DIY investigative journalism – just add source

Debra Jopson is an investigative journalist at the Sydney Morning Herald. In a company about to sack over 7% of its editorial staff, that makes her an endangered species. Understandably, she’s pessimistic about the future of her profession. "I’m sitting inside the Herald right now waiting for the axe to fall on all these people."

"How a newspaper that has relied on all those journalists can continue to sustain an investigative team I’m not sure."

And it’s not just Fairfax, she says. "The same thing is happening in newspapers around the world."

American print journalists lost more sleep than usual last month when shareholders in the iconic Knight Ridder newspaper chain urged the board to put the company up for sale. The newspaper business is actually more profitable than many other industries, but in the share market profit isn’t good enough – there must also be the potential for growth. As circulations continue to fall, so do the share prices.

Some argue that the industry is locked in a vicious cycle – that readers are abandoning newspapers because of the very same cost-cutting measures that tend to be proposed in the face of falling readerships.

Jopson says that the only thing that could save investigative journalism at the Herald would be a conscious decision to invest in the kind of reporting that differentiates a "quality journal" from "undigested information from the net and the great blah of news that spews forth from all the news and current affairs programs".

"But it just depends on how the management decides to go. They say staff costs are high, but it’s just a bunch of underpaid journalists and net connections & phones…It isn’t really that expensive compared to our chief executive who cost $4 million to get rid of" (Fairfax CEO Fred Hilmer recently left the company with a golden handshake amidst much criticism).

"What’s the product of a coal mine? Coal. What’s the product of a news organisation? Information and news."

Readers and journalists may agree with Jopson, but the shareholders don’t. The average newspaper makes 80% of its revenue from advertising, and only 20% from circulation – in fact the sale price of a paper is often less than the cost of printing it. News organisations don’t make a profit selling papers to readers, but by selling audiences to advertisers. Most editors and probably even most CEOs don’t think like this, but they are under pressure to act as if they do.

When newspaper managers scan their balance sheets looking for ways to do more with less, it would be surprising if the cost of investigative journalism didn’t draw their attention. The kind of groundbreaking stories that investigative journalists produce are slow and resource-intensive. Jopson produces perhaps four in-depth investigations a year, and she’s one of just two investigative journalists left at the Herald. So far, the paper has played Noah’s ark with its investigative unit, preserving a symbol of quality against a time when the flood waters recede.

Jopson says that the public need for in-depth journalism is so great that it will never be abandoned for long. "If we leave the wheel of investigative journalism behind then it will probably end up being rediscovered, because it’s necessary in a democracy."

Fans of online ‘citizen media’ projects would argue that this is already happening. Frustrated with the state of the mainstream media, bloggers, NGOs, and open-publishing projects like indymedia have all tried to fill the gap in different ways.

But Jopson says there’s a limit to what non-professional journalists can do. "In the long run the reader still needs to have the news digested. If anyone sees a live press conference on TV people will say ‘oh that’s boring’ – that’s what we go through all the time, we just get out the good bits for you."

"Eventually I think people will realise that it’s not that fun to go surfing the net by yourself and just turn up a bunch of shemozzle."

Even if individuals and NGOs could produce investigative stories, "how can they afford to?" asks Jopson. "To spend three months on one story is a big investment – what sort of freelance rates would you get for that? What sort of an organisation could support it?"

One organisation trying to answer that question is the Centre for Media and Democracy in the US, which produces the quarterly investigative journal PR Watch and the wiki-based investigative site SourceWatch. Edited by Australian journalist Bob Burton, SourceWatch is an encyclopedia of the "people, organisations and issues shaping the public agenda". The site runs on the same ‘collaborative software’ as the well-known Wikipedia, but focuses on the under-reported fields of public relations, think-tanks, and front groups.

As with Wikipedia, anyone can edit the "pages" of the SourceWatch encyclopedia, and anyone can post new entries. Since its launch in 2003 the site’s thousands of contributors have created a total of over 8800 articles. "No special background is needed to become part of the growing SourceWatch community", says a promotional brochure, "all you need is the desire to collaborate on a project dedicated to increasing public scrutiny of powerful institutions, exposing the manipulation of public opinion by government and industry, and strengthening our democracy."

These sentiments would be familiar to any investigative reporter, and Bob Burton says that SourceWatch can be a powerful tool for practicing journalists. "I don’t see it as an alternative (to mainstream journalism), but a tool where its strength complements the limits you face in your work."

"It’s like having a research assistant help you on topics. If a journalist builds up a profile as an occasional contributor, then other people who are regulars can see what their interests are." Other users of the site will then add facts, quotes, links, and sources to the pages that a journalist has started – or pass on tips and leads through their ‘talk page’.

Given that anyone can edit the site, the first question most journalists ask is ‘how can you know it’s accurate?’

The site is regularly patrolled by Burton and by volunteer ‘sysops’, who remove vandalism, spam, and malicious edits. The rest is up to the community. "Our aim is to be ‘fair, accurate & referenced’" says Burton. "The advantage to that is that you can go back and check whether a quote was taken out of context. Rather than saying ‘trust us we’re the experts’, it’s saying ‘don’t trust us – follow the link. If we’ve got it wrong we’ll change it – or you can change it yourself".

By sacrificing control over content, the site gains the benefit of the simple, instantaneous participation of a vast pool of contributors, who can collaborate in building a resource that gets more comprehensive and accurate over time.

It’s not always Walkley award-winning stuff – SourceWatch isn’t going to write your story for you – but what it can do is help break the back of complex, involved stories that require intensive background research. And, says Burton, that’s exactly what today’s under-resourced, overworked journalists need.

"If as an individual journalist you’re trying to pull all that stuff together, the benefit is that it saves you time. It provides a good solid platform, and instead of doing background research you can do further original research, freeing up time to contribute more in each story you do".

"Of course it can also work the other way, I can do my story faster and package what’s already there. Where you have interested citizens contributing you’ve got more eyes and ears doing some of the work for you."

While he understands that many journalists are reluctant to work collaboratively, Burton says they need to recognise that "there’s a big pool of people out there who have given up on the mainstream media, and they have the skills and education to – if not do the whole job – at least contribute to it."

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