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.

Filed Under: investigative journalism, journalism, local news
Companies: chi town daily news, talking points memo, voice of san diego


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  1. identicon
    John Zhu, 19 Mar 2009 @ 7:14am

    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, http://tinyurl.com/cy45qa. 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.

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