BERKELEY — I’m settling into a large auditorium at the University of California-Berkeley for the 4th Annual Reva and David Logan Investigative Reporting Symposium . Not to sound too snooty, but it’s an exclusive event that’s run by Lowell Bergman, professor of investigative reporting at Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. Of course, Bergman is most famous for his work at “60 Minutes.” Plus, he was played by Al Pacino in “The Insider.” Each year, the symposium picks a theme, and brings you panels on that theme. This year’s theme: “The State of Play: Collaboration, Consequences, and Cash.”
Right now, Neil Henry, the dean at UC Berkeley, is getting things started by talking about how admissions to the J-school are up, despite the overall challenges facing the news business. He’s pointing out that there’s still a passion among these students to do journalism, albeit in new forms and in new venues.
Lowell Bergman: He’s explaining the theme this year is a nod to the Russell Crowe flick of the same name. The investigative reporting at Berkeley has been expanding, thanks to some solid funding. That’s allowed the program to bring students back for fellowships to work on interesting stories. From the beginning, the fellowships have been about collaborative reporting. They focus on stories that can run on the Web, on TV and in print.
Through the program, they realized that many organizations, like public media and traditional media, were not really prepared to collaborate. So they recruited some attorneys to work pro bono to help deal with some of the legal complications.
Bergman was also discussing the history of the Markoff Award, funded through a donation by NY Times reporter John Markoff. The money came from a settlement the Times reached after Hewlett Packard was caught spying on some reporters, including Markoff. Richard Logan and Daniel Logan won the award this year.
A New Era Of Collaboration?
David Boardman, of the Seattle Times, introduces the panel. As you know, the world of journalism is changing, more profoundly than at any time in my career. When ASNE canceled its annual meeting last year, it reflected the feeling that a bomb had dropped on our industry. Tens of thousands of journalism jobs were lost. Fear and trepidation prevailed.
Today, people have stopped wringing their hands. And now are forging new partnerships that would have been unthinkable even just a few years ago. The emergence of new non-profits investigative centers have fueled excitement. But there are still concerns over resources and funding. There are big questions about sustainability. Many still have small audiences and rely on Big Media for distribution. And details of collaborations are still being worked out.
Boardman is asking each panelist about their greatest collaborative successes and faliures.
Mark Katches, Center for Investigative Reporting: They work through the non-profit California Watch, and the model there continues to evolve in terms of the size of partners and the types of relationships, from big media to hyperlocal sites. Currently, they have about 56 partners.
The first story about the anniversary Sept. 11 ran on 25 front pages and one TV station. CW is trying to work with a broad range of outlets. But CW is too new to talk about failures. The biggest challenge is working in competitive markets. Says in the Bay Area, the San Jose Mercury News has been concerned CW is doing more with the SF Chronicle.
One challenge is making changes. When CW wants to changes to a story, it requires tweaking dozens of versions. The Sept. 11 story ran on the CW site. But they created 15 custom versions. The version on the CW site ran at 105 inches. Many news organizations took a 50 inch version.
Susanne Reber, NPR: Years ago, working in Canada, she was working in radio and discovered some pictures of interest. She wanted to share with other outlets (since they didn’t have a Web site at that point) so they could be published. But editors weren’t sure about whether to do it, as there has been little experience with sharing with other outlets.
Radio has been growing its audience over the past decade, including NPR. It creates an opportunity for investigative reporting that has an impact. Radio offers an intimacy that heightens that impact. In one case, going up against Taser international, there’s no way they would have been able to do it on their own given the potential litigation. Collaboration on that story gave them more resources and confidence to take them on.
Paul Steiger, ProPublica: Our goal is very focused. We want to shine a light on corruption. And then get that information to the right outlet to have an impact. We’ve found collaborations work with all kinds of media: newspapers, magazines, radio, websites.
Recently, Ira Glass of This American Life came to ProPublica came to them to help do the next stage of their financial meltdown reporting. So ProPublica assigned two reporters to work with TAL for six months, and in the process, developed a deep, long, 5,000 word text piece. Glass produced a 30 minute radio segment that included a wonderful metaphor involving “The Producers.” (We’ll get rich by producing a failure.) Glass produced a song for the segment that has gone viral and given the reporting even more attention.
More recently, ProPublica is putting up a map of people who are having trouble refinancing mortgages. They had done some stories. But put the map out there, and then invited local reporters to contact them to get in touch with these folks.
The failures so far have been shortlived. Some reporters they have not been able to get that they couldn’t. There have been “heated words” exchanged in some collaborations. But no one they wouldn’t work with again.
Linda Winslow, PBS News Hour: For the NewsHour, which has gone through a very big transition, we’re trying to create one produce on the air and the Web. That meant we needed more reporting. So the idea of collaboration is improve the quality of the journalism. But need to find people who share the goals and vision.
The one that has been most successful has been recent, involving three entities that came together through previous relationships. Alan Davidson of Planet Money pitched a piece on Haiti to someone at NewsHour and FrontLine then got involved. So Davidson went down to Haiti with a videographer from FrontLine.
Ann Derry, The New York Times: Have done a lot of collaborations around television and video. One tip: Need to have incentives for collaborations. Times doesn’t had much video experience, so was looking for a partner. And that continues today through the Web and documentaries. There’s less need for a print partnership.
One thing we’ve learned: It’s all about the people involves. It’s about the personalities. We work with ProPublica, CNBC and others. But it still comes down to how those teams work together. Both sides need to get and give something. We haven’t really had a bad experience.
You run into things where timing is a problem on different platforms. But there hasn’t really been issues about the journalism.
Steiger: Notes that there was plenty of shouting with a single organizations doing big stories, like the Wall Street Journal. There’s a chance there will be more of that when two or more organizations work together. And there can be arguments about where it will appear first. But if the story is good and has an impact, then everyone is happy in the end.
Reber: Had heard that “NPR doesn’t play well with others” when it comes to collaboration. I’ve been a NPR for four months. But I’ve told my staff we will be working with other organizations. And if a journo doesn’t like it, they shouldn’t join our team.
If you’re working on a team, either you are a team or you’re not. You can’t hold back notes one day, and then share the next.
Katches: Collobartion is a process, and it takes a long time. And when you add different layers from different organizations, you add more complexity.
Steiger: The Wall Street Journal didn’t do a lot of collaboration when he was there because it didn’t have to. The changed economic environment has changed lots of attitudes. The NY Times doesn’t have to collaborate with us, but the do, because their perspective has changed. The WSJ is under new management, and they don’t need me to tell them what to do. Not expecting them to propose collaborations any time soon.
Question from audience: Can you talk about process for developing story ideas?
Katches: We have people who have specialties that they mine for stories. The best stories bubble up from working in those areas and developing those ideas. Editors are at their best when they’re helping to elevate those stories.
Question: Where does the impetus to collaborate come from?
Derry: We’re always looking for things that we think might make a good video piece, something that our partner organizations would be interested in. And then we call them up.
Katches: When one of our reporters starts working on a piece, we might see that there’s a geographical nexus, where the story will be a bigger deal to one area or another. And we’ll call them up.
Steiger: Most of our ideas start with us and bubble up from within. But TAL partnership came from the outside.
Question: If story triggers a lawsuit, who is responsible?
Steiger: We have our partners’ attorneys vet stories. Our GM is also a first amendment lawyer. In a recent libel suit, he worked with local paper, which had its own counsel.
Katches: We have a first amendment lawyer who works pro bono. But we have an idemnification agreement, where if there’s something we did wrong, it’s our responsibility. But if a partner makes a change that causes a problem, it’s on them. That’s created an awareness that if a partner does want to make a change, they need to run it by us.
Question about how the business model works?
Katches: We charge a fee, though a low one, for running our content. And that might change depending on how much work the partner does in the collaboration. But the content is intended to produce revenue for us. Ultimately would like to see the model move to subscription.
Steiger: We give it away.
Question: What impact does collaboration have on speed? And have you figured out a way to do this faster?
Steiger: Well, we produce thousands of stories. When you have a big project, and it has multiple moving parts, you sacrifice efficiency to get the right partner, to get more leverage. So it’s worth taking more time to make it happen. One story we did got 60,000 page views on our site. It got over one million on our partner’s site. The impact makes the extra work worth it.
The Consequences of Investigative Reporting
Moderator Brian Ross, ABC News: This panel is going to look at some of the legal issues involved in investigative reporting. I was sued by Wayne Newton once. It bankrupted him. Cost ABC millions. And we lost. But won on appeal. Taking on the powerful will always has risks.
Omoyele Sowore, Sahara Reporters: I have no journalistic training. In Nigeria, don’t ask me why I go there. I’m officially barred. I can’t go through the airport. In 2005, I was trying to avoid arrest while getting in, I was arrested by customs who thought I looked like a smuggler.
One source tried to sue me by claiming we didn’t really have an interview, it was just a man-to-man discussion.
Ari Berman, The Nation/Medill Innocence Project: When I was a senior at Medill, I took a class focusing on wrongful prosecutions. I was assigned a case of a guy convicted of murdering a security guard. My professor has begun investigating this case, and I was part of the third group of students looking into this. We spent a lot of time talking to people in South Chicago. Six more teams after us would also work on this. Witnesses recanted. My group found an alternative suspect who said he was involved in the murder.
Then prosecutors went after Medill team, claiming they were at fault. And have been involved in long-term case that’s still happening against state of Illinois.
Dana Priest, The Washington Post: The good thing about covering the CIA is that they don’t want to take you to court. I had been on the Pentagon beat for several years. And had been building up information about secret prisons. One important lesson: Give sources heads up that a story is coming. Don’t surprise them.
So when secret prison story was coming out, the big hoopla: I got death threats and terrible messages left on the phone from the public, and hate mail. No one was calling up and saying, “Great job!” except some human rights groups. Congress started calling for investigations of the Post (not the secret sites).
I had hoped it would blow over and the Bush administration would have to deal with me. But that didn’t happen. Instead, they had surrogates drumming up anti-press sentiment. And they marched one CIA out the door for allegedly being my source. Message: There would be a cost for dealing with the media. That created a chill. Caused a quandry for me. So I decided to stop doing this reporting for awhile.
That led to working on the Walter Reed Hospital stories. But it was upsetting.
Diana Washington Valdez, El Paso Times: I don’t think about the idea that I’m taking on a drug lord. I’m just pursuing a story and get the information out. There are subpoenas for me in Mexico. But biggest threat came from Pres. Bush who once threatened to sue me during an interview.
But anytime a truck with tinted windows slows down next to me, I get nervous and wonder who it is. And we’ve had reporters in El Paso kidnapped. And I have colleagues in Mexico who have not been so fortunate as me. And I’ve thought about getting a concealed weapons permit.
John Smith, Las Vegas Review Journal: (He’s been forced into bankruptcy by one ongoing lawsuit): Las Vegas is a place that likes to bury its history. My challenge as a columnist for 20 years is to bring my institutional memory to the columns. There are a lot of people in this room who have tangled with rough customers. But I’ve found no one tougher to deal with than the legal gaming industry in Vegas. They go through background by the state, but the state won’t share them.
I’ve gotten some of that information through sources. My first big lawsuit was from by profile of Steve Wynn. He said publicly he wanted to bankrupt the publisher and take my house. He filed the suit in Kentucky. It was a nuisance lawsuit, filed because I had embarassed him. We tangled. I was dismissed early on. My publisher litigated for nine years, and it did drive publisher into temporary bankruptcy.
I continued to write books and write for the story. Later, my daughter was diagnosed with a brain tumor. I wrote about that, while also writing a book on the founding of Las Vegas. In this book, there was a chapter on Sheldon Allison. I was sued over that. Between legal and medical bills, I had to file for bankruptcy. Fortunately, a pro bono lawyer stepped up and mopped the floor with the other guys. They dropped the suit. The stress it put on my family is hard to describe. My daughter is alive, and uses a wheel chair to get around. But knowing the stress put on my family, out of simply meanness, is hard to talk about.
Then Allison offered me $300,000 to write a public apology that I could use for my daughter’s medical treatment. But I couldn’t say where it came from. I turned him down.
Question from Ross: After suffering this blowback, can you still report on these subjects and still be objective?
Priest: I think that in some ways that’s what they’re hoping will happen. But you do see how these people or institutions really work.
Sowore: I was sued in Texas, my first litigation in the U.S. I didn’t even have a job. My lawyer called and said who sued you? My pro bono attorney asked for deposit of $50,000. But I got lucky. The judge hearing the case was sued for sexual harassment. So it was moved to another judge and was dropped.
But I couldn’t figure out why I was sued in Texas about something I wrote about Nigeria. Then I learned the guy who sued me in Texas got a contract for business with the Nigerian government a few weeks after the suit was dropped.
Valdez: Objectivity, what good does it do given all the things I know about what’s going on? You have to be professional. You have to be fair. But that’s it. We must tell the story for those who can’t but have been victimized. I don’t feel that my objectivity has been affected. More so, I feel duty bound to do this. And I can’t keep my sources from contacting me and giving me information.
As long as there is something I can help advance, I fell obligated to do it.
Berman: In my case, I think they’re just trying to shut the Innocence Project down. They don’t want to keep getting these stacks of files on their desks raising all these questions about people already convicted. When you are convinced of the innocence of someone who has been in jail for 31 years, it’s heartbreaking. You think you’ll be there the day they walk out of jail, and I still hope that. But to see the state respond with a supboena, it’s eye opening.
Question: How do you explain to your family why you keep going in the face of this?
Smith: It’s challenging. Especially when you’ve got a child who doesn’t understand why your hours have doubled. But it’s meant to beat you down and make you quit. When you go against people who take pleasure in your pain, it takes its toll. But I wouldn’t change it.
Priest: If any of these things had happened (referring to the other panelists), it would have received a lot more attention if it had been at the Post. I’m in a privileged position.
Question from audience: Reporter says he’s at the Philly papers said he’s being sued and working at a paper in bankruptcy. Is the current economics of news organizations going to make it harder to get proper legal protection?
Smith: My paper is okay, but it’s harder to find book publishers who want to take these risks.
Question from audience: What is the best thing that has happened as a result of what you’ve done?
Berman: Freeing people from jail. Also, with the subpoena, more people know about your story. More people know about this guy’s plight. And more people know what the state’s attorney is up to.
Smith: When you challenge the powerful, it makes the community more normal, more American. It’s hard to be normal in Las Vegas. It makes society a better place, a place where they can speak their minds.
Question: Has controversy benefited your career?
Smith: I didn’t even get a $10 raise. But it does open some doors.
Question: What about collateral damage to others from story?
Valdez: Everything has been an eye opener. And I always try to be more careful each time.
Priest: You do learn, as a national security reporter, you do learn that there is some things that don’t go in the paper. CIA argues that disclosing countries involved in secret prisons would be terrible, and so we didn’t include that.
Question: Have editors ever tried to stop, saying this was too dangerous or not worth the blowbacks?
Valdez: I was taken off the border beat once, and it upset me. But when a new editorial regime came in, I was put back on it.
Surprise Guest: Bill Marimow, editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer
Marimow said he was asked to speak about his experience working at a paper in bankruptcy. Paper was investigating charter schools for 18 months. Found out head was getting paid outrageous sums. Leaders pleaded guilty. One killed himself. Parent who wrote a letter said their child would not being thriving today if it had not been for the reporting to expose the problems.
The critical factor to publish stories like that in bankruptcy is having a publisher who understands that dynamic. I believe the people who purchased the Daily News and Inquirer did it for public service. I believe they truly cared about the state of journalism and democracy in the Philadelphia. Also, probably somewhat for status and ego.
The debt forced us into bankruptcy. But since then, I think we’ve done work every bit as good as when Gene Roberts was editor. Just last week, sister paper at Daily News won a Pulitzer for stories about cops planting evidence and abusing women. One of those reporters was laid off from the Inquirer. Publisher found a spot for her at the Daily News.
My strong belief is that if your news organization makes itself indispensable, with a publisher who believes in strong journalism in a multimedia world, you will flourish.
Who’s Going To Foot The Bill?
Moderator Jack Shafer, Slate, is introducing the panel.
Shafer: Cites a bunch of anti-non profit news quotes from Jonathan Weber, who is now editor of the Bay Citizen, the SF Bay Area non profit news organizations. Has Weber been brainwashed?
Lisa Frazier, The Bay Citizen: No. We’re in an era where you have to try everything. I don’t know that he changed his mind. I think months after he wrote that, things had changed.
Question: Possible business ideas: Create national fund for local news proposed by recent Columbia Journalism Review article. Pick ones most doable…
Len Downie, Arizona State University: Local foundations stepping up, and many already are. San Diego Community Foundations has been giving money Voices of San Diego. We know many others are starting to do this, or at least talk about this.
Also, public radio and TV should cover more local news. Most don’t right now. Local news reporting only goes on in a few markets around the country. And Corporation for Public Broadcasting are funding experiments with local reporting around the country. CPB ought to be re-chartered by Congress, with requirements to fund local reporting, and given more money.
Also, universities are starting get student involved.
Our most controversial suggestion was the national funding for local reporting. Like CPB, funnel taxpayer money through “independent” organizations. That’s the hardest one to do, but could have most impact.
Alan Mutter, Newsosaur: (Question: What do think of Downie’s six proposals?) There’s nothing wrong with anything that Downie is talking about. Some are more or less practical. But the non-profits, despite being good, are boutique operations. They’re not going to replace all the feet on the street that are being lost by the commercial press. Today, it’s seriously crippled. So we’re looking at “point” solutions, and there’s no doubt they will do some good. But they are not going to replace what’s been lost.
And there’s no business model that will replace what will be lost. The government does not fund most public broadcasting models. It comes from companies and foundations. And there’s only so much they can or will do.
University students? We have a lot of great ones here at Berkeley. But they don’t have the institutional memories of long-time beat reporters.
But all of these will help push back the forces of darkness, but they’re not a replacement.
Downie: I’m not saying they will replace everything. We want to strengthen the new parts of the news ecosystem to compliment the traditional newsrooms, which will continue to exist, but be smaller.
Question from Shafer to Mutter: Tell us your ideas for the future of commercial journalism…
Mutter: It’s going to be a matrix of revenues. Live events; some limited online subscriptions; help local businesses manage their Web presence; help local businesses do customer relationship management; sell hard physical products (DVDs, books). There won’t be a single thing. So people need to be more creative. They need to search around the cushions for loose change. There are lots of ways to fund the news.
John Thornton, The Texas Tribune: What Alan’s talking about, you’ve got to have “revenue promiscuity.” You’ve got to go after everything you can, as often as you can. The problem in thinking that the capability to do all those revenue things, the cost of having the skills do those things probably outweighs the potential revenue. The venture model, looking at the highest return, isn’t going to funnel money to news organizations.
We think journalism is better served through a non-profit structure.
Robert Rosenthal, Center for Investigative Reporting: Our staff has gone from 7 to 26 in the three years I’ve been here. And I’m funding a huge amount of interest from funders in this area. It’s been amazing, though California Watch, to see our ability to get stories out grow.
All those years at the Philadelphia Inquirer and then the SF Chronicle, I never had a conversation about being an entrepreneur. Now, we’re always thinking about that at CIR. I think it’s a really exciting place.
Frazier: We’re not talking about technology yet. It can make reporters more effective and efficient. We need to invest in that.
Question: What programs are in place at your organizations to do grassroots fundraising?
Thornton: This is what keeps me up at night. Before we launched, we managed to raise a lot of money. But when site went up, people stopped giving. Content is the enemy of fundraising. So how can you translate public radio pledge drives to the Web? We’re going to do that this year. But you don’t have drive time radio to hammer people.
Question from Shafer: The Len Downie I know has been bodysnatched. You advocate collaboration. But you didn’t at the Post. What happened?
Downie: Well, we did do collaboration at the Post. Mostly we stick with our own resources. But in some cases, we pair reporters with other people to do things we can’t on our own.
Shafer: Okay. I have $3 million in my pocket. I want Lisa and Robert to make a pitch as to why I should give it to me?
Frazier: Give it to both of us. We do different things. It’s on us to explain better about what’s being lost. We don’t know what we need to know anymore. We need a new model to support that news gathering. It’s important not only that we cover local community, but also do investigative reporting like CIR.
Rosenthal: Let me tell you about a story we want to do. I had a few calls from people looking into murders from the civil rights era. I went to Mississippi, and met with some folks to talk about this story. Met a guy who runs a small, weekly paper. He talked a guy who was firebombed years ago. Never solved, and he recently wrote about it. While people came in and gave him flak. But one guy thanked him, and told him about his three sisters who were killed. And killers are still walking among us.
Those are the kinds of stories we want do. We’re getting funding lined up.
Shafer: Okay, I’m prepared to write a check.
Shafer: I’m an optimist. Let’s remember the Washington Post was purchased in a bankruptcy auction. And I do think American reporters do want to read investigative reporting. Investigative reporting books are being published and bought. It’s like we’re serving people bad medicine. They want to read these things.
Question from audience: Is the Post model (owning Kaplan testing which subsidizes the company) one that others could try?
Downie: News side still lost millions. You’d need an owner willing to let that happen. And the owner couldn’t be out buying lots of organizations, getting in debt.
Question from audience: Lots of media will go on sale in the next decade? Who will buy them? What if Saudi Arabia buys them up?
Mutter: It’s entirely possible newspapers will get bought by rich people for ego reasons, or to be used to attack their enemies. But most newspapers still have good profit margins. They have higher cash flow margins than Wal-Mart. There has been a big drop of revenue. But profits down in the teens. The problem is that too many companies borrowed too much money. The biggest problem is having too much debt.
Many are shedding that debt through bankruptcy, mostly the private ones. The public ones have not, and are struggling to pay debts.
Thornton: I disagree that the leverage was the problem. “It was just the last drink at the bar.” The problem is the revenue divided by the assets deployed. When profits were 30 percent, they could attract investment. The size of the assets deployed is not worth the revenue possibilities.
Mutter: Long term, newspapers can’t afford their print versions. Most will probably will be out of print in 10 years. Still have advantages, like brand, and feet on street, that if gathered up and used wisely, still give them an advantage.
Question from audience: Is the Bay Citizen really out to replace the SF Chronicle?
Frazier: The Bay Area has lost about half its journalists in the past decade. We want to bring back beats in the core civic areas. The amount of content being reduced is way down. We can’t fill that void. Our role is to bring others together, and create collaboration. So the Bay Area has the ability to get the information it needs to make decisions about their communities.
Question from Shafer: Are non-profits hurting the journalism organizations that still exist?
Thornton: I think state level coverage has only gone up since we started. I think the newspaper biz is competitive. So when you put good product out there, you raise everyone’s game.
Check out previous coverage of the Logan Symposium on MediaShift from 2008 and 2009.
Correction: An earlier version of this post incorrectly referred to the Philadelphia Inquirer as the Philadelphia Enquirer.