BERKELEY — We are midway through the first day at the conference, “Crisis in News: Is There a Future for Investigative Reporting?” [You can read my earlier post from the conference here.] One thing that struck me here is that we have some serious bigwigs and executives at major media companies, like the New York Times, Washington Post, NPR, CBS and of course PBS. Are these the people who will really see the future of what will happen in investigative journalism? Maybe Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, who is also here, would know more. Or someone who is a digital native, someone doing a one-person blog. Where are these people? It rankles me sometimes when conferences go for the “big names” instead of the person on the ground doing the legwork.
I will try to bring up that point when I am a questioner on the web panel.
The first two panels, newspapers and broadcast, are now doing a Q&A with the audience. I jumped in with the first question: How much are you willing to do crowdsourcing and involve the audience in your investigative work?
Bill Keller, NY Times: We have done some of that and I’m sure we’ll do more. When Elizabeth Edwards was diagnosed with cancer, we had so many heartfelt, amazing comments online, that we did a story the next day based on their comments. Our story wouldn’t have been as good without those comments. I think we’re going to do more of that because we’re lucky, our audience is very smart.
Len Downie, Washington Post: We have done some polling on readers, and they sometimes allow us to contact them. It helps us decide on stories that are interesting to people, using that polling. I don’t know if you consider that crowdsourcing but we are doing some of that.
David Fanning, PBS Frontline: When we do a follow-up to the film, “Growing Up Online,” we are going to use the web to get lots of input for the follow-up to that. It makes sense for us to go online to get that input.
Q: Why do mainstream newsrooms not hire many minorities, I don’t see that many of them here.
Laurie Hays, WSJ: What do you suggest we do in order to get minorities?
Questioner: You could send minorities out to schools so that students see that minorities can get jobs. It would help break down the walls.
Brian Ross, ABC: We have hired some minorities into our investigative unit, and it has helped get us access to stories we wouldn’t have had previously. So it is a good thing to have minorities on our staff.
Q: Would you consider doing work with some non-profits who are doing investigative work? Partnering with them?
Bill Keller, NY Times: When I first heard about ProPublica, I was actually open to working with them. I think it depends if I can trust the person doing the work, and I could trust them, I know them. We would not want it to replace what we’re doing. But there are advantages to doing the work at big news organizations, because you are in touch with beat reporters who can help spark new stories, plus you have the backing and resources of a big organization and its legal help.
Jeff Fager, CBS: It works really well if you’re collaborating at an early stage. We had a great collaboration with the Washington Post in the fall, and it made all the difference.
Len Downie: I think the challenge for the non-profits is how can you get the partners involved at an early stage. We would ask, “Who are your sources? What is their credibility?” The challenge is seeing how those relationships are shaped that way.
Q: I am a lawyer, and I’m concerned about the Wall Street Journal’s direction and the recent takeover by Rupert Murdoch. I heard he doesn’t like stories that jump from page one. How will that square with long investigative reports?
Laurie Hays, WSJ: We do have a tradition of running fairly manageable, tight stories that tell a great deal. We have run recently a very long investigative piece on Merrill Lynch on how they doubled down in this mortgage crisis and got themselves in trouble, and it was very well received. Not all great journalism has to be long. Another story broken that week was about manipulation by London banks, and it was a 1,000 word story and it had tremendous impact and led to investigative reports. Not all hard-hitting journalism has to be long or take forever to get done.
The Journal is in transition, so keep watching.
The Web Panel
Last panel for today (whew) is the web panel, where I will be questioning panelists and trying to live blog and Twitter. The panelists are: Paul Grabowicz (UC Berkeley and Idea Lab), Jonathan Landman (NY Times), Sharon Tiller (PBS Frontline/World), and Jeff Leen (Washington Post).
Steve Talbot of Frontline is the moderator.
Talbot anecdote: You are mid career journalists and probably worried about your future. The technology drives so much of this. Whether we like it or not, we are in a digital age. If there’s a future, it will be online. My dad went off to join a circus as a magician’s assistant, and he traveled doing tent shows in the ’20s. But they were driven out of business by the advent of movies.
Warner Brothers were desperate for actors who could talk, for the new medium. So then he had a long career there. But then when Hollywood had its own depression in the ’50s, he went into a new medium in television and had a long career in there. Later in life, he went into theater when there was a revival for the theater. But none of those mediums went away. The world is changing and you can’t get in the way of technology.
Q: What can you do online that you can’t do in other mediums.
Paul Grabowicz, UC Berkeley: I think the Internet is a brand new medium, and we’re not pushing it far enough or fast enough. We’re seeing decimation on the regional front. What we see online is someone taking the print story or broadcast story, and put that online, and put up an extra video with a boring narration. That’s what we view as multimedia.
On the Internet, we have to think about breaking the story up, because people want to have that choice. With investigative reports, they usually end, but online, they go on and should have context — with other stories, whatever. Communities, we need to do this ahead of time. You can get the community engaged beforehand even telling them just the general topic of the story. What we need to think of databases as a way to make sense of the data, and give them contexts.
We also need to think about games, you might think it’s heresy. But when I hear about how reporters come up with a story, we never tell that to readers. So we could construct that as a game, and let people follow along on how the story was made.
Jonathan Landman, NY Times: Things are going well online. There are lots of opportunities and places I’d like to see us go. We need to go beyond getting tips from people online. We can do it in a more focused way, get networks of people who know something about a subject. it mimics the way a beat reporter gets sources.
Sharon Tiller, Frontline: All of our experimentation is going onto the web. So everything becomes an experimental part of our series. It’s very hard to do investigative reporting, to have experience with it. So we realized we needed partners and are doing work with the Center for Investigative Reporting.
Jeff Leen, Washington Post: A brief history of investigative reporting at the Post on the web. I’m a dinosaur who wants to crash onto the web. Eight years ago we wanted to do a collaboration with NBC News. I called Lowell Bergman to find out about it, and he said, “Why are you worried about that? You’ll be broadcasting with Washington Post TV on the web in a few years.”
Another idea came to me about games. I was investigating a murder at Starbucks and it was an 18-month hunt for the killer, and I got tapes from the interrogations, and thought I could almost do a game with that material. But I pulled back from it by the editor who didn’t want to lose it from the magazine for the web.
When we were doing the Citizen K Street series, we wanted to do it on the web because we had unlimited space. We could do 260 parts! That is the opportunity and the challenge. Next time, we hope we get more hits. We also have an investigative blog, and are trying to have a conversation with the reader. What online lacks is its Woodward and Bernstein, a breakthrough project.
Q: What about Wikileaks?
Jeff Leen: It doesn’t compare. Josh Marshall, a lot of what he did was aggregation, just too many blog posts to get through it. Josh describes it as an omniscient way of looking at things. We are thinking about doing that at the Post, but everything requires tremendous resources. We added a blog without adding staff, which is very hard to do.
David Washburn: My question is so much of what works online, citizen journalists, crowdsourcing, runs counter to what our grizzled editors say. Keep your stories to yourself. Are we rushing too much to go on the web?
Jonathan Landman, NY Times: I’m all about thinking things through. If you do, you can mobilize your readers, and think about how you do it, but do it in a way that doesn’t just throw things out there. Wikileaks is a good example of that. Our job is to add value. I don’t think these are things to consider.
Jeff Leen: I think the jury is still out about crowdsourcing, I still don’t see the Pentagon Papers. If it was the be all end all, we would all be doing it. Everyone talks about the Ft. Myers sewer project, and I can see that, but I don’t know if that can be done on bigger projects.
[UPDATE: See NYU’s Jay Rosen comment responding to Jeff Leen in the update appended below.]
Paul Grabowicz: An investigative piece can be broken into pieces, with links to more information online. You can do much more
Jonathan Landman: It’s easy to get carried away with these things. And I usually waggle my finger at everyone in the newsroom about digital things. If you are somewhere interviewing someone, and you have a videocamera, why not do that. It’s simple.
Steve Talbot: Yes, people complain about having to do video, photos, audio, but it’s very rare that someone can do a one-man band. It takes a special skill to do video, and there’s a lot of bad video online.
Sharon Tiller: Everyone coming out of Berkeley has at least two skills. They are video reporters, or most of our broadcast stories are done by two people — one reporter and one video producer.
Q: Can the web bring in money for your operations?
Jonathan Landman: Well yes, it’s making money for us, but you have to be careful with that because the costs are still going to the newspaper. And it’s not self-sustaining, it’s not even close.
Paul Grabowicz: It’s very troubling, looking at the way newspaper companies are not making as much money. The nationals are not looking as bad. But in the regional metros, they are getting killed. And E&P had a view of time spent on newspaper sites and they were largely flat or down.
Landman: I would caution about that metric, because if someone is searching and searching on a site, they might spend more time, but it’s not a good experience. So measurement is still in its very early stages, it is very primitive.
Steve Talbot: This has been a surprisingly good discussion. [audience laughs]
Unfortunately, on Day 2 of the conference (really just a half day with one panel), I wouldn’t get online to live blog. However, I did manage to send a lot of micro-blog posts to Twitter. You can check them out here (anything with an April 27 date on it).
This panel was about the non-profit model for investigative journalism, and the main attraction was Paul Steiger, formerly of the Wall Street Journal, who now has raised $10 million to start ProPublica. The non-profit will have a newsroom of reporters who will produce material that will be initially given away to big newspapers and other outlets with a goal of getting the widest distribution possible.
Lowell Bergman, the ringleader of the conference, was the moderator of the panel. He noted that one of the biggest things to come out of the conference was both the New York Times and Washington Post publicly promising to work more collaboratively with each other and competitors. In other words, if a Times piece follows on original reporting from the Post, it would mention the other work (maybe even link to it online?) and build on it.
This type of collaboration happens all the time online among bloggers, so it’s nice to see that mentality seep into mainstream media work.
Overall, I thought the conference included some of the leading lights in investigative journalism, both editors and reporters and non-profits. Having Google CEO Eric Schmidt and Craigslist founder Craig Newmark there as audience members helped lend even more star power to the gathering.
Could the group have used a bit more new thinking from innovators who are on the edges, independent and doing things differently than the big boys? Definitely. As Bergman told me during the dinner on Saturday, “I had asked Josh Marshall [of TalkingPointsMemo] to join us, but he was about to have a baby — or at least his wife was — so he couldn’t come.” Maybe next time they can rectify that missing element.
UPDATE: I heard from NYU’s Jay Rosen via email, and he responded to Jeff Leen’s comment about crowdsourcing:
So crowdsourcing isn’t the Pentagon Papers. But who said it was? Is that really an attempt to understand something? It seems to me an attempt to ward something off. Even more odd is, “If it was the be all end all, we would all be doing it.” Who said crowdsourcing is the “be all and end all?” Who even suggested it?
No one really suggested it. I think it was a way of dismissing crowdsourcing, similar to the way he dismissed TalkingPointsMemo as not really doing investigative journalism. I think Leen and others would prefer things to be the way they always were. Anything new and different is often looked at as being “not good enough” and not matching a standard from the past. Why can’t new forms of journalism, like crowdsourcing, ciitizen journalism, and the like, exist alongside traditional methods? Can’t both work and be valid?