The battle to keep investigative journalism alive

INVESTIGATIONS BY journalists into the conduct of those who hold power are essential to a fully functioning democracy. But investigative journalism is expensive at a time when newspaper budgets are declining. In such an environment, the ability of journalists working for mainstream news organisations to carry out investigations could be at risk.

Evidence presented to the Lords Communications Select Committee on the future of investigative journalism in November showed that news organisations are committed to investigations, but money, increasing workloads and legal constraints threaten to limit what they can do.

To fill this gap, new organisations whose sole purpose is to carry out journalistic investigations have emerged. While they operate in the same legal framework as mainstream news outlets, they have more time to spend on in-depth investigations than journalists in pressured newsrooms.

Collaboration

An investigation exposing the influence political lobbyists have over elected politicians has been published by The Independent. The investigation was carried out by reporters at The Bureau of Investigative Journalism (TBIJ) – an organisation funded by philanthropic donations which sells and places content to print and broadcast media.

TBIJ is based on a similar model to Propublica in the US, which according to its website is an “independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest”. Led by Paul Steiger, former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal, Propublica was set up because “investigative journalism is at risk” due to time and budget constraints in the mainstream media and the revolution in publishing technology. It is also funded through philanthropic donations, and brings in some advertising revenue.

Iain Overton, managing editor of TBIJ, explained that having conducted an investigation into the practices of political lobbyists, he spoke to a number of publications to try to get the story placed: “I wanted to feel the editor was really buying into the story because it needed more than one day’s coverage. The Independent said it would give the story the platform it needed,” he said.

The Independent didn’t pay for the story. Rather it was a trade off: “It’s a small paper with a small budget,” said Overton, who has previously worked as an investigative journalist for the BBC and ITV, “They gave us the space and we gave them the story.”

Oliver Wright, the Independent’s Whitehall editor, said that there are benefits for newspapers in working with an organisation like TBIJ. He said: “Both sides can bring something important to the story,” “They can dig deep and spend more time on a story, and we bring the editorial, contextual and legal side.”

He said that stories from external organisations are scrutinised in exactly the same way as those produced internally: “You go through it with a fine-tooth comb with the lawyers, asking the reporter questions about the information”.

Wright was keen to point out that these collaborations are not just about money: “Newspapers should be trying to think about what stories they can do and who they can do them with. They can fall into the trap of being proprietorial about their work but we are keen to work together with other organisations,” he said.

This type of joint effort was apparent in recent story – a major collaboration between the Guardian and the London School of Economics on the summer riots.

Overton says that while investigations into celebrities can sell papers, a sustainable model for investigating financial institutions, companies and politicians has yet to be discovered: “At the moment it makes no more economic sense to spend 12 hours or three months on a story, as there is no tangible evidence that longer investigations boosts sales, unless they are about celebrities,” he said.

Commercial funding

Another new company specialising in investigative journalism but working on a different funding model is Exaro News. Based in Fleet Street, it is funded by private finance and set to become a subscription only service in the next month.

Hoping to attract a business audience of city professionals and high end consumers, Exaro investigates “issues that are important to business in particular and to the public in general, but which are being inadequately covered – or ignored – by the mainstream media”, according to its website.

Editor-in-Chief Mark Watts, who has worked for a number of national newspapers as well as for the BBC’s World in Action and other current affairs programmes, said that of the new investigative organisations that have emerged in the last couple of years, Exaro is the first to attempt it on a commercial footing. “It’s very early days but the funders were very keen because it is innovative,” he said. “We are a media organisation in our own right and publish our own work.”

The third approach that is gaining profile is investigative journalism funded and carried out by non-governmental organisations with related expertise.

Some NGOs have a budget to carry out investigations. The expertise such organisations have can be valuable, but journalists need to be aware that in certain cases they may have a specific agenda to further their cause.

What the public wants…

While the news industry has gone through a “McDonalds-ification”, said Watts, there is still an appetite among the general public for investigative journalism, and the mainstream newspapers are still carrying out their own investigations: “Some newspapers are churning out celebrity drivel and the public is lapping it up, and the more the public laps it up the more it gets produced. However, the interest and fascination among readers over the MPs expenses scandal [exposed by The Telegraph] was palpable”.

This was a triumph for The Telegraph, said Watts, and boosted sales over the month the story ran. Likewise, the public would never have known about phone hacking at the News of the World if it wasn’t for the Guardian sticking doggedly with a long investigation.

Collaborations between established media and new groups undertaking investigative journalism have already resulted in revelations whose publication has been in the public interest. Such collaborations point the way to a future in which the sourcing and distribution of information may be a joint effort, rather than the sole preserve of what has traditionally been regarded as the fourth estate.

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