneered a new investigative ecosystem, the US muckraker has founded two Pulitzer Prize-winning nonprofits — the Center for Public Integrity (CPI) and the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ); launched innovation and training incubators such as the Investigative Reporting Workshop; authored several investigative books; and co-founded watchdog initiatives including Global Integrity, the Fund for Independence in Journalism, and the Institute for Nonprofit News (INN).

CPI, one of the world’s first investigative nonprofit newsrooms, was founded when Lewis took the personal risk of quitting a coveted investigative role at CBS News’ 60 Minutes program to launch the Center from his house in Washington DC in 1989.

Ever since, his soft-spoken refrain — “Someone has to investigate the bastards, whoever they are” — has deepened the ambition of watchdog projects around the world.

In a 50-year career, Chuck Lewis has pioneered nonprofit investigative journalism. Image: Courtesy of ICIJ

GIJN will honor Charles Lewis with special lifetime recognition — the “GIJN Award for Extraordinary Service to International Investigative Journalism” — at the 2024 Investigative Reporters and Editors conference, which begins this week in Anaheim, California.

Ahead of the ceremony, Lewis’s film student son, Gabriel Lewis, told GIJN that his father “feels so honored to be recognized by his friends and colleagues in the investigative reporting community. Although he is quite modest, he is grateful to be recognized for his illustrious career as a pioneer in the world of nonprofit investigative journalism, and as a tenacious investigative reporter.”

Pioneering a National and Global Investigative News Model

“It’s hard to imagine, now, how daring his founding of the Center for Public Integrity looked from the outside,” says Brant Houston, chairperson of GIJN’s Board of Directors, and former executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors. “It was like: ‘You had a nice job with a TV network, and now you’re going to try be a software guy in your basement?’ But it turned out to be groundbreaking.”’

He adds: “Chuck’s vision was so much ahead, but, later on, I think the world caught up with him, so he didn’t have to start things alone anymore. He has inspired enough ideas.”

One of those — developed in consultation with Bill Kovach, the then-curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University — was to establish and empower a global network of investigative reporters who could help each other dig into the increasingly global routes and tactics used by bad actors.

“Chuck was a visionary when it came to international investigative reporting,” says Maud Beelman, ICIJ’s founding director. “He understood that if journalists were to serve as a check on powerful multinational actors or cross-border problems, then our reporting structure needed to be multinational too.”

Another idea associated with Lewis — who is now a professor of journalism at American University — is the need, above all, to recruit the kind of journalist he has variously described as “superstar,” “Jedi knight,” or simply “kick-ass.” These qualities he recognized in Beelman when he hired her to lead ICIJ in 1997, following her six years as a foreign correspondent for the AP. She had seen, first-hand, that cross-border investigations at the time were “like trying to play tennis with no one on the other side of the net.”

“I remember walking into Chuck’s office and him handing me a document, outlining plans for a new cross-border reporting group with a really long name,” Beelman recalls. “He asked me if I thought I could build such a thing, and I said I could.” (Her first act was to abbreviate Lewis’s project name to “ICIJ.”)

In an essay for the Nieman Foundation just 10 years after its founding, Lewis wrote: “Although never robustly funded, it is the first network — now consisting of 100 people in 50 countries — of some of the world’s preeminent investigative reporters working with each other to produce original international enterprise journalism.”

Those numbers have since grown to 290 investigative reporters from 105 countries and territories, and, as ICIJ states, the group “has redefined what investigative journalism looks like in the 21st century” and has “repeatedly conducted journalistic collaborations so big, so visionary, and so aspirational that they are unlike any others in history.” In addition to pursuing Lewis’s vision for exposing undercovered abuses, such as agrochemical poisoning in Latin America, ICIJ’s mega-projects have included scrutiny of more than 25 million documents in 30 languages for their Offshore Leaks, Panama Papers, Paradise Papers, Pandora Papers, and FinCEN Files hidden money investigations.

“He has always been totally committed to exposing the truth and holding the powerful accountable,” Gabriel Lewis explains. “When he wasn’t busy at the offices of the Center for Public Integrity or the Investigative Reporting Workshop, he was busy researching and writing his acclaimed books in his home study.”

To illustrate his father’s legendary work ethic, Gabriel recalled this boyhood anecdote: that, while his parents gave a tour of their house to friends, the young Gabriel interrupted to point out the study and exclaim: “That’s where daddy lives.”

The father of two children — Gabriel Lewis and Cassandra Lewis Slattery — Lewis is married to Pamela Gilbert, former executive director of the US Consumer Product Safety Commission, and lives in Washington, DC.

Early Career

Having started out as a sports writer in Wilmington, in his home state of Delaware, Lewis was hired as a reporter for ABC News in 1977. He had pitched an investigation into the links between hair dyes and cancer to land the job, but, instead, his first assignment was investigating a Ku Klux Klan church bombing in Alabama.

He was personally recruited to 60 Minutes by iconic broadcast journalist Mike Wallace in 1984, and produced 11 investigative lead segments over the next four years. He shocked friends by suddenly resigning over an episode of censorship, and immediately began a new entrepreneurial path that would change the field.

Colleagues say that, early on, Lewis recognized the potential for the scope of investigations in the nonprofit model: the efficient trade-off between offering free content and getting free distribution; the natural fit for collaboration; the absence of corporate influence on editorial independence.

Among the CPI blockbuster investigations under Lewis’s watch were the Lincoln Bedroom fundraising scandal, the Winning Contractors exposé on conflicts of interest in US military contracts; and a vast, troubling dive into the financial files of over 5,000 state lawmakers and the inadequate ethics laws that governed their dealings, called Our Private Legislatures.

The investigation into the Lincoln Bedroom fundraising scandal appeared in the CPI newsletter in August 1996. Image: Screenshot, CPI Newsletter

Dubbed “the center for campaign scoops,” CPI published 300 investigative reports during Lewis’s 15 years at the helm. None of them, he has noted, took less than a month to investigate — a reflection of Lewis’s insistence that reporters must be afforded time to nail their stories.

For Houston, Lewis’s additional effort to pioneer a new model for international investigations was just as remarkable.

At a meeting in Moscow just three years after CPI’s launch, Lewis had a “personal epiphany” about cross-border collaboration during conversations with London-based Sunday Times reporter Phillip Knightley, who had investigated the treachery of British spy Kim Philby.

“Creating ICIJ was just the most incredible thing he did internationally,” says Houston. “It was there when those Panama Papers leaks came through. I don’t know what would have happened if ICIJ wasn’t there, because they could coordinate and expand it, with different investigations for each country.” ICIJ and its partners won a Pulitzer Prize for this vast investigation into hidden offshore money in 2017, having earlier received a George Polk award for its Windfalls of War investigation into lucrative military contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Stories on the ICIJ website covering various angles of the Panama Papers investigation, for which ICIJ and its partners won a Pulitzer Prize in 2017. Image: Screenshot, ICIJ

Investigative Strategy: Persistence and Perseverance

In carving out those many new watchdog spaces, Lewis has been a tough media critic, and taken inspiration from almost any model that he saw worked in practice:  from the children’s program “Sesame Street;” from the activist diligence of researchers at NGOs like Human Rights Watch; from news start-ups in the Balkans; from the original Watergate team at The Washington Post; from the crowdsourcing wisdom of citizens; from strategic errors he has made.

In a 2008 interview with MediaShift, he remarked: “I have some sort of tic or defective DNA where I feel the need to start things.”

Lewis welcomes the use of new technologies, “but we also need immensely talented kick-ass journalists who have the time to do their work.”

“He was constantly figuring out pragmatic ways to make seemingly idealistic projects work,” says Houston. “It’s one thing to create something; it’s another to stick around to make sure it works – and Chuck did that. None of these projects was easy. He used those investigative qualities of persistence and research rigor.”

As a fiercely independent person, Lewis did not always enjoy the fundraising role essential to nonprofit projects — but he applied these same investigative principles here, too, in raising tens of millions of dollars.

Says Beelman: “He was an expert fundraiser because he could clearly communicate the need for this new form of journalism.”

Houston agrees: “Chuck had a vision he could talk about — he had a knowledge of what was not being covered, and what topics were being overlooked. He comes across as soft-spoken, but he has a quiet courage as a risk taker.”

Chuck’s Vision: Independent, Collaborative, Nonprofit Journalism

Beelman’s favorite ‘Chuck quote’ is: “If this was easy, everyone would be doing it.”

“It was the advice Chuck would give reporters and editors struggling to make sense of mounds of documents or a mountain of data,” she says.

In offering a lifetime achievement award to Lewis from INN in 2021, its then executive director, Sue Cross, noted: “What’s not in the bio is that, when you see awards for news collaborations, you’re really seeing the result of Chuck Lewis’s vision for journalism. Chuck and a small group of journalists dreamed up INN as a consortium to save investigative journalism by sharing it as a public service. Before, journalism was a dog-eat-dog business; scoops could end friendships.”

Houston recalled his amazement that Lewis had pre-written a visionary, blueprint declaration for the nonprofit future of investigative journalism, when editors from 27 nonprofit news organizations gathered in Pocantico, New York, in 2009, to discuss a crisis in public interest journalism. It was quickly adopted. “It was a grand example of Chuck’s planning, and his influence,” says Houston.

In the Pocantico Declaration — which established INN, after minor edits from delegates — Lewis wrote: “Resolved, that we, representatives of nonprofit news organizations, gather at a time when investigative reporting, so crucial to a functioning democracy, is under threat… [We] hereby declare that preparations should be immediately made to form a collaboration… Its mission is very simple: to aid and abet, in every conceivable way, individually and collectively, the work and public reach of its member news organizations, including their administrative, editorial and financial wellbeing. And… to foster the highest quality investigative journalism, and to hold those in power accountable, at the local, national, and international levels.”

For perspective, INN now “strengthens and supports more than 450 independent news organizations.” It’s exactly that kind of monumental legacy that speaks to Chuck Lewis’ groundbreaking role in the shaping the world of nonprofit watchdog reporting.

Rowan Philp is GIJN’s senior reporter. He was formerly chief reporter for South Africa’s Sunday Times. As a foreign correspondent, he has reported on news, politics, corruption, and conflict from more than two dozen countries around the world.

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Republish this article

Material from GIJN’s website is generally available for republication under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license. Images usually are published under a different license, so we advise you to use alternatives or contact us regarding permission. Here are our full terms for republication. You must credit the author, link to the original story, and name GIJN as the first publisher. For any queries or to send us a courtesy republication note, write to

Read Next

News & Analysis Press Freedom Sustainability

How Can We Build a New Future for Journalism That Belongs to All of Us?

Because of growing threats to democracy, and a recent series of ever more extreme societal and planetary crises, funders now see more clearly the pivotal, central role that independent public interest media play in keeping our societies and economies open. And what’s even more encouraging is to see this positive talk backed up with concrete measures and actions.

Title image of Investigate Europe: 'Grey Gold' report on for-profit takeover of Europe's Care Homes with euro coins and woman pushing elderly person in a wheelchair

How They Did It News & Analysis

How They Did It: Inside the For-Profit Takeover of Europe’s Elder Care Homes

Reporters for Investigate Europe (IE) spent months examining the consequences of a seismic shift in Europe’s elder care homes, where for-profit companies have increasingly taken over the industry. Their investigation explored how this shift has affected residents and staff, and dug into the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on some of society’s most vulnerable people.