Earlier this year I was asked to write a chapter for a book on the future of investigative journalism – ‘Investigative Journalism: Dead Or Alive?‘. I’m reproducing it here. The chapter was originally published on my Facebook page. An open event around the book’s launch, with a panel discussion, is being held at the Frontline Club next month.
We may finally be moving past the troubled youth of the internet as a medium for investigative journalism. For more than a decade observers looked at this ungainly form stumbling its way around journalism, and said: “It will never be able to do this properly.”
They had short memories, of course. Television was an equally awkward child: the first news broadcast was simply a radio bulletin on a black screen, and for decades print journalists sneered at the idea that this fleeting, image-obsessed medium could ever do justice to investigative journalism. But it did. And it did it superbly, finding a new way to engage people with the dry, with the political, and the complex.
Now the internet is growing up too, finding its feet with the likes of Clare Sambrook, Talking Points Memo, PolitiFact and VoiceOfSanDiego all winning awards, while journalists such as Paul Lewis (the death of Ian Tomlinson), Stephen Grey (extraordinary rendition) and James Ball (Wikileaks) explore new ways to dig up stories online that hold power to account. As these pioneers unearth, tell and distribute their stories in new ways we are beginning to discover just what shape investigative journalism might take in this new medium.
Funding investigative journalism
There is a now-familiar refrain that rumbles across the newsroom as regularly as a train: that online publishing cannot support what is needed for proper journalism – the journalism we have to call “investigative”. The argument is simple. Done the way it has been done for the past 50 years in newspapers and broadcasters, investigative journalism requires a reporter’s time – and, therefore, money. Online publishing – or at least, online advertising – does not currently offer a publisher the same margins that they enjoyed in the past.
But investigative journalism does not have to be pursued – or funded – in one particular way. The newsroom investigative journalist was an endangered species well before the internet arrived, while over the last decade NGOs and activist organisations have taken on an increasing role in funding investigations.
Indeed, the argument that the commercial pain of news organisations leads to cuts in investigative journalism is contradicted by research undertaken by Dutch-Flemish investigative journalism organisation VVOJ. They found that there was no relationship between the financial health of a news organisation and the amount of investigative journalism that was undertaken there.
It is notable that some of the biggest investigative stories in decades have come during one of the worst commercial periods for the newspaper industry: and while the MPs’ expenses and Wikileaks stories may not prove anything about the health of investigative journalism as a whole, they do serve as canonical examples of how it is changing. Because the web specifically – and digital technology more generally – offer new business models around investigative journalism. Primarily these come down to two features: a lowering of costs, and a broadening of revenue streams.
One of the costs of investigative journalism, for example, is that of organisation. As the internet makes it significantly easier to collaborate and communicate with others, the need for a formal news organisation is much reduced. The way that the Wikileaks revelations were managed both with that organisation and between publications in different countries is just one very visible example. My own project Help Me Investigate, meanwhile, proved that it was possible to conduct investigations (such as that into a £2.2m overspend on a council website) with the help of self-organising groups of individuals.
Another cost is time – and here, again, the internet offers efficiencies: a visit to the library is replaced with a visit to the library website, or a database. The FoI Act and related online services make it easier to obtain official documents. Social networks and forums make it easier to find leads, sources and experts.
This is not to argue that investigative journalism can be replaced by an entirely online process, merely to point out that previously time-consuming elements of the process have now been considerably accelerated.
The funding opportunities presented by the web are particularly interesting. Print and broadcast journalism relied on three streams of funding: advertising, for most; cover sales for some; and the licence fee.
Online, those organisational capabilities and reduced costs have opened up other streams: donation-funded investigations, for example, may not be new for charities and NGOs, but even those middlemen are now not always needed. The US website Spot.us, for instance, has successfully facilitated the sponsorship of numerous investigations by users. Other crowdfunding platforms offer the same possibilities to non-journalistic organisations. It is also difficult to pick apart how many subscribers to a platform such as Malaysiakini, for example, are paying for content, and how many to support a cause – its founder notes how subscriptions rise and fall in direct relation to negative actions by the government.
Meanwhile the funding of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, ProPublica and the Huffington Post Investigations Fund (coming from sources other than traditional advertising or cover sales) suggest that we may be seeing a partial separation of the investigative and watchdog roles of the media from those of entertainment, information and current affairs which previously subsidised it. It is not yet clear, of course, how sustainable the individual examples are – but the broader trend towards a wider diversity of funding streams and business models remains.