Investigative Journalism Done Better, Faster And Cheaper Without Newspapers

from the let's-get-real dept

There have been a series of ridiculous articles lately claiming that, with the collapse of some newspapers recently, somehow investigative reporting and local coverage won’t work, meaning an era of corruption and the collapse of democracy. Fortunately, some are demonstrating the fallacies underlying these proclamations of doom.

Jay Rosen has been running an interesting experiment trying to find out just how many truly local stories an average newspaper includes in its paper, between all the national wire service stories. A look through a recent Seattle Times issue showed a grand total of seven locally produced stories. And a look at an issue of the Chicago Tribune found a total of eight locally produced stories. We’re not talking about huge numbers here.

And, in fact, the finding of eight stories in the Trib comes from Geoff Dougherty, a guy who created quite a stir in newspaper circles when he claimed he could provide the equivalent (or better) local coverage of the Chicago Tribune for just $2 million a year, and provided the spreadsheet to back it up. And he’s not just talking in theory. He’s doing it. Today. For much less than the Tribune (which is bankrupt).

He’s not the only one either. Talking Points Memo has been quite successful with its investigative reporting, which does a lot to leverage its community to help out in the process, while still employing full time journalists who are doing tremendous investigative reporting — which should only improve as better tools are created to enable more to be done. The first link in this paragraph also discusses another example, the Voice of San Diego, which does local investigative reporting, and was funded by a bunch of local businesses that felt there wasn’t enough investigative reporting locally.

Those who say that this can’t be done apparently aren’t looking around. Sure, some of these experiments may fail, but it’s about time we got rid of two myths:

  • Myth 1: Newspapers put tons of money and resources into investigative journalism. They don’t. And never have.
  • Myth 2: Only newspapers can do investigative journalism.

Not all of the new business models will work out, but some will, and we’ll likely find the new models actually work much better than what we have today (which, let’s face it, hasn’t been that good in investigating things like corruption).

I was on a panel recently for journalists and PR people, and someone raised their hand to ask how people could “put the genie back in the bottle and charge for information again.” The problem is that the question itself is wrong. There’s no genie and there never was a bottle. People have never paid for the news. Newspapers never spent that much on investigative reporting, and they rarely did a particularly good job of it, other than an occasional big story in an attempt to win a Pulitzer. People can pine about that mythical genie and bottle, or they can start focusing on all the opportunity out there that will be coming out of some of these (or other) experiments.

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Companies: chi town daily news, talking points memo, voice of san diego

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Comments on “Investigative Journalism Done Better, Faster And Cheaper Without Newspapers”

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Weird Harold (user link) says:

My local market has three and a half major newspapers (hard to explain) plus 2 freebie dailies and a bunch more freebie weeklies. Each one of the major newspapers presents a special section on a subject every weekend, recently things like people who have been forced to live in the subway, city workers sleeping on the job instead of working (one group of 10 employees filled 9 small potholes in the road in a day), and so on. So it is clear that at least some money, some resources, and some print space is being allocated, at least in this market, to a more in depth coverage and investigative reporting.

We aren’t talking Watergate, more like leaky water main. But there is actual content out there that isn’t 5 paragraph news.

That being said, I am sure that if you remove all over the overhead of operating a news room, all the built up union expense, the building, the staff, the editors, the proof readers, and all those other expenses, that yes, you could do more with the same money or the same with less money. That is obvious.

What isn’t obvious is what journalistic standards would be applied. One of the keys in print media is that a certain amount of time is taken to check and re-check the articles, by an editor (city or section, depending on how it works at a given place), spelling and grammar checked with a proof reader, and so on. Reporters can’t run a story without backup, quotes, checked sources, etc.

The internet is easy, because just like this site, you can express your opinion around the news and make the story anything you want it to be. Most of the internet is opinion, not pure fact and double checked sources. So investigative journalism might happen, but will there be anything to back it up, any way for the public to be confident that the material is a reflection of reality, and not a smear campaign? Matt Drudge is one of the pioneers of internet “news hording” and investigative journalism, but because he answers only to his conservative advertisers, his site is mostly packed with news and opinions slanted in one way only. Is it really news, is it really journalism, or just a nice way to couch opinion in a way that people think it’s the truth?

The newspaper masthead actually counts for something, it’s a question of trust.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

ROFLMAO. Newspapers are bastions of apolitical news reporting? These are the same newspapers that endorse political candidates? The same ones that allow local businesses and politicians to pay ‘reporters’ to write fluff pieces? Fact checking? Only enough to make sure they don’t get sued. Wow, just wow. Are there any other people on the planet you live on?

Sergio says:

Re: Re:

Journalistic standards should not be a concern. Online news will go through the same process that newspapers did when they first came around. The poorly written news sites with inaccurate information will lose readers to the higher quality sites and fade away, just like all the bad news papers have over the years.

John Platypus says:

Is #1 serious?

I mean, since WHEN are newspapers running stories not influenced by some opinion? “Journalistic standards”? Is that for real? Let’s ask Fox News, I guess. Or the Times. How about CNN, I’ll bet THEY’RE impartial… not that much, depending on who you ask.

Who is naive enough to believe newspapers are actually about the _truth_? They’re about a convenient truth.

BTW is he REALLY that worried about the lack of copydesk?

PRMan (profile) says:

I see a problem...

>How can the Tribune spend millions while our online news organization spends less than $2 million?

>It’s simple. The new news organization doesn’t have an advice columnist, a suburban bureau, an auto writer, or a fashion critic. It does one thing, and it does it better than anyone else: Provide Chicago residents with the information they need to make smart decisions about public affairs.

Where they are wrong is in thinking that the public actually CARES about the local criminal reports or board meetings. They don’t. That stuff is boring to most people.

Most people read the advice columnist, suburban writer, auto writer, sports writer, fashion critic, movie reviews, comics, etc.

Sounds like they can have the boringest newspaper in Chicago for only $2 million per year.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: I see a problem...

You said: “Most people read the advice columnist, suburban writer, auto writer, sports writer, fashion critic, movie reviews, comics, etc.

Sounds like they can have the boringest newspaper in Chicago for only $2 million per year.

Why would I pay for opinions about live, suburban activities, cars, sports, fashion, movies, comics, books, or anything else? Everyone and their dog has an opinion, a blog, and the inclination to make the two combine in a way that’s just as interesting as the paid version.

Seriously, man.

Bruce A. says:

“The newspaper masthead actually counts for something, it’s a question of trust.”
And why would it be any different for electronic media? If they run trash and don’t check their facts, you don’t read them and they fail.
The Print media sphere is full of useless garbage as well, a la Weekly World News, National Enquirer, etc. Are you going to claim these publications have integrity because they put ink on paper?
No matter the delivery method, it’s still up to the user to separate fact from fiction.

TheStuipdOne says:

Journalistic Standards

One of the big isses with the all online new services is like WH points out what standards, editing, reviews, fact checking actually occurs there?

I say it isn’t realy an issue at all. If I decide that techdirt is worthless then I know Mike Masnick is to blame and I’ll avoid reading his work or listening to him speak. Same for actual news reporting sites. The authors are real people working a real job. Just because they don’t print the article doesn’t mean it isn’t fact checked and peer reviewed. In fact if errors escape to the article published online, then commentors can point it out and the atricle can be fixed in minutes. Did the author overlook a significant fact? commentors point it out and the article is improved (by the comment alone or by a revision). Make a huge mistake? Print a retraction in hours, remove the offending article (or fix it) even faster.

And then you see things that can’t be done in print. Write an article about a bank robbery and include security videos, audio from 911 calls, full transcripts of witness interviews, artistic renditions of the perps that update as more information is gathered. Write something later that references the robbery? Include a link to the previous article.

Only downsides that seems to stand up to scrutiny?
1) I’ll need to find something else to pack by glassware in when I move
2) Paper and Ink is a little easier on the eyes

Weird Harold (user link) says:

Re: Journalistic Standards

The problem isn’t it techdirt is right or wrong (or just packed full of opinions that support certain corporate client’s positions) but the rapid echo of misinformation online.

One of the things if you watch Mike’s posts here is that his supporting evidence is often other people’s opinion columns and even his own posts. Now imagine 200 sites quoting techdirt, and 200 other sites quoting each of those sites, and so on. Mike’s information is a mix of fact, opinion, and a chosen perspective on copyright. If that gets spread around enough, people may actually take it as fact rather than the personal point of view it really is.

Mike doesn’t have to submit his posts to an editor, or a fact checker, or have someone make sure that the story is balanced or fair. Anyone who reads the blogs knows it. But there is strong chance he is quoted elsewhere, and that site may lead it’s readers to think it is fact.

Repeat a lie often enough, and people will start thinking it is the truth. Repeat an opinion often enough, and people will start thinking it is reality.

Oh yeah, all those things about the robbery can already be done on broadcast video. Nothing new there.

Dave says:

Myth 1 isn't completely true

Newspapers did once do a large amount of investigative journalism. This was before the press release became the bastion of information it is for papers (and other sources of news) today.

Before that, reporters had to investigate news just to know what was going on. In doing that, they uncovered many things companies and politicians and others didn’t want to be found out. However, once the press release was created, reporters found it was better to take that and modify it as an article than do their own digging.

That also began the era of PR officers within companies trained to spin. They handled the questions from reporters and gave them answers that would suffice, relieving the reporter from digging.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Regarding the Jay Rosen Tweet

As I corrected Jay Rosen via Twitter (which I’m sure far fewer people saw than the number who saw his original tweet), the “eight locally produced stories in the Tribune” thing is misleading if not flat out wrong

Actually, skimming the stories at
I find even fewer than 8 truly local Chicago stories there. Oh sure, there are more than 8 stories there, but most of them aren’t actually “local”, unless you consider places like Florida to be “local” to Chicago. Talk about misleading.

John Zhu (user link) says:

Re: Re: Regarding the Jay Rosen Tweet

Here’s the list from the link I provided, culled down to only stories written by Tribune staff that day. Take away the columns and the stories about the Oscars that day, and you still have a lot more than eight stories about Chicago. And yes, I do count sports, because well, this is just a hunch, but stories about Bears, Cubs, and White Sox probably do count as news that Chicagoans care about. Is sports as important as investigative reporting? Of course not. But look at Chi-Town Daily News’ content, and you’ll see that not all their stuff is investigative reporting either. And look at the site’s Chicago News section and note the dates on the stories, I went back as far as 10 days, and none of the days had eight stories. Most ranged anywhere from two to six or seven.

The other point about this is that even Geoff Dougherty specified that his count of eight were “local news stories”. Somehow that has been turned into “locally produced stories”, which is not the same thing. The former refers to a specific category of stories, while the latter makes it sound like the entire Tribune staff only produced eight stories that day. This matters if we are measuring the production capacity and budget of the two enterprises. The latter statement implies that the two organizations are producing the same number of stories with vastly differently budgets, when in reality the Tribune is producing a lot more stories with its bigger budget. We can argue that the Tribune should shift more of its resources toward a particular category of stories, and that’s fine, but we can’t distort the statement to say that the Tribune is producing less or no more than a competitor w/ a much smaller budget. I’m not trying to put down Chi-Town Daily News’ work. I’m just pointing out that while we can debate what kind of stories the Tribune should do, what’s not up for debate is that its bigger budget does result in more stories.

* Shirley Mottl, 1927-2009: Sang in clubs as Sheryl Lea in the 1960s and ’70s By Jeff Long | Story

* New research offers hope for finding pancreatic cancer early By Robert Mitchum | Story

* Shaping Chicago: U. of C. medical school official mentors minority students By Lolly Bowean | Story

* On different pages when it comes to race By Dawn Turner Trice | Column

* Whispers not rattling Bears’ Nathan Vasher By Vaughn Mcclure | Story

* Phoenix rises with defense By Bob Sakamoto | Story

* Brent Lillibridge hopes speed fills need on White Sox By Mark Gonzales | Story

* Ready or not, here comes Tiger Woods By Rick Morrissey | Column

* Bears’ search for safety likely bypasses Lawyer Milloy By Vaughn Mcclure | Story

* Baseball scouts’ honor under fire in kickback scheme in Dominican Republic By Oscar Avila and Todd Lighty | Story

* Illinois defensive tackle suspended indefinitely By Terry Bannon | Story

* Fighting Illini shoot their way past Ohio State By Terry Bannon | Story

* Former White Sox executive David Wilder has seen a big change in fortunes By Oscar Avila and Todd Lighty | Story

* Peaceful, easy training for Cubs this year By Paul Sullivan | Story

* U.S.’ success in winter sports bubbling over By Philip Hersh | Column

* Ex-Sox official Wilder suffers major change of fortune By Oscar Avila and Todd Lighty | Story

Rant raises profile of CNBC on-air personality Rick Santelli
By Phil Rosenthal and Tribune Media Columnist | February 23, 2009 | Story

* Chicago law firm to cut partner, associate pay by 10% By Ameet Sachdev | Story

* Losses pull curtain back on illusory gains By Greg Burns | Column

* Pop Rocks seller in a fizzy over alleged imitator By Steve Schmadeke | Story

* Trade shows turning to the Web By Eric Benderoff | Story

* Daughter frets over Mom’s toxic marriage By Amy Dickinson | Column

* Jackman brings the pizazz By Maureen Ryan | Story

* New format, host are unable to rescue a plodding telecast By Maureen Ryan | Story

* Mickey Rourke wins Independent Spirit award for ‘Wrestler’ By Mark Caro | Story

* Behind the scenes with Oscar By Mark Caro | Story

* James Earl Jones narrates a fervent ‘Lincoln Portrait’ with CSO By John Von Rhein | Story

* Robots to take over by 2045? Sorry, that does not compute By John Keilman | Story

Gunnar says:

What people care about

“Where they are wrong is in thinking that the public actually CARES about the local criminal reports or board meetings. They don’t. That stuff is boring to most people.”

As someone who works at a local newspaper, I can tell you that crime news and board meetings are almost always the most-read stories in our paper. Though, that’s probably only because we don’t track the Obituaries on the website.

Recovering Journalist says:

Good God, you guys are worse than Fox News

Seriously, Weird Harold is making valid points. Fox News is slanted and lame yet many people swear by it, as is that Web site that Michele Malkin writes for (I’d say Weekly World News but it’s not that….too interesting.)

It seems like most of the people bitching here don’t a) read newspapers or b) understand how journalism works.

Matt Drudge didn’t break anything, he just went with a story without getting additional corroboration. It’s a choice, but also one that could have backfired and been wrong. But then again, if he had been wrong, “Hey, I’m just a Web site …

As for people fleeing places with wrong information — nope, they stay if they like their slant. Hence people reading Masick’s stuff. I mean, he really hates the MSM. Why? Heck if I know. Maybe the j-school kids wouldn’t let him play their reindeer games.

But there are at least 13 or so people who agree that the MSM is evil, biased, elitist and anything else that sounds interesting.

Yes, “news” will become more opinion masquerading as fact because that’s easy to do. Spending all day calling, digging, reading through SEC filings, takes time and effort, it’s not easy to post more than once a day. (And to not be paid for it except by 5 cent clicks? Not a lot of takers.) As a full-time journalist I could do once a day, twice a day on light days — but it definitely takes up time.

Then the fact-checking, the constant calls to make sure everything’s correct before it goes live … it’s not for everyone. Everyone who has a blog cannot do it. Some may be able to, those that are well-funded or have a sugarmama/daddy….but we’ll see.

The only good thing I see out of this, once journalism goes down to BlogTown, is that eventually there will be a desire for real journalism again and $$$ for it.

It’s all evolution, Weird Harold. Plus, hard times are innovative times.

Anyway, mediawhore that I am, I now work at a bloggityblogblog — which, I can honestly say, is way less work for the money — but I’m riding this gravy train.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Good God, you guys are worse than Fox News

It seems like most of the people bitching here don’t a) read newspapers or b) understand how journalism works.

You mean, how it used to work? Back in the day?

As for people fleeing places with wrong information — nope, they stay if they like their slant. Hence people reading Masick’s stuff.

Like yourself?

heycori says:

Re: Good God, you guys are worse than Fox News

Thanks for pointing these things out, Weird Harold and Recovering Journalist.

People who dismiss or are just ignorant of the time, effort and overhead needed to do quality journalism also probably think the FDA wastes way too much time verifying if food and drugs are safe for us, or don’t see why it takes years for solid academic research to be defended and published.

Gene Cavanaugh (profile) says:

Investigative reporting

In support of what Mike is saying, I have found several articles in various newspapers that were thinly-disguised reprints of, for example, articles. Since I don’t spend a lot of time looking, I would bet that the 3-4 I have found is a very small percentage of the “investigative” reporting in newspapers, even today.

alin van truth says:

the truth

Operation Crooked Code Update: Petru Cladovan

The feds, prosecutors, and judge finally admit and conclude amid all set forth charges that Petru Cladovan is and was innocent AND ALL CHARGES WERE DROPPED today 3/30/2010. Petru Cladovan was found that he never had intent and/or knowledge of any bribes and all accusation were misinterpretation of twisted perfected lies by so called “expeditor”, who was forced to start operating, as a mole with the feds, and with whom orchestrated this entrapment only to reduce her possible charges sentence of 130yrs if convicted. This same “expeditor” ironically under oath admitted and testified that Petru Cladovan had no implication nor knowledge of her illegal business transactions and that all business between her and Petru Cladovan were 100% LEGAL and legit!!! It is only fair to say that after two long years of false accusations, wrongfully indicted, and defamation not limited to by the government and by media to Petru Cladovan and his family, the truth and innocent prevails.

Nancy S. Kyme (profile) says:

We need a line between creative writing and investigative journalism

Anyone can become a journalist. I’ve written an award winning novel which has thrust me into the company of other writers. Most call themselves free lance journalists. Most want to write that novel. There is no line between the two. Many are responsible for the ‘content’ of today’s news. In their hearts, they just want to tell a good story. They have encouraged me to write articles, which I have, because I’m building a platform. Am I now a journalist? My publisher chose to market “Memory Lake” as biography because it is 95% true. It needed the 10% to weave an entertaining story. This seems to be the same standard applied to all writing. If its 90% true, its true. This should not be the standard for news. To the irritation of Registered Dietitians, anyone can say they are a nutritionist. The RDA is trying to regulate who can use this term. I’m not a fan of more government regulation, but perhaps the great schools of Investigative Journalism should take the initiative and frame a debate for setting credentials on who reports the news. Ethical standards could be applied to ensure actual facts are reported, not just an opinion. Perhaps some initials are needed after a name, CIJ, “Certified Investigative Journalist”. When we want entertainment we can visit a blog. When we want news we could visit a CIJ website.

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