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From AJR,   April/May 2013  issue

At an Investigative Reporting Conclave, Excitement about the State of Play   

Despite the cutbacks at traditional news outlets, there are ample reasons for optimism.Mon., April 15, 2013.


By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

Journalism and optimism are a couple of isms that haven't appeared much in the same sentence in recent years.

But optimism was flowing freely at the annual Logan International Reporting Symposium at the University of California, Berkeley.

On Sunday, at the conference's wrap-up panel on the state of investigative reporting, news executives at outlets involved in the important endeavor expressed great excitement about the state of play.

The backdrop: As the digital revolution has rolled over legacy news organizations, many have sharply reduced their staffs. That has taken a severe toll on accountability journalism, which is time-consuming and labor-intensive. Countless reports (including an extensive one in AJR), articles and panel discussions have focused on the carnage and its dark implications for democracy.

But transformation has brought with it some major upsides, which was the cause of the buoyancy during the discussion in Berkeley's J-school library.

Among them: the advent of many new players in the investigative reporting game; the instant access via a click to huge troves of data that would have been unimaginable in the much-lamented golden era; the astonishing array of new ways of presenting information in a multimedia world; the benefits of crowdsourcing; and a perceived appetite on the part of the public for deep-dive enterprise reporting, along with the notion that it just might be very good for business.

The mood crystallized after moderator Jack Shafer, who writes about the media for Reuters, asked the panelists if they could choose between going back to those high-profit, large-staffed days of yesteryear or staying where we are, what would they do?

The unanimous response was perfectly summed up by Keith Summa, vice president of news partnerships at Univision: "No way in hell we want to go back. This is a golden age."

Added Stephen Engelberg, editor-in-chief of ProPublica, "The glass is not full, but it's not as empty as it was a few years ago."

Both of their organizations represent manifestations of the emerging order. ProPublica, a nonprofit investigative news outlet founded in in 2008, publishes its work on its own Web site but also frequently teams up with other news organizations. It has done a great deal of valuable journalism. And fears that its bankrolling by the liberal Sandler family might be problematic have proven baseless.

The Spanish-language television network Univision is partnering with ABC to launch Fusion, a 24-hour news and entertainment channel aimed at English-speaking Hispanics. Once it's up and running later this year, Summa said, ABC, Univision and Fusion will be airing investigative reports aimed at three different audiences.

One factor fueling the optimism is the sense that the public is hungry for accountability reporting, and that focusing on it can be part of a sound business strategy. Engelberg said there is "now a commercial imperative to do this kind of work."

David Boardman, executive editor of the Seattle Times, agreed. Boardman's paper is an example of a legacy news outlet that has continued to stress investigative reporting in spite of the industry's financial challenges.

It's critical, Boardman said, to "build content that people can't get anywhere else," especially high-impact public service journalism. And, predicted Boardman, whose paper recently started charging for digital content, people will pay for it.

(Similarly, there's also a quite healthy market for muckraking books, Priscilla Painton, executive editor, nonfiction, at Simon & Schuster, said at a previous panel.)

Another element of the new order is that news organizations now work together on investigative projects. This was unthinkable in the good old days, when journalists tended to see themselves as lone rangers, but smaller staffs have weakened the resistance to collaboration.

Boardman said that the practice "was far more positive than negative." But he added that it was much more prominent among national players . "You don't see a lot of effective collaboration at the local level," he said.

Engelberg, whose organization has had more than 150 different partners in various projects, cautions that "every collaboration has a downside." When strong-willed journalists from different outlets are working together, there are going to be disagreements along the way. In each case, he advised, it's necessary to closely weigh the cost/benefit ratio.

Added Associated Press Senior Managing Editor Michael Oreskes, "Someone has to be in charge."

But whether it's in tandem or solo, it's critical for news outlets to be pursuing accountability journalism.

"We're at a turning point," Oreskes said. "It's essential that the work we do be distinctive."