Have we seen the last of the hard-nosed investigative reporters who break news through months of painstaking research and contact-building?
The internet has badly hurt the publishing business model that traditionally supported investigative reporting but the web could also be its saviour, a US expert has said.
In this edited Q+A, Robert Rosenthal, executive director of the non-profit Center for Investigative Reporting and an award-winning journalist who has worked for The New York Times, Boston Globe, Philadelphia Inquirer and the San Francisco Chronicle, explains how he views the problems and opportunities for contemporary investigative reporting.
Rosenthal visited Australia as a keynote speaker at Back to the Source, a national investigative journalism conference that opens today and is hosted by the ABC and the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism, based at the University of Technology, Sydney.
What are the biggest threats to quality investigative journalism?
The main threat is the collapse of the business model for newspapers and most media. Newsrooms have been downsized tremendously, in some cases with 50% fewer reporters in the last five or seven years.
What that really means, as they feed the beast of news, is a focus on breaking news. That’s frequently relevant but investigative reporting takes time, a tremendous amount of knowledge and the most valuable investigative reporting is very accurate and credible.
Few newsrooms now are willing to let journalists take the time to do investigative reporting. There are city halls, county agencies, police departments that now have almost no oversight from the media.
We are in a very transformational time. There will be more intensity looking at how to solve this problem but yet there will be people in power, in government or corporations, who don’t want to see an active press.
We will see more content moving to the web but will pay walls work? There will be a small group of people who will pay for long form investigative journalism but it really has to be something that generates revenue for multiple streams. You are seeing that experiment happening now.
What are the solutions?
In the United States, one of the things that’s happened is non-profit news organisations have sprung up over the country. I run the Centre for Investigative Reporting which is the oldest non-profit investigative news organisation in the US. It was founded in 1977, I have been there about three and a half years.
With the downsizing and the retrenchment at legacy media, there are huge opportunities for other forms of investigative reporting. We have been able to grow substantially over the last three and a half years, from a staff of seven to 32 journalists. We have multiple partners in both non-profit organisations like National Public Radio and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to many news organisations who really want our work. So that’s created an opportunity.
There doesn’t seem to be a problem, if you have a credible non-profit organisation, getting your stories on whatever platform widely distributed. We are doing it.
Part of any new or old news organisation is having a tremendous focus on non-traditional distribution, through social media. Really finding audiences who are interested around a subject, pushing stories out using Facebook, Twitter and other sites.
I can see a day where traditional publishers will be leapfrogged by the right kind of stories distributed really through the way the internet is now evolving.
Today, you can still do that story for a metropolitan paper and also distribute it through radio, television, multiple websites, social media. You can actually reach a larger audience. We are able to get the same story published in multiple news organisations simultaneously. They care less about exclusivity now.
You have talked about how YouTube can be used for investigative journalism. How would that work?
I think video, for telling stories, has potentially the widest reach, when you look at mobile platforms and telling a long form story in chunks that are maybe a couple of minutes long. Using each element to push the story forward is something we are experimenting with.
Animation is another non-traditional way to take the essence of a deep investigative story and reach an audience that would never read a long form print story or watch a national broadcaster.
The big problem for investigative reporting is how do you pay for it? In the States there are foundations that are willing to support it but how long they are willing to do that is unclear.
But doesn’t the US have a tradition of philanthropy that other countries don’t necessarily have?
That makes it very complicated. In Australia, you now have these issues with the media inquiry and the role of government – whether government subsidies for some of this work can get really politicised.
I am no expert (on the Australian media inquiry) and obviously you have different laws and rules here. That you have a situation where one company manages 70% of circulation is really astonishing. Any situation where information is controlled by an organisation or the government is, I think, potentially open to risks.
I do think the more sources and hopefully accurate sources of information that society has, the better off it’s going to be. The challenge with the new technology is the amount of information that’s not accurate and the way things that are not truthful become the truth because of the speed with which they move.
We are in a really interesting transformational time because of technology.
What about the vast swathes of the population who don’t really use the internet?
The fact is that one of the smaller percentages of time spent on internet is around news. Most people spend their time having fun on the internet and entertaining themselves.
There has always been an information elite in any society. Twenty five years ago, the most influential news organisation in the States was the New York Times but the paper was only circulated on the east coast between New York and Washington. There were no national editions.
There is a risk some people are outside the information loop. If you can’t afford a laptop, maybe mobile technology is one of the key sources of information going forward.
We also have multi-ethnic groups and and how they get their information varies. There’s not a one size fits all solution. One of the challenges is [making sure] that communities affected by your work or your disclosure also get it. We are working with ethnic media. That’s not something I did when I came out of a traditional news organisation.
Do non-journalists care about this stuff?
I have been involved in a lot of readership surveys. The thing people care the most about is watchdog journalism. The general public understands the role of the press.
If there’s a story, whether it’s in print or TV or radio, that’s relevant to them then they really care. That’s the challenge for all journalists, to make the stories the stories they are doing relevant and accessible.
As bad things happen in society, economies worsen or there are international issues, people do want information. But I don’t think everybody cares about this, there’s an information elite. But when someone feels their rights are being oppressed or they don’t like what they are seeing in their communities, frequently they look to the media in whatever form to try and help solve the problem.