Sunday, July 26, 2009

New Trends in Investigative Reporting

One of the most striking things I noticed at the recent conference of Investigative Reporters and Editors in Baltimore was the depth of the media crisis in the U.S.

It seemed every second or third person I met had been laid off, repositioned or downsized in recent months. This also included the speakers at the various sessions. One presenter said he was one of two surviving members of a local TV investigative unit that had 11 employees. Another talented reporter at a Florida newspaper was let go earlier in the year, despite her consistently strong enterprise work. One colleague who has done outstanding work over the years is considering getting out of journalism altogether following the shutdown of her newspaper.

Len Downie, former executive editor of the Washington Post, took part in a fascinating discussion with Bob Woodward. He talked about the dominance of the newspaper industry for the last half century. In many cases, the business model was so rich that no single advertiser could dictate terms to an editor or publisher who wanted to do challenging journalism. That might be so, but even then if often took the alternative media and some courageous individual practitioners to push the mainstream media in the right direction. Still, Downie maintains it was a unique golden era that has now vanished. And he said it's not going to return.

Leavening this grim atmosphere was a feeling at the conference that there are new models springing up which could point a way forward for investigative work. These are publicly-funded enterprises that raise money from universities, foundations, and sometimes users themselves. There is a certain irony in seeing that in the land of free enterprise, where public broadcasting ranks lowest in the world in terms of state support, there is now an interest in a public journalism model.

This comes at a time when public broadcasters are facing their own set of financial challenges. But the new models don't depend directly on government support. Through alliances with universities, and by strategically linking with non-profit foundations, investigative reporting centres have sprung up in several U.S. locations.

Now comes news that Britain is following the lead of the United States in establishing an independent investigative journalism fund.

A number of prominent British journalists have banded together to create The Investigations Fund, supporting public interest journalism. Its mission: "to support the sort of investigation of grass root stories and services that is dying by the minute as local newspapers are hit hard; and to support those many stories of vital public interest in Britain that have an important international connection, particularly in the developing world, but where the costs of chasing down the truth may seem prohibitively high."

The Potter Foundation in Britain has provided two million pounds to create a bureau of investigative journalism in connection with the initiative.

It will be interesting to follow how this trend develops. In Canada, there is a new Canadian Centre for Investigative Reporting that has recently achieved charitable status. It will now need to tap into substantial funding sources to be able to commission some ambitious projects.

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