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.

Some of that is already taking place in the investigative reporting space. This week, the International Consortium of Journalists released the first package of stories on the explosion of offshore companies worldwide. Based in Washington, ICIJ is is a loose network of investigative journalists from a couple of dozen countries. This year, it started working on a multiyear, collaborative project that aims to strip the veil off  some of the most secret places on the planet: offshore tax havens. The project requires individual journalists and news organizations from different countries to pool their efforts, leveraging the reach and resources of each of the partners to do ambitious reporting across borders. This week, ICIJ’s partners, the Guardian newspaper and the BBC program Panorama, exposed how anonymous offshore companies set up by local developers and foreign tycoons have bought up, virtually tax free, £7 billion worth of real estate in the UK. The reporting has already prompted UK authorities to act.

Such collaboration is enhanced by digital technologies that allow journalists to exchange information securely across borders. ICIJ is also using software provided by Nuix, an Australian company that allows users to manage and analyze large volumes of unstructured data like corporate information from multiple jurisdictions.

There are other examples. Post-Industrial Journalism cites the investigative reporting nonprofit Pro Publica, which has been a pioneer in gathering information and organizing it in databases that others can use in their reporting. Their Dollars for Docs database of payments made to medical professionals, for example, was pulled together from data scraped from the websites of pharmaceutical companies. Pro Publica reporters mined it for their own stories, but 125 other news organizations also used it for their own reporting.

Pro Publica has also done some experiments in crowdsourced reporting, including Free the Files, which entailed asking readers for help to dig through tens of thousands of pages of filings made by TV networks. In the recent U.S. elections, regulators required broadcasters to disclose political ads buys. Pro Publica  got 800 volunteers to comb through the filings, and made their findings and learnings from the exercise public.

Earlier this week, the WAZ newspaper in Germany announced a crowdsourcing project that asks readers to help its reporters go through thousands of pages of secret parliamentary briefings on the German involvement in the Afghan war.

Networked Journalism, a report released yesterday by the American University’s J-Lab, analyzes some of the partnership experiments being undertaken by both traditional and startup organizations that produce local news. Successful, partnerships, the report says, take many forms.

For Seattle, now with 54 partners, it was a loose confederation that would share tips and links, but not full stories, and abide by a one-page Memorandum of Understanding. For Charlotte, now with 18 partners, it was an iron-clad content licensing agreement that allowed partners to republish up to four full stories or photos a week.

To address quality and brand, many of the networks came up with content guidelines that urged daily updating, codified protocols for attribution and linking, prohibited copying of photos without permission, and barred creating stories in exchange for advertising sales.

Integral to success were the kinds of partners recruited to be in the network. Creators of original content were key. Quality and frequency of posts were important. Sites that were too local or too niche might not have enough appropriate content that other sites would want to share with their readers.

Post Industrial Journalism says that such partnerships are a way to reverse the decline of existing journalism institutions and shoring up the institutional capacity of more recent startups. Others ways include managing the internet’s demands more efficiently, doing work that can be reused and repurposed by others, and streamlining the workflow in newsrooms, including more flexible content management systems.

In the not-too-distant future, says the report, 90 percent of the news will likely be produced by computer algorithms. The remaining 10 percent will be the kind of artisanal accountability or explanatory journalism that machines cannot do. The report, launched yesterday by the Columbia Journalism School, stresses that the watchdog and “scarecrow” functions of the press are essential for democratic societies, and cannot be taken over by other social institutions.

Both a watchdog and a scarecrow stand guard. But the fact that only a watchdog actively barks and the scarecrow does not bark does not always matter. Though the scarecrow “does nothing,” its very existence, the very fact that the crows know it is out there, “watching,” is often enough to constrain bad crow-like behavior. And the same goes for journalism. The watchdog press, it must be admitted, barks only rarely. But the continuity of that press, the fact that it is “out there,” is often enough to constrain bad behavior on the part of powerful institutions.

Most discussion of how news institutions might be affected by diminishing institutional capacity, whether those institutions entirely go away or simply cover fewer topics, focuses on the watchdog function—the fact that fewer stories will be covered than before and that the watchdog will bark less. We think the real institutional function at risk in this case, however, is the scarecrow function. Both functions are related, of course, and success in actively keeping corporations and politicians honest leads to a stronger sense that journalism is out there, keeping watch. The real dilemma for the news business, however, is how to convince people that it still matters.

One Comment on “Leaner, meaner watchdogs”

  1. Rey C. Sabio says:

    True journalists will be faithful to their roles in their communities even without those who traditionally control the news institutions . . . I still dream of local media workers pooling their resources together, cooperating and collaborating to continue to be independent as the Fourth Estate . . . Thanks Ma’am Sheila for keeping us aware!

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