Here’s another collection of questions from a University of Montana student that I’m answering here as part of my FAQ section:
Q: What do you see is the future for investigative journalism? Do you still see it as having a home at newspapers?
I think the future of investigative journalism is already here – it’s just unevenly distributed,as William Gibson would say. Nonprofit organisations (such as Amnesty or Human Rights Watch) are an increasingly significant source of investigative journalism. Then there are the more general investigative journalism operations, funded by foundations and donations, such as ProPublica. Crowdfunding projects such as Spot.us are going to be increasingly important. And then there are crowdsourcing operations such as those done by Talking Points Memo and, of course, my own project Help Me Investigate.
Alongside that I expect a number of traditional publishers to make a decision whether to continue to process content to fill in the space between ads, or to rely on a networked approach for that sort of commodity content and invest in quality investigative journalism that makes them stand out (this appears to be the direction that the Huffington Post and Guardian are moving in).
Investigative journalism will very much still have a home in newspapers; how much of that originates in newspapers depends on how strong the journalistic culture is in the companies that fund them.
Q: Who are the main competition to newspaper investigative reporters now? What are your thoughts on groups such as ProPublica?
The accountants and shareholders are the main competition to investigative reporters! Investigative reporters themselves appears to be becoming less competitive and more collaborative – mainly because the subjects they are investigating are increasingly international in scope and require cross-border partnership (the Trafigura story is just one example).
Likewise, many are learning how to work with bloggers and other publishers to get to the bottom of the story, but I think this is the biggest journey that needs to be made: away from the idea of the perfect ‘exclusive’ and towards the idea of something that engages and involves readers as a force for positive change. Put another way, collaboration creates a market for your journalism, not competition.
As for ProPublica, I think it’s a great idea. I wouldn’t want it to be the only one, because there are weaknesses to a foundation-funded model just as there are to a commercially funded one.
Q: Do you think there is more pressure from editors with the advent of the 24-hour news culture? Are investigative journalists getting the time and resources necessary?
Yes there is more pressure on editors, not just from a 24-hour news culture but from reduced resources and commercial pressures. As a result, yes, investigative journalists are often under pressure too, but these are not new trends – investigative journalism has always been defined by its exceptional nature. If it wasn’t exceptional, we’d just call it ‘journalism’. In Phillip Knightley’s account of pursuing the Thalidomide story in the 1970s (one of the biggest stories of the past 50 years in the UK), he recounts how it took a few years before he was able to cover the story because he was busy with other stories. There wasn’t a queue of other investigative journalists ready to do that reporting instead.
So I don’t think we should pretend that investigative journalism wasn’t already suffering. And the economic effects of advertising migrating to the web are probably nowhere near as important as shareholder expectation of profit margins way in excess of anything outside publishing. Regional pubishing in the UK still makes a margin of around 11% compared to Tesco’s margins of 8%.
Meanwhile, the internet offers some very interesting opportunities to move away from commercial pressures; to establish independent editorial operations without the legacy costs of printing and distributing (often 60-90% of all costs); to organise investigations in a more efficient way; and to engage readers.