Leaner, meaner watchdogs

ICIJ’s global, multiyear investigation is an example of the collaborations that will help watchdog reporting survive current challenges.

I work in a journalism school, where exposure to the sound and fury of debates on the future of journalism is an occupational hazard. There can be lots of noxious fumes in some of those discussions, and so the essentials are often lost in the smoke. This was why going through the Columbia Tow Center’s Post-Industrial Journalism – a newly released and eminently readable manifesto on the future of the profession – was like breathing fresh air. To begin with, it restates what’s often taken for granted when these exchanges heat up: Why, in the first place, does journalism matter?

C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky make clear from the start: Journalists are not mere purveyors of facts. They are truth-tellers, sense-makers, explainers. The journalism that really matters is the reporting that can change society and hold the powerful to account. “Now and for the foreseeable future,” they say, “we need a cadre of full-time workers who report the things someone somewhere doesn’t want reported.”

There will, however. be fundamental changes in how this cadre will work and where, how their journalism is going to be distributed and how it will be funded. The report maps those changes, and its 126 pages are well worth a read. Suffice it to say that the authors envision a preeminent place for watchdog reporting and the institutions that do it.

That place, however, is not guaranteed. It requires not just reporters who can produce high-quality accountability journalism but also institutions that can sustain them. For sure, the newsrooms of the future will be smaller, with far leaner budgets than they do now. They will therefore have to do more with less. The report makes clear that the ones that will flourish in the changed media landscape will be those that harness the power of the crowd, of computers and of collaboration.

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Biodiversity in the investigative ecosystem

I’ve been reminded these past few days how many different species inhabit the mini-ecosystem that is nonprofit investigative reporting. In the natural world, biodiversity is key to an ecosystem’s  survival. Can the same be said of the journalism world?

The biodiversity metaphor came to mind on Saturday, while I was moderating the panel that opened the Columbia Spectator’s Media Conference. Sharing twin billing were Paul Steiger, the former Wall Street Journal managing editor and founder of Pro Publica, and Jeffrey Klein, the investigative journalist who co-founded the progressive muckraking magazine Mother Jones in 1976. No two people could be more different in temperament. Klein, a proponent of what he calls oppositional investigative reporting, has had a storied career exposing the shenanigans of Republican politicians, including Newt Gingrich and Bob Dole. A left-wing liberal who believes that partisan journalism not only has a long, but also honorable, journalistic tradition, Klein likes to throw bombs (he famously said that most journalists are “sheep in wolves’ clothing,” and during the panel, made it clear – in far more colorful language – that Bob Woodward and Mike Wallace are exemplars of that pack).

Steiger  is hardly the flamethrower. But he’s a torchbearer for the nonpartisan, nonideological, professionally produced investigative reporting of the type that has won Pulitzers since 1985, when the venerable prize body opened an award in the investigative reporting category.  One of the best funded and best staffed investigative reporting operations in the U.S., if not the world, Pro Publica has won two Pulitzers in the four years since its founding. Steiger believes that as traditional news outlets cut back on reporting resources, centers like his, partisan outfits like Mother Jones and journalism schools will pick up the slack. “Americans have a passion for stuff that is impartial but tough,” he said, “I think there’s an important role for what we do, an important role for what Mother Jones does, and an important role for what The National Review does.”

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Reporting tips from Pulitzer Prize winners

Data crunching, doorstepping, power story-telling. Winners of the 2012 Pulitzer Prizes talked about these and other reporting techniques in “Holding up the Mirror,” this year’s Pulitzer Prize Seminar. I had the privilege of moderating the seminar and to ask the prizewinners about how they worked in teams, where they got the information for their databases, and how they got people to talk to them when they knocked on their  doors at night (Matt Apuzzo of The AP said that the best time to doorstep people at home is 8:15 pm, after they’ve had dinner.)

This year’s Public Service Award went to the Philadelphia Inquirer for a multipart series on school violence. In the video below, Susan Snyder and Mike Leary describe how the newspaper formed a team of five reporters who worked over a year, interviewing over 300 people and compiling information from school and police reports, records of 911 calls and other sources. They found that every school day in Philadelphia, 25 students, teachers and staff members are beaten, robbed, sexually assaulted or otherwise violently attacked. They crunched all their numbers in a database that listed over 30,000 attacks that had occurred in the past five years. The series also featured horrific stories of the assaults, including those perpetrated by children ten years old or younger. The data and the compelling stories prompted dramatic changes in the Philadelphia school system.  

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