What is the role of the newspaper in the digital age? It’s a question that’s been asked often since the Internet started stealing away paid readers from print publications, and it’s gained some urgency with the recession harming another source of newspapers’ revenues, advertising. One way to stay relevant might be to emphasize the sort of service that bloggers and low-overhead Web outfits don’t perform as well. But news outlets are increasingly outsourcing their investigative journalism.

As Howard Kurtz reports in the Washington Post, a nonprofit investigative outfit is hiring journalists just as newspapers and magazines across the country are laying them off: 

The Center for Public Integrity is hardly a traditional news operation, but it is taking on a more prominent media role, fueled by a recent hiring spree that has added more than half a dozen journalists to its 45-person staff.

“We see all our friends dying on the vine,” Kaplan says. “The irony is we’re doing pretty well, and we have a chance to fill these gaping holes.” And the center fills those holes free of charge, furnishing information — and sometimes staff-written pieces — to the media outlets.

One might ask what the journalists left at major media outlets are doing, if not trying to break news. Look at one example of what the Center provided to a publication:

Politico recently carried three pieces by center staffers, including a list of the lobbyists who serve as the biggest bundlers of campaign contributions.

Examining the ties between money and political influence should be one of the biggest beats of any political newspaper, but Politico is actually relying on outsiders to do this important work. (Does Tim Carney really have this beat to himself in the capital of the free world?)

The Center for Public Integrity was founded in 1989, but it’s gotten more attention in the last couple years as media critics wonder if the nonprofit model is the future of journalism. ProPublica, for example, describes itself as “an independent, non-profit newsroom,” and is headed by former Wall Street Journal managing editor Paul Steiger. It won its first Pulitzer Prize this year, which it shared with the New York Times Magazine, for its look at deaths at a New Orleans hospital in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Investigative reporting can be expensive; that’s one reason why newspapers have cut back on it as they struggle to survive. So from where are the nonprofit investigators getting their funds?

When [the Center for Public Integrity’s] 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.

The independent journalists, then, might not be completely independent. They sell themselves as doing a public service — and in some cases, they are — but it seems unlikely that George Soros is handing over money out of a simple generosity. That’s not to say that newspapermen and women at, say, Politico or the Washington Post don’t have agendas either. But too many media observers see the nonprofits as white knights who could save journalism and save the country. They must sell their product, as does any private newspaper. The difference is to whom they sell — rather than consumers directly, they get their support from foundations and private donors. (They offer their work free to the newspapers and magazines that run it.) Groups like ProPublica and the Center for Public Integrity must make decisions about who and what they’ll investigate and what they’ll do with the information they find, like other journalists. Those decisions give lie to the idea that journalists can be objective, merely presenting the facts and letting the reader decide on their meaning.