Is investigative reporting in ICU?

Deadspin stunned the sports and media worlds when it exposed football star Manti Te'o's  fictional girlfriend.

Deadspin stunned the sports and media worlds when it exposed football star Manti Te’o’s fictional girlfriend.

Two weeks ago, Jon Stewart at The Daily Show “investigated” investigative reporting and discovered it no longer existed, having been “disappeared” by cost-conscious media executives. The Daily Show correspondent John Oliver found that if some shadow of investigative journalism still walked the earth, it was only in the fictional newsroom of HBO’s “The Newsroom.”

The episode was achingly funny because it rang so true. But is it really so? It’s true that in the last five years, we’ve seen a drastic decline in the investigative capacity of American newsrooms. Hit by the twin blows of economic crisis and collapsing business models, newspapers and TV stations eliminated or downsized their investigative units. Yet at the same time, the muckraking spirit remains alive. In the past few months, for example, The New York Times, Bloomberg and The Wall Street Journal have published groundbreaking investigations on the wealth of China’s Communist Party leaders. For sure, these are the guys in the big league, but amazing digging is also being done by smaller news organizations, including the new investigative reporting nonprofits, some of which are collaborating with public broadcasters.

We expect nonprofits and public broadcasters to do watchdog work. What’s surprising is that in the last couple of weeks, the Gawker affiliate Deadspin stunned the sports world with its revelatory report on Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o’s fictional girlfriend. The report, as its authors explained in a Pro Publica podcast, was the product of good-old-fashioned digging in the new digital realms of Twitter and Facebook.

I know that a few swallows do not a summer make and that outstanding work notwithstanding, the anxiety even in the big newsrooms is palpable. The question in both for-profit and nonprofit investigative units is: How long can this be sustained?

It’s a question that’s not possible to answer. We are in the midst of a media revolution. Clarity is rare in revolutionary times. Outcomes are not certain, and predictions are cheap precisely because of the uncertainty.

I’ve lived through a revolution – sort of one, when Ferdinand Marcos was ousted in a popular uprising in the Philippines in 1986. In hindsight, it’s easy to say that we knew or should have known that the democratic transition was going to be tumultuous and difficult. The truth is we didn’t  and couldn’t have known. And the choices that our leaders and our people made in the early years of the the transition laid the ground for where the country is in now. Read the rest of this entry »


A hundred muckraking centers bloom

Table from the CIMA Research Report, Global Investigative Journalism: Strategies for Support

Table from the CIMA Research Report, Global Investigative Journalism: Strategies for Support

Five years ago, there were 39 nonprofit investigative reporting organizations in the world. Today there are 106 of them in 47 countries. According to David Kaplan, director of the Global Investigative Journalism Network and author of a new study that maps this space, this number includes reporting centers, training institutes, professional associations, grant-making groups and online networks dedicated to investigative journalism.

These nonprofit groups range from lean, one-person operations to multimillion-dollar newsrooms like the Center for Public Integrity in Washington DC,  the Center for Investigative Reporting in San Francisco and  Pro Publica in downtown New York. They are everywhere – from Bosnia to Brazil, and from Iowa to Iraq. The newest centers – in Italy and Pakistan – have been formed only in the past month. But most most of these, says Kaplan, have budgets of less than $50,000 and five or fewer  people on staff. Yet, many of them wield clout that is disproportionate to their size, producing or enabling high-quality, high-impact journalism that holds wrongdoers to account.

Most of these organizations have been formed only in the last decade. In the U.S., the growth has been spurred in part by the demise of newspapers and the downsizing of investigative staffs in traditional newsrooms. Elsewhere, the formation of investigative reporting groups has less to do with collapsing business models than with the emergence of new democracies and the dysfunctional media systems that have taken root during the democratic transition. Kaplan attributes the phenomenal expansion of the nonprofit model in part to donor support. He calculates that annually, some $12.5 million in donor funds go to investigative reporting organizations outside the U.S. That’s just two percent of the nearly $500 million that donors spend every year on media assistance.

I ran a nonprofit investigative reporting center in the Philippines for 17 years, and so have intimate knowledge of the challenges faced by these investigative reporting organizations. For sure, physical threats and legal harassment are difficult to deal with, but more routine problems – like training and keeping talented staff, managing partnerships with mainstream news organizations, and perhaps most formidable of all, ensuring a stable revenue stream – can be even more challenging. I’ll wager that for the most part, directors of investigative nonprofits stay awake at night thinking about next year’s payroll rather than contemplating jail time because of a controversial story. Read the rest of this entry »


Disclosing tax data

The Swedish Tax Calendar (above) lists the incomes and taxes paid by all Swedish citizens. In most other countries, data on individual taxes is secret and made public only because of leaks and court orders. But a public interest argument can be made for mandating that the highest officials disclose the taxes. they paid.

The Swedish Tax Calendar (above) lists the incomes and taxes paid by all Swedish citizens. In most other countries, data on individual taxes is secret and made public only because of leaks and court orders. But a public interest argument can be made for mandating that the highest officials disclose the taxes they paid.

In 2008, Italy’s deputy finance minister published online the declared incomes and corresponding taxes paid by everyone in the country. Vincenzo Visco had led the government’s campaign against tax evasion and believed that Italy’s debt had reached disastrous levels. He said the publication of tax data was “an exercise of transparency, of democracy.” That exercise, however, quickly ended as Italy’s data protection agency ordered the information taken down after a day, saying that its publication violated privacy.

Taxes most everywhere are a controversial issue – just ask Gerard Depardieu, who fled the high taxes of his native France and accepted the offer of Russian citizenship last week. Around the world, many governments are proposing painful solutions to the problem of public debt and imposing heavier tax burdens on citizens. As government services are cut because public coffers are bare, public attention is shifting to the taxes paid – or not paid – by the wealthy and the privileged.

The problem with investigating the taxes paid by individuals is that this information is confidential. And since Visco’s exercise in pique, no country has followed Italy’s example. The exception is Scandinavia, where tax information has been public for over a century (more on how to access this information below). In some countries, too, it’s customary, though not mandatory, for candidates for the highest office to disclose their tax returns. Even in secretive Ukraine, candidates in the last election made public their tax ID numbers and their properties.

There’s been a lot of progress in the last two decades in legislating the disclosure of the assets of officials. The World Bank says that 78 percent of 176 countries it surveyed recently had financial disclosure systems, although only 42 percent made the disclosures public. Asset disclosures, says the Bank, are essential to fighting corruption, illicit enrichment and tax crimes. A public-interest argument can be made that tax disclosures are also a crucial anticorruption tool, yet only a few countries – and no international financial institution – have proposed making such data open.

But if officials are already required to declare their income and assets, why shouldn’t they be required to make public their tax payments as well? It’s hard to argue that revealing information on private taxpayers is in the public interest. But government officials are supposed to set the example for tax compliance because they are the custodians of the public purse. Because they decide how the burden of tax payments is shared, then citizens should be told whether those they elect to office are carrying their fair share of that burden. There can be persuasive arguments as to why heads of state, Cabinet ministers and members of national legislatures should declare their taxes. Read the rest of this entry »


How to do investigative reporting in Pakistan

When journalist Umar Cheema launched the Center for Investigative Reporting in Pakistan (CIRP) last week, he did so with a bang: A blockbuster story that hit the headlines around the world. Two-thirds of Pakistani MPs, his report said, do not pay their taxes. Neither did President Asif Ali Zardari – famous for his spending sprees, polo games and luxurious country estates – and more than half the Cabinet.

One would think that given his history, Cheema would be more cautious about exposing wrongdoing. Two years ago, while driving home from a dinner, he was seized from his car by men in black commando garb. He was brought to a house where he was stripped naked, beaten and sexually assaulted. Unlike victims of similar abductions, Cheema spoke out and said Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) agency was responsible for the attack.

When I called him in Islamabad over the weekend, Cheema was still dealing with the furor raised by his tax story. He expected this. After all, he named names. In a 70-page booklet called, Representation without Taxation, which was released online and in a press conference last week, he listed all the members of Parliament who who didn’t pay any tax at all. He also published the names of those who had paid taxes in 2011 and the amounts they remitted to the government.

how toMPs roundly denied the charges and accused Cheema of being on the payroll of their rivals and of timing the report for the elections, which will likely be held in the spring. “The opposition and the administration have joined hands to wage attacks on me and malign me,” he said. But he could document each and every charge, including the last rupee of tax paid. It took six months, he said, to gather the information, verify and then verify again. He knew that he would pay dearly for any mistake. “We were doing naming and shaming,” he said, “and we had to be extra careful.”

As investigative reporter for The News, Cheema had taken on the military and the intelligence services and exposed Zardari’s corruption. Now he is on his biggest story yet.

Read the rest of this entry »


Muckraking in digital – and democratic – Indonesia

Tempo Magazine is Indonesia's muckraker par excellence.

Tempo Magazine is Indonesia’s muckraker par excellence.

Last week, on a visit to the modest Jakarta office of the feisty Indonesian newsmagazine Tempo, I was told about one of the magazine’s proudest moments.

Now Tempo has a lot of proud moments. Founded in 1971 in the glory days of the Suharto dictatorship, it has always been an independent and credible voice. In 1994, in what would be later remembered as marking the beginning of the end of the Suharto era, the Indonesian information ministry shut down Tempo and two other publications for reporting on a government purchase of overpriced warships. Banned Tempo journalists helped set up underground newspapers, an independent journalist’s association to counter the government-sponsored one, and because the regime hadn’t yet figured out the internet, a site called Tempo Online.

Reopened in 1999, shortly after Suharto’s fall, Tempo remains the most influential and respected newsmagazine in Indonesia. But the country has changed. Indonesia is now a democracy with competitive elections and a rambunctious and free-wheeling press. It’s also in the midst of a digital revolution. The country is one of the fastest-growing mobile and tablet markets in Asia. Mobile-phone subscriptions are cheap here, with basic monthly data plans starting at $5, giving rise to what Tempo executive Bambang Harymurti calls “Facebook phones” – inexpensive handsets used mainly for getting access to the social networking site. It’s estimated that Indonesia will have 150 million people online by 2014, making it the 11th largest internet user in the world. Most of them will likely be accessing the internet through mobile devices. Read the rest of this entry »


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.

Read the rest of this entry »


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.”

Read the rest of this entry »