Ensuring investigative journalism’s future

12 November 2010

Written by: Christopher Scanlon

Founded in 1977, the US-based Centre for Investigative Reporting is dedicated to ensuring ‘high-quality, credible, unique journalism’ flourishes. Given the present state of the media industries, they have their work cut for them. Madeleine Barwick spoke to the Centre’s Associate Director, Christa Scharfenberg about the challenges of supporting investigative journalism at a time when circulation is declining and newsroom are making cuts.

What’s the current state of investigative journalism?

I think most people would agree that investigative reporting is in trouble. There are fewer major news organisations devoting people or  resources to long-term, in-depth reporting. There are an ever-increasing number of blogs, local news websites and citizen journalism efforts and, while they play an important role in the  journalistic ecosystem, they do not fill the void of paid, trained journalists with deep sources (in government or the corporate world) who are given the time, resources and organisational infrastructure (legal vetting, support for FOIA requests, fact checking, libel insurance, etc) necessary to uncover the big stories.

There are  certainly exceptions — bloggers uncovering important stories,  
citizens identifying crucial problems, etc — but they can’t replace  
investigative teams that traditionally were housed by nearly every  
city newspaper, weekly, and TV station.

Nonprofit investigative reporting organisations, like ours, like the  Center for Public Integrity, ProPublica, Voice of San Diego, MinnPost and dozens of others are a bright spot. The nonprofit model allows reporters the freedom and flexibility to report in the public interest, without worrying about corporate profits. Our organisations are able to be flexible and innovative and nimble in a way the  corporate media often cannot. (We’re small and don’t have to fight a 
big bureaucracy when we want to try something new.)

However,  fundraising takes enormous amounts of time and funders can be fickle. So you really are unsure of funding year to year, unless you’re backed my billionaire philanthropists. I’m not sure how financially sustainable it will be over time to have dozens and dozens of non profits doing essentially the same kind of work (although there is no dearth of stories to be reported, for certain.)

Is there a future for newspapers in investigative journalism?

The current newspaper business model can’t support investigative reporting. Their circulations are rapidly declining and investigative reporting is expensive. So unless they find a way to reinvent  themselves and are able to build back up, rather than dismantle their newsrooms, I think only the lucky few (New York Times, Washington Post, Guardian and very few others) will able to do it.

What are the challenges for the CIR in doing investigative work?

Because we are a nonprofit, fundraising is the greatest challenge. Doing the work is the easy part! We have talented journalists who are experienced in their reporting areas and are able to uncover information and find sources that few others have access to. Figuring out how to keep the organisation stable and growing is the hard part.

How does CIR use new media in its reporting?

CIR has a 30 year history of working in multiple mediums (print, television, radio and, more recently, online) so the technological revolution has, I think, been less daunting of a transition for us to make than it has been for many legacy news organisations. We’ve always been comfortable reporting for all different kinds of outlets.

Now we have a web team that works closely with our reporters to  create info graphics, data visualisations, interactives and web-only features to accompany our print, radio and television reports.

We also have a distribution and online community manager on staff who works very hard to get our stories out on blogs and through social media. We see this as a tremendous way to build our audience and get them involved in conversations about our reporting.

What do you think about citizen journalism?

I think it has its place — its a powerful tool for local and hyper-local reporting, especially — but as I said earlier, when it comes  to investigative reporting, I do not think citizen journalism is a  replacement for paid, trained, institutionally-supported journalists.

However, it is thrilling that there are so many people rising up, wanting to be part of creating media and reporting the news, and they  are a powerful force to tap into.  I think the trick for organisations like ours is to find ways to harness that energy, to involve the public in creative ways. For example, we are talking with 
Public Insight Journalism about a partnership.

We also love news apps that reach out to the public to help gather local  information related to regional, state or national reporting projects. There are all kinds of ways that professional journalists  can make their reporting process more transparent and invite citizen  journalists in to collaborate. And I’m sure we’ll see more and more  great examples of this in the years to come.

Madeleine Barwick is completing her honours thesis in Journalism at La Trobe University