How do you make investigative journalism sustainable and collaborative? That was the question a large and lively group of journalists, citizen journalists, educators and students gathered around the table to address. And it’s an important one. As the news industry business model crashes, investigative journalism is increasingly at peril. It consumes time, money and expertise, and these are rare resources in today’s news organizations.
Lines to remember:
It’s important to raise the awareness of what’s at risk – the loss of investigative journalism. My fear – if we lose it – will there be a demand again? Will citizens know what they’ve lost?
Investigative news is journalism’s Brussels sprouts. Good for you, tastes yucky. (Does it have to? InvestigateWest is looking for ways to find new audiences and make it taste good. We have some ideas.)
Flawed journalism is better than no journalism.
Our members included talk moderator Rita Hibbard of InvestigateWest, freelancer Kathleen Sullivan, Jody Brannon of ASU's News21, Knight Center for Environmental Journalism professor David Poulson, MSN editor Richard Vanderknyff, legal and technical blogger Bart Preecs, student Stevie Mathieu, Seattle Times reporter Sanjay Bhat, citizen journalist Jim Bellinger, KBCS radio producer Joaquin Uy, Common Language Project journalist Jessica Partnow, citizen journalist Sandy Frost, Yes Magazine writer Barrett Anderson, Cascadia Times editor Paul Koberstein, KBCS radio journalist Benjamin Ernst, student Amy Rainey, photo journalist Karen Ducey, and NW Vietnamese News journalist Julie Pham.
Participants laid out the problems as they see them. Covering regional investigations is at risk. The big national stories will get done. The hyperlocal stories will get done. But nobody is looking at the regional and state investigative level. These are the stories that are going undone.
Educators are concerned about what is on the horizon for their students. They are looking for places to display investigative work their students do. Students are wondering what opportunities, if any, they will have in this field.
There was discussion of collaborative models. Will collaboration lower costs? Rita was asked about the Investigative News Network, which was formed in June of 2009 as a network of regional centers. InvestigateWest was one of the 20-some founding members. This network was formed to encourage collaborations among media, such as one that InvestigateWest and several other of the new nonprofit investigative news organizations are working on with the Center for Public Integrity. INN encourages communication about stories, and also eventually will help with issues like liability insurance.
News organizations were overly competitive in the past, wasting resources by going after the same story. Jody Brannon threw out the idea of national watchdog alliance that rewards collaboration and chasing independent stories, thereby discouraging journalists from spending precious resources on the same story. Could that be encouraged by some kind of funding reward, she wondered. Collaboration – how about bringing smaller groups together to do medium range investigations? INN is doing some of this. Media organizations of all sizes are increasingly open to collaboration, recognizing that it allows them to cover more ground for readers with a smaller staff.
SOURCES OF FUNDING If the traditional business model (advertising revenue) isn’t covering the costs of investigative journalism anymore, how do you pay for this essential contributor to our democracy? Remember, citizens can’t agitate to clean up that toxic waste dump if they don’t know about it.
Journalism foundations, of course, can be of huge assistance here. Non journalism foundations, which care about investigative reporting as a good that should be supported, also can be asked for support. Examples like Frontline on PBS being supported by BP, Shell, etc. Generally it was agreed that if transparency is there, and ideally, if a news organization is cross-pollinated by ideologically opposing groups, it’s a good thing. A variety of funders is important, so that it doesn’t appear coverage is bought and paid for. Perils to the foundation model were mentioned – you will get specific requests for stories, you will get expectations for coverage. With year-to-year grants, it can be hard to plan ahead.
Government funding? Thumbs up or down? This idea seemed to scare most participants off, but it was put on the table. Nobody picked it up and ran with it. Could be the prevailing view is that investigative reporting and government funding are inherently at odds. Other modes of funding – membership, angel funder, the Spot.us model, in which readers pledge to stories, the impassioned individual who uncovers a story and reports it. An example of this that was given was the citizen journalist in University of Illinois professor [who took down the degree mills. ]
Cascadia Times of Portland raised $2,500 at a house party to do an air pollution story.
How about a return to a partisan press where special interests support coverage?
What about the New West model – sponsoring events and symposiums to bring in new revenue?
Innovative suggestion – a tax subsidy or break to employees who donate time to a story.
Talking Points Memo style – posting material online and getting your readers/viewers to work for you, crowd sourcing online as TPM did with the U.S. Attorneys firing story http://www.cjr.org/behind_the_news/how_talkingpointsmemo_beat_the.php
Student labor – Joaquin, who works at a community college radio station, expressed the frustration that while it’s great to have student labor, it’s difficult to get people doing work for free to labor in the trenches over documents and “boring” work like that. Solutions – people will work endlessly on their passions. If ways can be found to fill the voids around those passions… maybe you have a more viable organization.
There was expressed need for specific training for investigative journalists, but also recognition that many journalists gain those skills midcareer, on the job. Because of layoffs and smaller newsrooms, there are fewer opportunities for journalists to have the time to learn on the job, however. Or have the time to pursue stories where they can build those skills. NEW MODELS
Where are things headed? E-books, Document Cloud, increasing collaborations, should we charge users/members to interact with the Web site?, should we charge for content? As in-depth and investigative reporting gets harder to find, will there be an increased value placed on it? Would that support paid content? There was general agreement that online users are trained not to pay. Might that change?