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Printed journalism may be struggling, but there’s cause for optimism for investigative journalism. Newspaper image, Divizia

Investigative reporting thrives amid doom and gloom for broadsheets

When print journalists fill Parliament House tonight to learn who among them has won a Walkley award, the list of finalists already tells an untold truth: newspaper investigative journalism is still strong.

Contrary to reports about the death of print, there is cause for optimism about the future of investigative reporting in newspapers.

While it is true that these are tough economic times for newspapers across the Western world as advertising revenues and circulations decline, empirical research shows a rise, not fall, in Australian print investigative journalism over seven decades.

The line between investigative journalism and daily reporting can be blurry, but generally investigative journalism takes time and research to produce stories that are in the public interest, rather than merely interesting to the public. It is important because, as the Leveson Inquiry has noted, investigative journalism can hold those with power to account.

Who wins Walkleys?

My research found that since 1956, when the Walkleys began, newspapers produced more Walkley-winning investigative journalism than any other medium in Australia — with broadsheets outperforming general news tabloids.

The exception was the 1960s when tabloids dominated, particularly those with longer deadlines: Sydney’s Sunday Telegraph and Melbourne’s Truth were standouts. Evan Whitton’s 1969 investigation for Truth, “The Ugly Cloud” blew the whistle on police extortion of backyard abortionists.

Not only has the quantity of investigative journalism increased over time, reporting standards have not fallen, as some fear. Academic Bob Franklin wrote of the British press that newsrooms were altering their reporting priorities: “newspapers seem less concerned to report news, especially…investigative stories”.

Using multiple, independent methods, my key findings, to my own surprise, did not support this concern regarding Australian broadsheets. Since 1956 until 2011, the most prolific mastheads for awarded investigations have been The Age (together with the Sunday Age), marginally ahead of the Sydney Morning Herald, followed (in equal third) by The Australian and Australian Financial Review.

However Franklin’s words spoke truth for broadsheets that shrank to tabloids, such as the Adelaide Advertiser and Queensland’s Courier Mail. As tabloids, their Walkley-winning investigations faded as their reporting priorities changed. This is a cautionary tale to The Age and SMH, which are expected to convert to compacts next year. However, size of itself is not the problem: the Financial Review shows award-winning investigations can prosper in tabloid form.

A history of investigation

Australia has a proud history of investigative journalism. It came to vogue in the 1970s with the glamorisation of the Washington Post’s Watergate investigation; and the Age editorship of Graham Perkin (1966-75) who exported the idea of London’s Sunday Times specialist investigative unit to Australia. The 1970s also saw more university graduates choosing journalism as a career.

The late 1970s and early 1980s witnessed circulations peaks, while print advertising revenues flowed like “rivers of gold”. There were stories with significant public outcomes such as royal commissions and public figure jailings. The significant contributions of broadcast media to investigative reporting must be recognised, especially ABC TV’s Four Corners, ABC radio’s Background Briefing, and commercial TV programs, such as 60 Minutes, Sunday and others.

Chris Masters’ 1987 Four Corners story about police corruption in Queensland, “The Moonlight State” was an example of what academic Julianne Schultz describes as the media becoming “equal contenders” with the powerful, rather than subservient messengers.

In the 1990s, editors favoured magazine-style feature and entertainment stories to bolster circulations. Newspapers grew fatter as they filled with pullout lifestyle sections, but like television current affairs, they lost audience share. Even 60 Minutes declined in clout as its audience slipped away. Still, broadsheets, including the Courier Mail, produced the most award-winning investigations in this decade.

Adapting to change

Tension exists between profitability and the expense of providing quality journalism, but it seems broadsheet editors recognised investigative journalism supports brand credibility. The 2000s saw a resurgence in investigative reporting. US academic Phillip Meyer argues that in the digital age newspapers can remain viable with smaller audience share, if they retain trust and influence. Giving readers evidence-based journalism, largely outside the domain of bloggers, empowers mastheads to demand political accountability vital for a well-functioning democracy.

To produce investigative reporting, my research shows broadsheets have adapted to changed economic conditions. These include: greater sharing of editorial resources within a publishing group; creative use of existing resources, such as foreign correspondents concentrating on investigative stories; and targeting investigations to specific subjects.

A recent, significant development is print collaborations with alternative media, such as the New York Times working with philanthropically funded website ProPublica, to produce Pulitzer-winning investigative journalism for a mass audience.

The support of institutions

Investigative journalism is never easy. Chris Masters told me, “even when you want to say goodbye to stories, you can’t because you spend years defending them in court”.

For this reason, institutions matter. Established media provide legal, financial and moral support to journalists. Very few Australian online news providers have resources to cover these expenses. Strategic partnerships with media and non-media institutions, including academia, could fulfil this role, and are starting to. This year hundreds of editorial jobs were cut across the media sector, so what happens to investigative reporting now depends on how broadsheets continue to adapt.

Importantly, rather than viewing the digital sphere in opposition to print media, collaborations allow both to provide transparency and accountability of our democratic institutions.

Online media is fast and efficient at promoting stories and reaching new audiences. Mastheads lend credibility and institutional support. Combined, investigative journalism’s future is cause for optimism.

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