But Who Will Do Investigative Reporting Without Newspapers?

from the someone-will-find-a-way... dept

Pat was the first of a few of you to send in this amazing investigative report done by the folks at The Smoking Gun, outing a bunch of “griefers” who go by the name Pranknet and who have caused a tremendous amount of trouble and damage throughout the US with their phone-based pranks. The story is fascinating for a variety of reasons, and well worth reading, but it (once again) highlights the fact that detailed deep investigative reporting isn’t something that only newspapers can do. The reporters from TSG went well-beyond your typical investigative report as well. Rather than just outing the “leader” of the group, they tracked down numerous accomplices (many of whom insisted they couldn’t be found) and outed them all. Apparently police and the FBI had been trying to track down members of this group for a while, but some good old investigative reporting — from a website — beat them to it.

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Comments on “But Who Will Do Investigative Reporting Without Newspapers?”

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Spanky says:


Seems to me the best investigative reporting has, for the last several years, been done by bloggers and indy reporters.

Investigative reporting by mainstream media has become something of a joke in recent years, because too many stories get canned or rewritten by special interests. True IR can only be done by independent organizations.

The Rage (profile) says:

Re: The Modern SO-Called Journalists.

It’s a shame that bloggers HAVE to carry the load now. (the movement pretty much created by Matt Drudge back in the 1990’s). Why?. Because the last 2-decades of journalists aren’t only arrogant, they are fantastically LAZY…You call a local news station or paper with something happening. They want YOU to send them the pictures, write the story, then submit it for FREE! What are they doing?. Usually downloading “canned” news (From the Net OR satellite) to act as filler for their multitude of repetitive newscasts thruout the day.
Unless something just “falls into their laps”, the so-called “newspeople” are going to go hunt anything down themselves. Sometimes, it’s the station management that is too CHEAP to actually pay the gas to go drive to a story. I witnessed a utility pole falling and blocking a section of a street next to the mighty University of SC. It just fell on it’s own from rot. Called Channel 10 on my cell (this thing was blocking the road/narily missing a car)..It was a Sunday morning I called. GOt a dude in Master Control. He not only 1)Didn’t have a newscrew OR even a free-lancer available, he 2)Wasn’t going to call one even though the story was only 5 BLOCKS from the station’s backdoor and the real kicker 4)He admitted his management didn’t want to piss-off either the power company (who’s pole it was) OR putting USC in a “bad light”. In other words, PROTECT the Status Quo!. I told him in disgust that it was too BAD no one got KILLED by the pole so WIS would get off their dead-asses to cover it.

I called the three other stations and NONE of them would dispatch. I finally got intouch with a couple of online publications however. They got a pix of it, wrote the story, AND added the obvious question “How many MORE utility poles are unsafe SCE&G??? (This was tied in with the fact South Carolina Electric and Gas had charged ratepayers extra to hire a company just to inspect ALL poles in the SC Midlands nary 10 months before)..

TO get a Journalism Degree now is like the old General Studies program alot of colleges had. It’s for those too lazy, undisciplined, and/or STUPID to go into business or even teaching!..ESPECIALLY if you’re a hot-looking Bimbo who’s only asset IS her looks. But it’s the way of life. When an individual or business starts just “phoning it in” (going thru the motions), there forms a vacumn someone else finds an opportunity..

Right on BLOGGER!!!!..Keep up the spirit of Ben Franklin and Thomas Paine..The PEN/Keyboard IS mightier than the sword!

Anonymous Coward says:

You always miss the point Mike. Anyone can do investigative reporting. The question is how often and how well?

When will TSG do their next investigation? A few days? Years? Who knows. This may not be something done with the intention of breaking the news, rather a couple of guys pissed off who want to know who it is behind these pranks. Will they ever “investigate” anything again?

It’s the same as my opinion of pro versus amateur reporters, videographers, etc. When it’s raining, when it’s cold, when it’s too far away, the amateurs stay home and the pros go do the work. Would TSG spend as much time investigating backed up sewers or a line painting contract that had a kickback in it? Probably not. A pro would do their job and investigate whatever is next. Amateurs do it as a hobby. The results are often interesting, but rarely consistant.

Bob V (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I don’t think that mike has missed the point. His stance has been that traditional newspapers aren’t the only game in town. You bring up a great point though that I don’t think I had ever even actually considered before.

There will be a period of time when the traditional news organizations reorganize and attempt to find a profitable happy medium that we will see some types of reporting drop off. During that time it will be left to the amateurs to fill the gap. Yes a pro does it consistently but if hes not getting paid to do it he wolnt.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Bob, I always run into the problem with Mike that he serves these things up like there is no need for the existing service, the dinosaur, buggy whip maker types that are currently slowing us down.

What Mike knows and doesn’t want to admit is that the public only changes (telegraph to telephone, example, or buggy to car) when the alternative is more compelling, a better economic value for the customer, and most importantly, when it can actually replace the existing service / product.

Ditching all the newspapers because TSG did some “investigative journalism”? Not likely. Replacing pro services with spotty amateur coverage? Not likely either.

It would be like someone pointing to steam powered “cars” and saying this is the future. We haven’t seen the future yet, but steam powered investigative reporting isn’t it, I am pretty sure.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Actually I think you miss the point. The best investigative journalism comes from someone close to the topic at hand and/or with a vested interest in it. If the topic has appeal to a wider general audience, then there is most certainly someone who fits that bill. Traditional investigative journalists would get their information FROM people like this, and then use their channels to get widespread distribution. Now with the internet, distribution is no longer an issue so the information can come directly from the source, or through an ‘amateur’ blog.

Alan Gerow (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Who DID do the investigative reporting, is the bigger question. Did any major news sources put in the leg work & figure all this out? No! So, how well did the pros do against the amateurs? Well, the amateurs did amazingly well, and the pros stayed home. I guess it wasn’t raining enough to get them out of their offices. Maybe a Google outage would get them back on the streets.

The point hasn’t been missed, you’re making an additional point. The original point: without newspapers, who will do investigative journalism. The response: on-line news will, and here’s an example. You now introduce a NEW point, asking how reliable they will be.

It seems here, that the Smoking Gun (1) traveled not only across the country but INTERNATIONALLY to chase their story, and (2) they were highly successful at making contacts, following leads, uncovering information that the Federal Bureau of Investigations could not, and writing a comprehensive and well thought out story. At no point did they need to do any of that, the Smoking Gun is doing well enough as it is with TV deals and one of the top news sites on the Internet today; but they did do it, did it well, and will learn and do it even better next time. They are motivated to do it for the same reasons the print newspapers are motivated to do it, so your “amateur” argument doesn’t hold because they did not behave as “amateurs” but are proving themselves to be the new “pros”, while the old “pros” are proving to be the new “amateurs”.

So, what we have here is proof that (1) newspapers dropped the ball on a huge story, (2) an on-line source picked up the slack and was able to conduct a thorough and successful investigative report, and (3) their business model allows them to give it away for free to readers and financially support the report, reporters, & site.

You can keep your blinders on, but here is a clear-cut example of why newspapers themselves aren’t NEEDED. Most newspapers don’t do ANY investigative reporting, or even have field reporters on staff anymore. The big papers (NYT, WP, BG) SOMETIMES, MAYBE conduct an investigative report if it’s big enough, falls neatly enough in their laps, and doesn’t piss off the advertisers or anyone the editor in chief likes. What we have shown in this story is a return to true investigative news reporting, for the love of the sport.

Alan Gerow (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Upon more thinking … how often & how well do the major newspapers do investigative reporting themselves? They certainly don’t do them daily.

I’ve read two thorough and well written investigative reports in the past month written by so-called “amateurs” that in terms of their investigations went deeper than the old media did, and did a better job writing their articles than the “pros”.

I haven’t seen a good investigative report come out of a major newspaper in that time. In fact, in light of some major non-newspaper broken stories, particularly in the Madoff case, that reporters even KNEW about what was going on, but DIDN’T report on it.

That’s how awesome old media newspapers are at investigative journalism. It doesn’t even need to be raining to get them off of a story. That’s what separates the “pros vs Jos” …

“When it’s raining, when it’s cold, when it’s too far away, the amateurs stay home and the pros go do the work.” But when it’s sunny, warm, and close-by, the pros take the day off and go do something else instead.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t rain as often as it’s sunny, so the pros get more time off.

Derek Kerton (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“You always miss the point Mike.”

No he didn’t. Your point is a different one – interesting, but different. Do you know why Mike gets to decide which is THE point, and which is not? Because it’s his blog, and that was his article.

So, since he wrote the article on his site, it is you who has missed the point. If you would like to determine what the point is, you should start your own blog.

Now, in arguing against your interesting point: true that TSG may not do a subsequent IR, but others will. Maybe the crowd can, and maybe the crowd cannot replace the paid journalists, but it certainly can augment, fill in the gaps, and tap into far more investigators than traditional journalism.

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Alan Gerow (profile) says:

Re: Re:

I disagree. I see no humor in it. I found prank phone calls mildly amusing when I was 11, but I don’t find them particularly funny now that I’ve grown-up and am having sex on a regular basis. Perhaps there’s a direct correlation there.

I mean the top members of Pranknet all live at home with their moms, or they’re almost twice as old as the ones that live at home with their moms … I doubt any of them have touched a breast, let alone found a woman to allow them to put their penis anywhere near them.

You’d figure with that large of a group of Mama’s Boys, they’d be a little more sensitive to embarrassing women in public.

Jon Healey says:

The medium is irrelevant

I’ve been a newspaper reporter for close to 30 years, and it surprises me that so many people view newspapers or “the mainstream media” as monolithic. It’s like any other business — there are talented journalists and not-so-talented ones. Investigation requires an unusual degree of energy and resourcefulness, but there are hacks in that field, too. More important, investigative pieces take time, and labor over time is expensive. The hand-wringing about “who will nail those corrupt bastards when newspapers all die” is really a concern about where the money is going to come from to cover the expense. Some newspapers have already given up on it, and some blogs (TSG being a case in point) have stepped into the breach with different business models.

Again, it all boils down to individual talent and the means to support it. If you look at the Pulitzer winning work over the years, you’ll find projects that took multiple hundreds of hours of labor. I don’t doubt that someone working for free could replicate that effort, under the right circumstances. But I don’t think that we’ll see much volume if we’re relying on volunteers. So the issue isn’t who’s going to do investigative journalism, or how the work will be distributed. The issue is how it’s going to be financed.

Mike Masnick (profile) says:

Re: The medium is irrelevant

Hey Jon,

Yup. I agree with you entirely… but I don’t think it’s that “big” of an issue. I think there are plenty of business models to pay for investigative journalism, and one of the points we keep making here is that we’re seeing a bunch of them pop up already.

At the same time, it’s worth noting how little is actually spent on investigative reporting by newspapers today. The big newspapers (including yours) may have decent budgets for that sort of thing, but even they’re pretty limited.

How many big investigative reports does a newspaper really break a year anyway?

We’re seeing lots of new models show up, and there will be plenty of ways to finance such investigative reporting.

Jon Healey says:

Re: Re: The medium is irrelevant

I hope you’re right about the proliferation of new ways to pay for investigative journalism, Mike, and I’m not saying that out of self-interest. I’m not an investigator. I would point out, tho, that the expense is considerable. Throw a couple people full-time at a project for three months, and even if there’s no travel cost you’re already spending upwards of $60,000 in a big market. But that isn’t the full cost — you also need to have people generating content to compensate for the productivity gap created by the investigators. With investigators, you’re paying full-time wages for folks who deliver fewer goods than a freelancer would produce.

Big news organizations can afford that kind of inefficiency (or at least they could back in the day) because they have a large staff of folks producing stuff on a daily or near daily basis. Investigative work is just one element in a stream of content. My hunch is that investigations will continue to be subsidized, rather than being a self-sustaining endeavor. That ties into the larger question of how companies will be able to afford to generate content that is unusually expensive to produce if the monetization models for journalism online are weak. If you attract as much or more traffic by breaking a story about the Octomom than you would by spending four months studying the declining health of the world’s oceans, and everything revolves around traffic, why would you invest in the latter? It enhances the brand, true, but is it worth the money? I really want the answer to be yes.

John Tedesco (user link) says:

Why newspapers matter

I work for a newspaper and I’ll be the first to tell you the Smoking Gun story was a brilliant piece of work. It was a unique topic and exhaustively reported. A true example of kick ass, accountability journalism.

But how often has the Smoking Gun produced these long stories? Once in a blue moon. That’s because they’re a Web publication with a small staff.

Despite what you might think, newspapers are consistently producing investigative stories like this that require a lot of time and money.

No one is saying newspapers have a monopoly on watchdog journalism. But newspaper reporters are the ones who do it most often. That’s why the decline of newspapers really matters.

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