Investigative Journalism Needs More Than Curation Tools May 19, 2011Posted by Bernard Lunn in Blogging, Journalism.
Investigative journalism is important to society, somebody needs to “speak truth to power”.
Historically the newspaper business was so profitable that it could fund long investigations. They could also take the risk of lawsuits that often resulted when the rich and powerful did not like the truth that was being reported. But today, those budgets are being cut to the bone and newspaper owners are too scared for their own survival to consider investigative projects.
Nor can the pure play online only blog-based businesses pick up the slack. They have to pander to page views and keep costs within the boundaries marked by ever-falling CPM and CTR ad rates. “Reporters” have to create 4 posts per day, usually around 500 words. Their best attempts at adding value to press releases are clearly no substitute for investigative journalism.
For a while, I thought that “citizen journalism” would be the answer. The idea was that any citizen can hit enter on their blog and the truth is revealed, they have no gatekeeper (who might be conflicted by their relationship with a special interest) who can say no.
The problem is that, for every honest citizen trying to do their best, there are way more spammers, scammers and paid hacks of the rich and powerful. So the consumer of news has to filter out the nuggets of truth from the mountains of rubbish. To do that they need well-trained and motivated journalists and editors. So we get back to square one.
Many techies dream of an automated answer, the perfect social curation filtering tool that will automagically assess every source’s credibility and only deliver the good stuff to your personalized online news service. Yep, and the high school student will find the cure for cancer in class and invent something that goes faster than the speed of sound.
I love how Andy Carvin at NPR is curating the news from the Arab revolutions using Twitter lists and other tools. The best tech bloggers, such as Marshall Kirkpatrick, have used these tools for a while, now we are seeing these tools used to report on matters that really matter to humanity. That is all great.
The danger is that we fall back into a naive view that technology will replace the need for people like Andy Carvin. Or that it is easy to get mainstream journalists to work the way he works. It maybe that this is something that is perfect for early adopters but won’t scale.
We need tools that empower trained journalists and editors, that help them to identify more credible sources and to efficiently get those sources to contribute. Those same tools can be used by citizen journalists. The tools must be very simple and very cheap, so that they are accessible to citizen journalists and local news operations. Exposing a $50,000 corruption at your local town hall matters just as much as the $500 million corruption at a national level when that $50,000 determines whether the school budget passes and your kids get art class.
I was initially sceptical about non-profit institutions getting involved. I thought that the answer had to come from the market. But I have been impressed by what ProPublica is doing and their model may be sustainable, as they get revenue from commercial news organizations. But we need more ProPublicas as well as purely commercial versions of ProPublica. For that to happen, we need a revolution in efficiency.
There needs to be something like a Moore’s Law of investigative journalism where the cost drops significantly every year.
Disclosure: this is the focus of ReportingLiveFrom, a new venture that I am co-founding. We are not yet ready to go live with our tools, I am writing about the issues to get our thinking clear and engage with other interested parties.