BERKELEY — The second day of the Logan Symposium at UC Berkeley is more of a half-day with one panel devoted to the future of investigative journalism and a brunch at the Frontline World offices near campus. Just like last year, I had trouble getting an Internet connection in the journalism school library so had to live-Twitter the panel and put up this blog post later. (You can see the earlier report on yesterday’s sessions here.)
The panel was lively, and included a lot of optimism for the future of investigative journalism despite the business cratering for newspapers and their investigative journos. The panel was moderated by Lowell Bergman, and included David Fanning of PBS Frontline, Esther Kaplan of the Nation Institute, Bill Keller of the NY Times, Chuck Lewis at American University, Robert Rosenthan of the Center for Investigative Reporting, and Buzz Woolley, chairman of the board and primary funder of Voice of San Diego. The following are my notes from the panel.
Robert Rosenthal, CIR: Last year I said the business model for newspapers was toast. Now I believe that collaboration is going to be very important for profit and nonprofit journalism, it doesn’t mean there won’t be compeition. We will be at CIR getting money from Hewlett and Irvine foundation for local and regional reporting. In Sacramento there was 80 reporters and now there are only 20 reporters left. I met a lot of remarkable people here in California.
I met Buzz Woolley and we need more people like him. The Sandlers have done that with ProPublica. When we talk about collaboration, when I ran the Philly Inquirer we could put together big teams. Now with VoiceofSanDiego we can look at documents together, and that shows millions of dollars of funding that isn’t accounted for in San Diego. So we show ourselves sharing data with other organizations so they can do the work. We’re teaming with KQED as well.
We have to reach audiences the way people want to be reached. The technological advances are moving at a fast pace and I didn’t think it would be as bloody as its been out in the marketplace. I’m quite optimistic about the future, and we’re going to be hiring.
Bill Keller, NYT: The business model isn’t toast but it is in the toaster. [laughter] I don’t think investigative journalism will go away, and there is emerging media that will be partly profit, partly non-profit, partly collaborative, partly competitive, mainly online. There’s ProPublica and it has ties to the mainstream media. My optimism has a caveat: transitions are messy. It’s a great time to be 25 and get into journalism as long as you don’t mind living near the poverty line and you don’t mind about pension and health insurance, you are on the verge of something that’s exciting as it was when I was 20 years old. The caveat is that there are a lot of people who are 50 who are talented and will be out of work which will be a major loss.
While the old is figuring out a new model and the new is starting out, there are a lot of stories that won’t be told.
Buzz Woolley, funder of Voice of San Diego: My biggest nonprofit experience was in K-12 education. I had a totally different background than others on the panel, and I wanted to get better coverage of education and city issues, and the Union-Tribune wasn’t even covering the city council meetings. If we dont’ have good information, how do we run a civil society.
Blogs aren’t edited very well, I like the newspaper. Because of my background in venture capitalist, I knew about creative destruction. People would come out with new technology and blow up other companies, that’s what I was doing in the ’80s and ’90s. So how do we use this? We came up with one example, and I don’t pretend to come here to tell all you experienced journalists how to do it. Now we are inundated with people asking us how we do it. I would like to set up a trade association and I would support it to disseminate information to people all around the country who are dealing with this as their newspapers are closing.
The theme of the conference seems to be collaboration and there’s one aspect that hasn’t been discussed. I only started working with news organizations but my take is that there’s little collaboration within the organization. [laughter] I came in trying to solve a problem in San Diego and we hire the journalists, and they say, ‘you’re the business guy stay out of it.’ I don’t have an agenda and ask them to do anything liberal or conservative and I won’t give any money to political campaigns. I finally got the guys running this to think of themselves as a team. I have a guy who’s CEO and he spends time doing community outreach, and we’re like a technology company trying to beat the big guys. We’re all on the same team, and you need a lot of skills.
This is not a top-down organization even though I started it. I started it to have a community funded model.
Chuck Lewis, American University: We have a new entity that is the Investigation Workshop. We’re doing traditional muckraking and doing it with mainstream news organizations. Wendell Cochran is working on this with me, we were looking at banks and their dealings with the FDIC. We have grad students working on this. The new models part, we have the I-Lab and are incubating new models and working on three projects. I’m now on 6 more boards this year than last year, many non-profits have called and have asked for advice.
We have a long tradition with non-profit journalism, the AP is a non-profit, NPR is non-profit, but investigative journalism doesn’t have as long of a history, the Center for Public Integrity and ProPublica which started recently. New non-profits are springing up all over the U.S. — the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, and are forming as we speak, in Boston, in Texas and Colorado and other places and they’re all looking for advice. The university model is important. When NPR started they realized that public radio was mainly in universities, so there’s a long history of collaboration.
Some are c(3)s some are stand-alone, some are at universities and some will be hybrids, and I’m particularly interested in hybrids. I predict there will be $40 million spent in non-profit journalism within a few years.
Esther Kaplan, The Nation Institute Investigative Fund: We started the fund because there was a lot of opinion online but not enough reporting. These are media outlets that have very different agendas than the big guns. Just in the last year, what we’re doing has begun to shift. I feel like the social safety net for laid off journalists — TARP assistance for media reporters. Of those 10,000+ laid off journalists, some will get hired by CIR, most will be freelancers so we want to provide backup helping people place their stories in places like Mother Jones, New York Review of Books, be that editor that can be a sounding board for writers.
We do help with FOIA, libel review, and capture that energy that new writers have and give them institutional support. As far as partnerships, they are in their infancy, and every partnership with media organizations takes a lot of work. We should consider a lot more, like joint investigation sites, shared technology for micro-financing.
One of the things I’m most concerned about is where is the farm team for investigative reporting. I came out of the alternative weeklies and small regional dailies. The opportunity to be in those places to learn your chops is very restricted now. I’ve become more preoccupied with mentoring young journalists and bring along young women and people of color who have the appetite for this stuff but don’t have the place to learn the trade.
David Fanning, PBS Frontline: How is collaboration changing? I think partnerships have done lots of co-productions with Britain and Europe, but if they’re set up with executives they work less than if they are between individuals who trust each other.
I want to say something about freelance journalists feeling lonely — I feel lonely as well. I feel very separate from other PBS shows and NPR is very self-contained and doesn’t play well with others. There are others like PRI that have been better about partnerships. Public TV is in a crisis because we are facing a disruptive moment because we have a shift from broadcasting to something new. Public Media 2.0 is coming and there’s some real interesting changes coming. In the 21st century, would you create this collection of so many stations and licenses?
A few billion dollars here or there would make a huge difference in journalism. I was at the Aspen Institute at a gathering, and I was shocked to hear that everyone thought that the central attribute of public media should be journalism. The great difficulty is getting all these people to partner together. I propose we create a third space where we can work together, aggregating our assets in one place, that’s a simple idea. You could aggregate beyond that, with other news organizations that aggregate cleverly around original content. But that isn’t enough. That would just be a grab-bag.
My proposal is that you think very big with a new editorial entity, with foundation funding and public broadcasting money, and I think ProPublica is a model for that. If I look in that newsroom and see robust editorial coming out of that, I am very heartened and could see that being 4 or 5 stories a week. You take people who have taken the buyouts from the Washington Post or elsewhere, and say, ‘come to this space and create a world-class journalism institute.’ If you set that as a goal and produce first rate journalism and do it with a low bar, you can create a journalistic network pretty quickly. You can see the way Phil Balboni has done that with GlobalPost.
I think it would be game-changing for the other news outlets. I would love to work for and with an organization of that quality. I would like to see what it does to programs like the Newshour. I visited St. Louis public TV recently and they put the new St. Louis Pioneer into their space, and the radio station is moving into the same building. If you put that together in certain places where there are entrepreneurial skills, then the local communities will have a stake in it.
Q: What’s your reaction to what you’re hearing, Bill Keller?
Keller: As far as public journalism space, mostly I’m a consumer and don’t know the ins and outs of public broadcasting. On the larger theme of collaboration, we have collaborated before with Frontline and ProPublica and for a long time have worked with freelancers who bring us stuff. We suck them into the institution for the duration of the project. We will do more of that on an experimental basis.
I’m wary of us putting too much effort into working with others, and not putting enough resources in our own people at the Times. Competition does help people dig deeper and I’d hate to see people lose that edge in working together too much.
We’ve had projects recently that has the gestation period of a llama and a half. Obviously the downturn has affected our newsroom, we lost 100 people. The idea that you can do more with less is ridiculous. You try to give up what’s least consequential for readers. Everyone at the Times newsroom is working harder and are spread thin.
We’re not going to cut our foreign staff, we won’t pull out of Baghdad. We did pull
out of New Jersey and are focused more on New York.
My question: What about conflicts of interest? Buzz, would you be OK with Voice of San Diego doing an investigative report about your finances? Would ProPublica be OK with doing an investigation into the Sandlers who funded them?
Buzz Woolley: They said I would be comfortable about an expose on my best friends. NPR interviewed me and asked me about it. How would I feel if they did a report on me? I would be fine with it.
Bergman: What about ProPublica, do they want to answer that?
Paul Steiger, ProPublica: We would report on them if we found anything worth reporting on, and we haven’t found anything.
Herb Sandler: I’m happy they haven’t done that, but as a board member I have no idea what stories they are working on.
Q from Tom Fuentes: Much has been said about the production of news, and how do you evaluate the impact of different media? Frontline is on TV and how is that different than what a newspaper puts out or blogs put out?
Fanning: It’s obvious that in the digital space we get the big bang of the broadcast and can drive traffic to the website. We recently did a film on Hugo Chavez and there was an election after that, and we had 500,000 video views before the broadcast and 1.5 million after the broadcast. A Venezuelan TV station took our feed online and put it on the air and we got them to pay a small fee for it.
Q: How can you involve the audience more?
Lewis: We did a book called “Citizen Muckraking” in the ’90s about people who did work on their own and dug up information. I’d like to do that in a bigger way. What Ft. Myers did about insurance payments, there was palpable anger and the paper could never have covered that story without the public working on it. That’s the best example I’ve seen and it offers me immense hope.
Bergman: I think Joseph Pulitzer published all the public assessments in 1905, and caused a storm back then that was similar.
Q: What about the legal implications of doing collaborations?
Bergman: Last year after this panel we had a meeting with some lawyers, and we now have a committee of legal experts who are helping non-profits by doing pro bono reviews before publication. It’s very complicated to deal with legal issues if you don’t have a lead organization like the New York Times, it would be a long process for other organizations to deal with that. It will have to evolve over the next number of years. It’s something that ABC and CBS and other legacy media have had to deal with for awhile…
Rhonda Schwartz, ABC: I didn’t think of ourselves as “legacy media,” it makes me feel so old…
Q: Should we take money taken from corruption cases and give it to news organizations to do investigative work?
Woolley: The more we stay away from government funding, the better. I wouldn’t like us to be in a place where we get public funding.
Fanning: If you want to create public media, then you do have to get government funding, but it has to be de-politicized. The problem currently is that it is very politicized, and the U.S. chose that Germany and Japan had strong public broadcasting post-war, but it was orphaned in the U.S. because media companies didn’t want to deal with the competition. And in the U.K. they have the strongest public broadcaster anywhere. I think you still have to get public funding in some way.
Rosenthal: I think it’s a crucial question and the debate is heightening now and it’s something we will have to sit down and discuss.
Q: Should we have standards set for journlism now?
Lewis: That’s a tough question. Our tradition is to not have any standards. [laughter] We have resisted having the government accredit people, and we know there are a lot of people blogging and it’s very hard to define who is a journalist. So it can occur, and some people get accreditation to cover Congress. Realistically it’s not going to happen. Journalism schools were created a century ago because people said there has to be standards, but I didn’t go to journalism school. I still think it comes down to consumers having multiple sources and finding the information they need.
Fanning: Editing is at the heart of what we do. Curating of stories with an editorial process does lend a good housekeeping stamp of approval for people moving across the ether for places they can trust.
Q: Journalists are good at storytelling, and I’m a post-graduate fellow and we’re not very good at understanding technology and new business models. Are CIR and Buzz tapping the best minds in Silicon Valley and are thinking differently?
Rosenthal: We are doing that exactly. We know what we don’t know, and we’re in conversations with Google people and venture capitalists. These new models, what didn’t work in newspapers is that the newsroom and business sides that didn’t work together, they were adversaries. A key question for all of us is how we create sustainability. Especially here in the Bay Area, there’s innovation everywhere, so we will pull in people from other places. Talking to people at Google is like talking to Martians, but they can optimize what we do.
Bergman: At CBS, the corporate side never came into the newsroom. Buzz, how can you break down that wall?
Woolley: The best organizations are the ones that collaborate the most across departments, and the ones that don’t work well have a lot of dead wood in them, have systems that don’t work well and the cost system is way out of whack. What happens in venture capitalism, IBM almost went broke in the ’70s because all these young startups were more efficient. But to their credit, they made a switch and are more successful, but there are companies that didn’t make that switch and disappeared.
My question is: Do you need to go bankrupt to start a new model? Are you General Motors?