The future of investigative reporting is linked inextricably to the general economic crisis affecting U.S. journalism. That should be obvious, and by saying that I’m not suggesting that investigative work doesn’t have unique vulnerabilities: It’s expensive, offers uncertain payback, ties up resources that could be used in more conventionally productive ways, fans staff jealousies, offends powerful constituencies (including touchy readers), invites litigation, and usually comes from the most endangered class in the newsroom, the senior reporters whose ranks are being thinned aggressively through forced retirement.
Still, for all its uniqueness the tottering support for investigative work needs to be understood within the larger collapse of advertising-funded journalism. The marriage between consumer advertising and news, which dates in this country from the advent of the penny press in the 1830’s, is crumbling. The principal reason is less related to circulation declines—daily newspapers, for instance, still dominate their metro markets—than to the exuberant flowering of Internet sites, some devoted to information and entertainment, others simply to sales, that offer advertisers much more efficient ways to find and reach customers than riding alongside news reports into their homes.
Daily newspapers, for all their general interest posturing, had come to rely chiefly on a narrow range of business sectors—automotive, help wanted, home sales, and department stores—and these sectors have either consolidated or are being drawn away by highly effective, narrowly targeted Web sites. (They’re also being pummeled by the current macroeconomic hard times, but those will pass. Those other developments won’t.)
None of this is cheery news for news operations, but the cost to them of hanging onto advertising as they migrate online isn’t cause for cheer, either. Web-borne technologies enable advertisers to know, with unprecedented precision, who is reading what and where else they have been on the Internet. Hence, advertisers are, or soon will be, able to forecast the audience for certain kinds of content and to base their ad placement decisions accordingly. And what advertisers know, news managers will have to learn. That means editors are not far from being able to determine the revenue value of certain kinds of news and calibrate coverage with that in mind. That’s not an appealing prospect in general for those of us who value independence in news decision-making; nor does it bode well for investigative work to be subjected to narrow, profit-and-loss arithmetic.
The Fort Myers News-Press invited readers to help them investigate a story about an expansion of the water, sewer and irrigation system, in a method known as crowdsourcing.
Finding Investigative Resources
So journalism in this country faces a general problem replacing the advertising subsidies on which it has flourished for nearly two centuries. And investigative journalism has a particular canary-in-the-coal-mine problem of being acutely sensitive to thin financial air.
The challenge is to find new mechanisms to provide investigative journalism with the resources it needs, especially in the small and midmarket operations that are being starved of the kind of reporting that has traditionally held local political and business establishments in check.
Before we turn to some of those mechanisms, two points.
These resources aren’t exclusively financial. They include in-kind subsidies, for instance in the form of labor that is donated outright or sold at a fraction of its value to news outlets.
Preserving investigative journalism may not be identical with preserving investigative journalists. The overall concern should be nurturing a communitywide capability to unearth, report and explain so as to hold major institutions accountable, address injustice, and correct wrongs. Full-time professionals will have their place, but they won’t occupy it alone.
Here are some of the more promising dimensions of the emerging regime under which investigative reporting can survive and flourish. Some are more feasible than others; some are already taking shape. Each has its drawbacks, but they have in common an overall direction of marshaling support from a wider array of sources than we’ve seen under the ad-support model.
Mobilize the Public: The 2006 “crowdsourcing” project of The News-Press
in Fort Myers, Florida is frequently cited as an impressive example of a local paper serving as agent provocateur and communitywide reporting manager. The stories concerned excessive impact fees levied on residents in connection with their water utility expansion. Much of the ensuing investigation, which led to a rollback of assessments, was conducted by knowledgeable irregulars who gathered and analyzed evidence of municipal anomalies the paper reported and posted.
There’s no use dwelling on the huge supervisory challenges within a news organization that are raised by such crowdsourcing, nor on the need to make sure that those involved understand basic principles of journalistic professionalism. A larger concern is whether such an approach is self-limiting in ways that aren’t especially desirable.
The Fort Myers case seems to exemplify the kind of work that’s ripest for crowdsourcing: where the main reporting problems are empirical and analytical, not conceptual or political, and where the goals of the amateur newshounds—saving money—are durable. The danger is that assigning priority to projects susceptible to crowdsourcing could mean giving short shrift to highly worthwhile inquiries whose constituencies are less easily mobilized, less mainstream, and less richly skilled. In short, by institutionalizing a commitment to crowdsourcing are news organizations introducing a durable tilt toward reactive, pocketbook projects that appeal to college educated, professional readers?
Moreover, when a newsroom incorporates outsiders into the process, what they have to say has to be listened to, and an appropriate role must be found for them in shaping the coverage they contribute to. What if your amateur sleuths want to expose employers who hire illegal immigrants, or bird-dog suspiciously foreign workers back to their apartments to see who’s renting to them? Do editors allow crowdsourcing to become mobsourcing, or do they roll up the carpet on the empowerment that was promised to these helpers?
That said, those are good problems to have. The potential gains from leveraging in-house investigative and supervisory staff by enlisting communitywide resources on matters that require laborious empirical work are abundant and enormously appealing.
Relax the Full-Time Employee (FTE) Newsroom Model: News operations aren’t sustaining themselves with revenues from their own operations on anything like the scale that communities need to be covered adequately. What follows may sound heretical, but one response is to make greater resources available by encouraging the newsside to incorporate the practice pioneered by op-ed pages, which have long been dominated by outside contributors. They’d do this by creating procedures and mechanisms to promote strong investigative work from nonjournalistic professionals who bring to bear their knowledge within the community at large.
Though similar to crowdsourcing, this takes us in a slightly different direction, toward a more nimble style of newsroom management and a more serious grant of operational autonomy to outsiders. As one source of such outsiders, consider institutions of higher education: One of the paradoxes of the current economic straits of the news business is that while news outlets are suffering, university journalism programs are booming. (Travelers are familiar with a similar paradox: every airport you use is expanding, every airline you fly is near bankruptcy.) Many of the senior journalists who are being chased from their newsroom berths are being welcomed on campuses, which are benefiting from the increasing largesse of wealthy baby boomers who view donations to educate tomorrow’s journalists as highly worthwhile.
Those new academics could continue to produce journalism. A good many lawyers and accountants too have serious investigative training; some can even write. The problem is that news operations—with some exceptions, notably long-form magazines—are neither managerially suited nor culturally disposed to routinely incorporate the work of people who aren’t FTEs.
That incapacity denies them a ready source of subsidy, since the potential contributor’s reporting is essentially paid for by his or her day job. Naturally, that dependence may raise serious conflict of interest problems, much like those that op-ed pages traditionally handle so poorly. It also requires addressing novel quality control issues.
But given that the need now is to perform a thorough inventory of the investigative resources available in a community in order to harness them so as to keep the toughest and most trenchant journalism alive, ignoring the capabilities of knowledgeable, eager and capable professionals of all kinds would be foolish.
Endow Chairs: Much has been written about the national nonprofit journalism outfits that either make grants to enable reporters to do major long-term projects or, in the case of ProPublica, use foundation funding to employ top-tier investigative aces and direct them onto stories of national scope. A different approach to using nonprofit money would apply a model familiar to the academic world and be built around endowed investigative positions created on the staffs of small and midmarket news operations, which have been decimated by the declines in classified, home sales, and automotive advertising.
For example, a single national donor, giving only half the $10 million annual stipend that enables ProPublica to employ 20-some investigative reporters in Lower Manhattan, could seed 100 newsrooms with $50,000 apiece to partially fund investigative chairs. (Partial funding would ensure a local buy-in and enable the employer to adjust the reporter’s total compensation to its newsroom pay scale.) In addition to that seed money in the provinces, some modest funding could go into creating a centralized supervisory or advisory capability, perhaps vested in ProPublica or one of the existing investigative shops. The objective would be to supplement the supervision the reporter gets on site from editors who are deeply knowledgeable about local realities with the expertise of seasoned investigative journalists.
What’s important is recognizing that investigative work doesn’t solely mean national stories. Fundamental to the civic role of small and midmarket news organizations has been their work on zoning scams, courthouse favoritism, environmental degradation, political cronyism, and all manner of wrongdoing that may not register on a scale of national significance but that shapes municipal life in powerful ways. The evisceration of local newsrooms risks creating vast free-fire zones for corruption, which no amount of attention to national affairs will restrain.
Tap Into Community Resources: Similarly, nonprofit initiatives need not be exclusively national, either; they could take the form of citywide foundations bankrolled by local donors either to make grants for individual projects or to provide funds for a sustained journalistic operation comprising full- or part-time staff.
That fundraising effort need not be confined to soliciting big contributors. Investigative reporting produces tangible benefits to communities, even if those civic benefits can’t be readily monetized through the private marketplace because they can’t be priced effectively. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t real and valuable. What is chasing a crooked mayor from office “worth?” If asked, one citizen might say that having an independent team of skilled investigators whose mandate is to root out and expose local corruption is worth, perhaps, $100 a year to her; another might put the figure at $50, still another at $1,000. But there is some value that each of us would attach to that benefit. The continuing success of listener-supported public radio suggests that audiences recognize and, under certain circumstances, are willing to pay for similar informational benefits. Some bloggers, too, have also been successful in fundraising of this sort.
The challenge is to create the funding mechanisms and position the appeals to enable community resources to be pooled reliably and effectively. Crowdsourcing should not be confined to research and reporting; the crowd needs to be enlisted as a source of financial support, too, which has already been happening at Minnpost.com, which was launched in November 2007. In a midsummer message, MinnPost CEO and Editor Joel Kramer reported to readers that the online publication has “932 members, people who have decided to support financially the nonprofit journalism that MinnPost.com provides.”
Create Specialized Spinoffs: Intense scrutiny of powerful institutions and important social developments is a difficult undertaking for which some people will indeed pay quite a lot, especially if that audience gets to see the findings while they’re fresh and hot. This inside-baseball model is key to the success of the newsletter business and other premium informational services that continue to flourish in spite of the current wisdom that the subscription model is dead. Might that be a model to enable certain areas of investigative work to continue—sell the reporting as a stand-alone publication to the people who are willing to pay for it?
Many journalists will find it distasteful to propose that a news operation might devote a portion of its resources to reporting that will be denied to readers who don’t specifically subscribe to it. (The objection is ironic in view of the eagerness with which news organizations are dicing their broad-gauged audiences into vertical microslivers of neighborhood, age, profession, hobby and any other social descriptor that seems to hold appeal for advertisers. Such verticality is expressly intended to provide specific audiences with some information and withhold it from others. Perhaps because the information is innocuous, the practice isn’t objectionable.) Still, if this proposal meant that important information would be kept secret, the idea would be ethically problematic.
But that’s not the case. The more typical practice of specialty publications is to keep their subscribers satisfied by ensuring them a first look at important findings; the publications themselves are eager to see their work trumpeted into the public domain, which ratifies their importance and reaffirms their subscribers’ commitment.
Moreover, what’s the choice? If the alternative is that the reporting won’t be conducted at all, submitting to a two-step process—first to subscriber, then to general public—is plainly preferable. Having a pair of investigative sleuths prowling the statehouse and reporting on shadowy legislative maneuverings for 2,000 subscribers who pay $500 a year may not be an ideal response, but it sure beats shutting the capital bureau or assigning a skeletal staff to knee-jerk stenography.
In sum, keeping alive the flame of investigative—or, as others prefer, accountability—journalism has never been easy, and the slow-motion collapse of U.S. journalism’s advertising dependency has made it harder than ever. New sources of support need to be devised, and the community’s reservoirs of skill and energy, as well as money, need to be inventoried and tapped. But this is possible. And the consequence may be a richer and more fully responsive capability for investigation, exposure and reform than was possible under the vanishing old regime.
The New York Times creates newsbooks by reprinting some of the newspaper’s investigative series. The newsbooks are sold through their online store.
Edward Wasserman is Knight Professor of Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University. A veteran editor and publisher, he writes a media column for The Miami Herald and Palm Beach Post that is distributed nationally by The McClatchy-Tribune wire.