Thoughts on “Rebooting Investigative Journalism.”

Global Integrity
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In Rebooting Investigative Journalism, the always-thoughtful David Sasaki dives deeply into the challenge of how best to reinvigorate and support investigative journalism efforts around the world. Although David caveats the post by saying the Omidyar Network (where he works) has no firm plans to dive into the space as a donor, it's hard not to read this as a bit of a trial balloon (disclosure: Omidyar Network is a supporter of Global Integrity). This is worth watching with interest; the idea of another sophisticated donor investing in investigative reporting that is not named the Knight Foundation or Open Society Foundations intrigues me. We need some competition.

David happily invites a discussion and feedback on his ideas (which I won't summarize; please take the ten minutes to read his excellent post) so here are a few random thoughts from me:

A TAI-like mechanism could be helpful. The Transparency and Accountability Initiative — which brings together donors and NGOs/practitioners in the government transparency and accountability space — has quietly been a success in the past few years in helping to sharpen that community of practice's focus and ability to self-critique. David's idea for a similar mechanism for investigative journalism strikes me as a smart idea worthy of serious consideration. It's a low effort, high return investment.

Focus less on media organizations and more on reporters and editors. Sounds weird, but I think it's important to not obsess over media houses themselves and focus more on what it takes to train and support top-flight investigative reporters and editors, especially in countries where earning a living as a working journalist is nearly impossible without supplemental income or a second (or third, or fourth) job. In 10-15 years we may look out at a journalism landscape where the leading investigative reporters simply go off on their own (a la Andrew Sullivan). Putting too many eggs into the newsroom basket might be risky.

Explore disruptive ways of streamlining the investigative reporting career path. I cut my teeth professionally at the Center for Public Integrity, one of the original (and still great) non-profit investigative reporting organizations in the world. I didn't go to journalism school but picked up the tips of the trade on the job, thanks to some terrific editors and journalists that showed me the ropes. My stuff was covered in the New York Times, The Guardian, and the Washington Post before I was 22. And I was handed my first libel suit from Russian oligarchs around the same time.

At some point during my tenure at the Center, I asked one of the veteran editors whether I should consider investigative reporting as a career. I had a knack for it and was excited about the impact I was having. The response was sobering: no matter how good a young reporter was, you had to put in your time (a decade, maybe more) at several small- to medium-market news organizations before you'd ever crack the big leagues. Was there a shortcut, I asked? Not really, I was told.

That's precisely the moment when I decided that I wouldn't go into investigative reporting as a career.

My own narrative aside, I think this is a real barrier to innovation in the investigative reporting community: suppressing young and potentially disruptive reporters and editors from rising through the ranks quickly. Perhaps Omidyar Network could explore fellowships and/or other "fast track" programs that identify and nurture (and then accelerate) the next generation of data savvy, hard hitting investigative reporters and editors.

Break down the silos between investigative reporters and NGOs. (I acknowledge that the following is heretical in the journalism community, but I truly believe in this.) One of the great false dichotomies (in my view) that stymie many investigative reporters and their impact is the neuralgic obsession with forever proving they are unbiased, objective, and non-advocacy oriented. This is particularly true of American reporters but is a fairly common trait globally, almost to the point of being a mantra. "We don't do advocacy" is the bumper sticker version.

Reality is far more nuanced, however. The issues investigative reporters and editors choose to pursue are often agenda-drive selections that reflect biases and ideological bents. While there are plenty of funders willing to support an investigative project focused on environmental degradation or financial sector abuses, it's far more rare for funders (and investigative journalists) to invest in a series exploring corruption in labor unions, tort reform, or other "conservative" issues. While the best reporters' work is always unbiased in its factual accuracy and sourcing, the choice of stories themselves fuzzes the firewall between reporters and advocates.

Exploring ways in which investigative reporters and editors could better link up with research, policy, and advocacy groups would be a risky but potentially fascinating experiment. If nothing else, convening a gathering of some of the leading reporters and leading subject matter experts on a particular issue area to talk frankly about spaces for collaboration could be an intriguing first step.

— Nathaniel Heller

Global Integrity
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