Investigating the Future of Investigative Journalism. Part II – Journalists and Bloggers: ‘Let’s Not Throw Grenades at Each Other’

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Will the lifeblood of quality journalism flow away like so much ink? Today: Know your ‘enemy’: The Internet. Tomorrow: So, who’s going to pay for all this?

See Part I here

By Joe Eskenazi

Cats and dogs. Charlie Brown and the kite-eating tree. Rain and the Wicked Witch of the West. Bloggers and journalists.

The disdain between professional journalists and “citizen journalists” is well-documented. They think we’re a jaded bunch of ineffectual dinosaurs unable to cope with the wave of the future. And we think they’re a derivative bunch of hacks dressing up snarkily written links to our work as actual reportage (we may or may not make reference to propeller caps and living in mom’s basement).

But the truth, says Paul Grabowicz, is that they need us. And, let’s admit it, we need them.

The war between bloggers and journalists “has been cast as an ‘either-or’ but ideally, you’d like to see them working in tandem. There is a middle camp that is trying to say, ‘wait a minute, we need to be doing work together rather than throwing grenades at each other,’” said the U.C. Berkeley journalism school professor, a former longtime Oakland Tribune investigative reporter.

Bloggers are going to blog, period. So, journalists who spurn the input of bloggers with a specific expertise or who even simply witnessed a newsworthy crime or accident are putting themselves at a disadvantage. Certainly Dan Rather – whose career was abruptly derailed when an army of bloggers cast aspersions upon documents purporting to detail George W. Bush’s National Guard absenteeism – can attest to the power of the “blogosphere.”

And yet, no investigative journalist is ready to concede that he or she has been rendered obsolete by a million bloggers pounding on a million keyboards.

“A few years ago, I was doing some digging...

for a daily newspaper. And the person I was doing the research for said, ‘Wow, a bunch of these documents are already online. God help us when all of this stuff is online; the public won’t need us anymore.’ Well, I think that’s entirely wrong,” recalls A.C. Thompson, the decorated former investigative reporter for both the SF Weekly and the Guardian.

“Bloggers who post their thoughts about political issues are not going to replace the work reporters do even if every single government document ever generated is online and the citizenry can surf the Web until their eyeballs fall out.

“You need someone to take that information, synthesize it and analyze it and tell why it’s important enough to get people to read it – and it often helps if you construct a narrative involving human beings to go along with that all that documentation,” he continues.

“I just don’t see people who aren’t being paid having the months of free time that it takes to do that work.”

But sifting through arcane documents is just the start of it. Paul Steiger, the former longtime managing editor at the Wall Street Journal, proudly told me about how a trio of his reporters won the Pulitzer Prize last year for exposing how a number of companies were habitually backdating their options illegally. “Three high-powered reporters” labored weeks to finger half a dozen companies. All denied the allegations. The reporters went back to work, demonstrating the likelihood of the backdating working out so profitably at random was lower than the odds of winning the Powerball jackpot.

And then massive companies’ general counsels began threatening multi-million dollar lawsuits. Of course, the Journal had its own top-notch attorneys on hand, too. Most bloggers don’t.

“New media does not have the ability to stand up to threats of legal action nor stay with a story for a long, sustained period of time. Those are things that the Web is not yet very good at doing. And that has value,” says Steiger, now the top man at Pro Publica, a philanthropically funded investigative outfit.

New media does work quickly, though. And investigative reporters do not. Thompson estimates he writes about 10 stories a year. This does not mesh well with newspapers’ current utilization of the Internet.

“A lot of attention on the Internet is 24/7 news coverage, quick updates and micro news,” says Grabowicz. “All that is needed, but there hasn’t been a lot of attention paid to in-depth packages, especially investigative packages.”

Newspapers have been chasing “fads” – “Tech-wise, they blew it when it came to Web logs, so now they’re embracing podcasts. Now everyone is running around with video cameras and shooting video – any video. They’re reacting to whatever seems to be the latest thing getting a lot of traffic on the Internet,” he continues.

Rather than simply utilize technology for technology’s sake, Grabowicz would rather see it somehow applied to enhance the work news-gathering organizations and journalists can do better than anyone else.

“To me, the opportunity presented by the Internet is not just to do quick-turnaround stories and slap up videos 24/7. It’s a real chance to do stories more in-depth and more compellingly than print or broadcast,” he continues.

“Take any given investigative piece. Usually there’s some database component to it. Online, you’re given the opportunity to put up the data so people can parse it. Or you can personalize it … with a slideshow with audio. Those media are much better at conveying emotion than print is. So, to me, it’s an opportunity.”

Sounding a cautious – extremely cautious – note of optimism, Robert Rosenthal, the executive director of Berkeley’s Center for Investigative Reporting, adds: “This is also a time of great opportunity.

“Not everyone is completely screwed.”

Tomorrow: If there is a future for investigative journalism, who’s going to pay for it?

Artwork | Courtesy of www.siliconvalleywatcher.com

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