Going Online With Watchdog Journalism
‘… investigative reporting itself is also on the cusp of major transformation ….’
As I write these words late in January 2008, at ProPublica, we are working our way through more than 850 resumés from journalists seeking to join our new nonprofit, nonpartisan, investigative reporting team. I am learning two things. One is that there is no shortage of very talented reporters and editors eager for an opportunity to expose abuses of power. The second is that many see little hope of carrying forward this work at a whole range of newspapers and other news organizations where just a few years ago they would have been delighted to spend the rest of their careers.
By now, everyone who cares about journalism and its role in society understands that the business model that for four decades handsomely supported large metropolitan newspapers has crumbled as readers and advertisers flock to the Internet. The result is a curious mixture of glut and shortage: an explosion of certain kinds of information available instantly and free of charge on the Web—spot news, stock prices, weather, sports, the latest doings of celebrities and, most of all, opinion—offset by an accelerating shrinkage of foreign reporting and in-depth investigation.
This doesn’t mean that investigative reporting is going to disappear. It remains an important part of what many national publications and news programs have to offer. Their audiences expect it, and many of them will give up other things before they cut it back.
Similar approaches to ProPublica’s have attracted much interest—and funding—from philanthropists and foundations. ProPublica is the brainchild of California philanthropists Herbert and Marion Sandler and becomes the most recent and the largest experiment in using nonprofit models. Others—such as the Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley, California, and the Center for Public Integrity and the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, both in Washington, D.C.—have been at it longer and do significant work. They could do more if, as I hope will be the case, they are able to attract more funding.
And while most of the big metro papers are shrinking their newsroom staff, many still channel major resources into sustained investigation of issues vital to their local audiences. For example, the Los Angeles Times, which has lost its top editor three times in the past three years amid management’s insistence on successive waves of newsroom cuts, nevertheless mobilized a large brigade of reporters on the Norman Hsu story last summer and fall, breaking significant news about the fugitive funder of Senator Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The continuing story was of special importance to the Times’s readers; many of Hsu’s activities and legal problems were in California.
Transforming Investigative Reporting
Even as news organizations are experiencing business upheaval, investigative reporting itself is also on the cusp of major transformation—in the way it reaches its audiences, how news and information is gathered and distributed, and the topics on which it is focused.
Reaching Audiences: Only at our peril do we ignore Dave Barry’s message—“Caution! Journalism Prize Entry! Do Not Read!” The five-part series or the huge takeout (10 inches on the front page jumping into a double-truck or more inside) still works for some readers but for an ever-smaller share of them. More creative communication techniques—humor, irony, photography, video, animation—are necessary to reach readers and viewers with shorter attention spans. This doesn’t mean merely adding a couple of pictures and a graph or two to a newspaper narrative and running the package on the Web in much the same form as it would appear in a newspaper. It means rethinking the entire way a story is told—screen by screen—and adding in video clips and interactive graphics at the precisely right moment. These typically must be backed up with such elements as sustained narratives, interview transcripts, and supporting statistics and data sources that the infinite capacity of the Internet makes feasible. Some audiences will read them first; some will skip them entirely—but it’s important that they be there.
Reporting Tools: Today’s investigative reporters have a dizzying array of computer-aided devices at their disposal—if they have the initiative to master them. True, we are working in challenging times, when some of the traditional techniques of investigative reporting are being undercut. Court documents, for example, are increasingly being sealed. Hedge funds and private capital, which have ever-greater influence on the economy, face far fewer public disclosure requirements than publicly traded corporations and traditional banks and brokers. Even so, opportunities are increasing for enterprising diggers to reach pay dirt.
This came home to me powerfully last fall, when I dropped in on a brown-bag lunch seminar for about 20 Wall Street Journal reporters and editors. It was led by the youngest person in the room, Vauhini Vara, a San Francisco-based reporter just a few years out of Stanford. The topic was how to use Facebook in combination with other databases to find sources inside major companies. I watched jaws drop all around the table as she demonstrated in two or three minutes that she could identify a dozen present or former employees of a given company who were all within two degrees of separation of a reporter in the room. She convinced many veteran reporters that these people could be reached through friend-of-a-friend contact instead of being cold-called. Presumably the approach would work just as well with a government agency. What I particularly liked about Vara’s approach was that it is an aid to old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting, except that it permits vast reductions in the amount of leather expended per interview. Couple this with the more familiar techniques of database mining as ever more information becomes digitized, and you have an environment in which the ability of reporters to find important information grows exponentially.
Topic Choices: Most investigative reporting focuses on government or business or their intersection, because that is where the bulk of the power resides. ProPublica certainly hopes to do its share of exposing abuses by bureaucrats and plutocrats, cabinet secretaries and army generals. Many other areas seem ripe for probing, however. Other institutions and cadres with great power of their own often get a pass these days—unions, school systems and universities, doctors and hospitals, lawyers and courts, nonprofits and the media. Other large groups of people are frequent targets for abuse or fraud, like the elderly and immigrants.
We now look out at a landscape of many crucial topics ripe for investigation and at a likely smaller number of well-trained reporters to do this work. Does that mean we have a recipe for disaster or, at least, disappointment? Not necessarily. The opinion-rich domain of the blogosphere doesn’t offer much in the way of experience-laden reporting. But as bloggers have demonstrated, some have the ability to spot—and mercilessly publicize—errors they detect in what traditional news organizations publish. Bloggers also have the ability to add information and insight to build on what reporters have unearthed. Each contribution—when its accuracy has been tested—can enrich public knowledge in a way that is many times more powerful than a letters column in a newspaper or a magazine.
In hope of participating in this process, ProPublica will launch a blog of its own this spring, which will be aimed at aggregating any noteworthy investigative reporting that we can find that day. In some cases we will add brief or extended comments; with other items we find and display we will suggest avenues of follow-up or get to work on doing more investigative reporting on the story ourselves. In addition to publishing and archiving this content on our Web site, ProPublica’s team of 24 journalists will offer temporary exclusives on our investigative reporting to existing news platforms that we think can give it the greatest visibility. We will also follow-up our own work assiduously. Our goal is to reach not necessarily the largest possible audience but the audience that can best effect solutions to the problems we identify. The challenge is exciting.
Paul E. Steiger, the former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal, is the editor in chief of ProPublica, which is based in New York City.