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A Million ProPublicas Now! We Need A Moore’s Law Of Investigative Journalism #futureofnews #wjchat May 31, 2011

Posted by Bernard Lunn in Uncategorized.

ProPublica seems to be getting traction with their model. Not everybody loves ProPublica; because they are funded by George Soros people assume that they tend to lean left (and maybe they do, and if they do, I don’t care I tend to lean left as well – there, my bias is disclosed). But the point is we don’t want to rely on ProPublica. Maybe you want the Koch brothers to fund the right wing version. Or maybe you think ProPublica is too western oriented, or not left wing enough.

The diversity of hundreds of investigative journalism teams was an underpinning of our freedom in the west in the 20th Century. There is a reason George Soros funded ProPublica; he escaped from the Nazi regime, so he understands how important it is to have a free, open society and that a free press is vital to that.

For a while we worried about the concentration of power in a few media barons. The idea that somebody like Rupert Murdoch could tell an editor what story to run was unsettling. Frankly I thought those fears were exaggerated. Murdoch is a businessman. If he lets his newspapers and TV channels simply parrot his opinions he will lose a lot of money. The bigger risk was always that Murdoch simply served us what we wanted and that tended to be sports and entertainment. The ROI on investigative journalism was weak.

And then…..

The already weak ROI got decimated, literally, when a $1 in a print/TV ad returned as $0.10 online.

The problem was always economics. But pre-Web, it was a case of a frog in a slowly burning pot of water. Now we have reached the boiling point.

Ain’t it great. Anybody can be a journalist. Just press Publish in WordPress and voila, instant-media-baron

Oops, no, we just replaced Murdoch with Zuckerberg. You need the  traffic from Facebook and Facebook set the ad rates for the rest of us, so we need to cater to mass-market interests like sports and entertainment. Try funding a 3 month in-depth investigation on today’s CPM rates. Actually, don’t try it, save yourself the hassle, the experiment is not worth it.

Its. OK, paywalls will work, we will all pay subscriptions like we used to in print

Err, yes, and you still believe in Santa Claus? Subscriptions work for business subjects, the FT is OK, in the business world, time is money. Yes we “should” be happy paying for the journalists in Iraq, but we don’t in practice.

Ok, so for all believers in magic and fairies, here is another one:

Unpaid “citizen journalists” will fill the gap as they don’t have to worry about making a living and they will only present verified facts and declare their interests and biases.

Business 101 says that if revenue is coming down, you need to cut costs. The answer today is simply to cut out investigative journalism. Anybody who thinks that is a problem has to be thinking about how we decimate the costs of investigative journalism. I am using the literal meaning of decimate – cut costs from 100% to 10%. That is what has happened to ad revenue.

That needs something like a Moore’s Law, where costs halve every year. That will enable thousands, maybe even millions, of small investigative journalists to operate in a sustainable way. See a story that you think is big? Investigate it, write it, sell it to one or multiple news outlets, keep the copyright and then, Pulitzer in hand, write the book and go on the speaking circuit. Look at Matt Taibbi as a recent success story. OK, that maybe a fairy story as well, few will actually make this happen. But, if Moore’s Law can decimate the costs of investigative journalism, its not out of reach. .

Actually, I think that this is possible. Technology, which is causing the economic problem, is also capable of creating the solution. Methinks it will look something like this pyramid:

The top of the pyramid remains the trained and paid journalist. Those skills matter. Experience matters. Focus matters. But they need to be able to leverage the rest of the pyramid.

The old stringer deal was a retainer. That is probably dead. “Stringer 2.0” is likely to be more on a per piece basis. The best stringers may make more money this way, if they happen to be where some big news is breaking and they have that all-important “nose for a story” (as well as guts and determination, real journalism is dangerous). But lets not confuse Stringers with the next layer. Stringers want cash. They must be able to sell copyright on commercial terms.

Citizen Journalist is a term that is past its sell by date. I don’t have a better word than “citizen” for now. But lets at least replace Journalist with Reporter. They report facts that they observe. These “facts” maybe untrue – that is the journalist’s job to uncover. What the Citizen Reporter wants is for the facts to be published. It matters more to them that a dictator is toppled than who makes money from the news. They may want their name published or they may want to remain anonymous and they should be able to make that clear in their report.

The bottom layer is the automation of all the context and background. This is where the semantic web and aggregation tools come into play. We should be able to spend money on the new and the original, the background stuff should be free and automated.

Disclosure: that is the focus of ReportingLiveFrom and this has not been launched yet. For more background, see these earlier posts:

Investigative journalism needs more than curation tools

Twitter is not enough: 6 needs of investigative journalism

Reporter Journalist Editor Publisher: the blurring of roles



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