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
    Weird Harold, 18 Mar 2009 @ 11:32am

    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.

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