Saturday, July 11, 2009

Don't Bother with the Investigative Journalism "Strike Force" Idea

Reports say that the summit of nonprofit news organizations that met at the Rockefeller estate at the beginning of July discussed the idea of setting up an investigative journalism "mobile strike force" that could be deployed anywhere in the country, to pick up the slack on investigative reporting that, by all accounts, is falling by the wayside in these tight-budget days.

It's a lovely idea. But news organizations will actually get a lot farther a lot faster if they invest their energy and ingenuity elsewhere.

It's clear why the idea is compelling: In these days when newspapers are cutting back, when local journalism is suffering, when the scaling back on reporting is "putting democracy in jeopardy," wouldn't it be lovely to have an expert strike team to be able to swoop in and rescue the locals? Yes, it would. But it's neither practical nor, actually, is it ideal.

  • First, ask yourself: Who's going to fund this?

    OK, you might get the Knight Foundation or some other organization to pony up the funds for a novel idea like this for a year or two. But after that? You need a sustainable business model, and right now, I don't see one. Unless you get a coalition of newspapers to fund it. But I imagine that after they did an ROI analysis of the returns they get out of supporting a strike force that, most of the time, will not be doing any journalism in their neck of the woods, those newspapers will decide their money could be better spent elsewhere.

  • Next: ask yourself: Is a group of outsiders really the best team to look into local issues?

    Or, turn this around, ask yourself: How much further ahead could you get if, instead of bringing in outsiders, you figured out how to leverage insiders? Think of the pro-am approach Amanda Michel is spearheading at ProPublica and that Robert Rosenthal has talked about doing on the Center for Investigative Reporting's California project. Instead of looking back to the old days, when communities relied on hotshot investigative reporters to break open corruption and wrongdoing, news organizations should be looking to the more recent model of crowdsourced reporting--of the kind Talking Points Memo did in uncovering the U.S. Attorneys scandal--and figure out how to leverage the informed and motivated people within their own communities to bring issues to light that need to be brought to light.

The value that experienced investigative reporters bring is their understanding of how to do investigative reporting. But most of the hour-by-hour work they--placing requests for documents and sifting through them--is work any reasonably intelligent person could do. So, just as accountants can now outsource low level accounting tasks to India so that U.S. accountants can focus on higher-level tasks, we don't need investigative reporters to do the whole soup-to-nuts part of investigations anymore. Yes, we need their expertise in the form of guidance or mentoring. But much of the work can be done by motivated readers.

Instead of spending a lot of time dreaming about some fantasy team of super-reporters to rescue them, news organizations should start rescusing themselves: By investing in developing pro-am methods of gathering and interpreting the news.

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