Going Online with Watchdog Journalism '... Investigative Reporting Itself Is Also on the Cusp of Major Transformation.'

By Steiger, Paul E. | Nieman Reports, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview
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Going Online with Watchdog Journalism '... Investigative Reporting Itself Is Also on the Cusp of Major Transformation.'


Steiger, Paul E., Nieman Reports


As I write these words late in January 2008, at ProPublica, we are working our way through more than 850 resumes from journalists seeking to join our new nonprofit, nonpartisan, investigative reporting team. I am learning two things. One is that there is no shortage of very talented reporters and editors eager for an opportunity to expose abuses of power. The second is that many see little hope of carrying forward this work at a whole range of newspapers and other news organizations where just a few years ago they would have been delighted to spend the rest of their careers.

By now, everyone who cares about journalism and its role in society understands that the business model that for four decades handsomely supported large metropolitan newspapers has crumbled as readers and advertisers flock to the Internet. The result is a curious mixture of glut and shortage: an explosion of certain kinds of information available instantly and free of charge on the Web--spot news, stock prices, weather, sports, the latest doings of celebrities and, most of all, opinion--offset by an accelerating shrinkage of foreign reporting and in-depth investigation.

This doesn't mean that investigative reporting is going to disappear. It remains an important part of what many national publications and news programs have to offer. Their audiences expect it, and many of them will give up other things before they cut it back.

Similar approaches to ProPublica's have attracted much interest--and funding--from philanthropists and foundations. ProPublica is the brainchild of California philanthropists Herbert and Marion Sandler and becomes the most recent and the largest experiment in using nonprofit models. Others--such as the Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley, California, and the Center for Public Integrity and the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, both in Washington, D.C.--have been at it longer and do significant work. They could do more if, as I hope will be the case, they are able to attract more funding.

And while most of the big metro papers are shrinking their newsroom staff, many still channel major resources into sustained investigation of issues vital to their local audiences. For example, the Los Angeles Times, which has lost its top editor three times in the past three years amid management's insistence on successive waves of newsroom cuts, nevertheless mobilized a large brigade of reporters on the Norman Hsu story last summer and fall, breaking significant news about the fugitive funder of Senator Hillary Clinton's campaign. The continuing story was of special importance to the Times's readers; many of Hsu's activities and legal problems were in California.

Transforming Investigative Reporting

Even as news organizations are experiencing business upheaval, investigative reporting itself is also on the cusp of major transformation--in the way it reaches its audiences, how news and information is gathered and distributed, and the topics on which it is focused.

Reaching Audiences: Only at our peril do we ignore Dave Barry's message--"Caution! Journalism Prize Entry! Do Not Read!" The five-part series or the huge takeout (10 inches on the front page jumping into a double-truck or more inside) still works for some readers but for an ever-smaller share of them. More creative communication techniques--humor, irony, photography, video, animation--are necessary to reach readers and viewers with shorter attention spans. This doesn't mean merely adding a couple of pictures and a graph or two to a newspaper narrative and running the package on the Web in much the same form as it would appear in a newspaper. It means rethinking the entire way a story is told--screen by screen--and adding in video clips and interactive graphics at the precisely right moment. These typically must be backed up with such elements as sustained narratives, interview transcripts, and supporting statistics and data sources that the infinite capacity of the Internet makes feasible.

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