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IRE Conference 2010
FRONTLINE's dispatches from the 2010 Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Las Vegas.
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The Need for Collaborative Storytelling

June 13, 2010

"To continue to have an impact, we at NPR have, frankly, had to learn how to get over ourselves and collaborate in a new way."
-NPR president Vivian Schiller, in her IRE keynote address

Given that journalists introduced the concept of getting "scooped" by a competitor, it should come as no surprise that news organizations have historically resisted working together. Today, however, collaborations are arguably far more important to journalism's future than the increasingly irrelevant struggle to break the news first. This transition was a major theme of this year's IRE conference.

"The concept of competition has completely evaporated," Robert Rosenthal, executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), said during a panel discussion yesterday. "We're really in a transformational moment."

To a large extent, this is driven by necessity. As budgets for newsrooms are slashed, journalists are finding that they must look outside their walls to find the resources for ambitious, investigative work. At the same time, the increasing array of information sources enabled by the Internet is breaking us into smaller and more specialized audiences, which incentivizes media entities to expand their distribution network.

But while the Internet's made it necessary for journalists to collaborate, it's also made it much easier for them to do so. Traditionally, journalists were defined as much by what platform they worked with -- print, broadcast, radio -- as the beats they covered. While the forms of media -- text, video, audio -- still matter, the Web brings them all together, enabling the creation of uniquely engaging experiences. One interesting example of these trends is the FRONTLINE/ProPublica/Times-Picayune collaboration Law & Disorder, an investigation into questionable shootings by the New Orleans police in the wake of Katrina.

During a panel session yesterday, FRONTLINE senior producer Raney Aronson-Rath recalled the idea to get involved: "We said, 'This is an amazing story. We're not necessarily sure if we'll be making it a documentary, but it's important for us to help get it out there.'"

FRONTLINE assigned a video journalist to embed in the newsroom with the reporters working on the case. The Law & Disorder site combines text, photos, audio and video to tell the ongoing story of the investigation. The site also includes a number of ways for people to help, including a tip line to call and flyers to post that encourage potential witnesses to come forward.

For all its value, there are risks to collaborating.

ProPublica reporter T. Christian Miller, as part of Friday's IRE panel on anonymous sources, noted that each additional partner on an investigation often represents another person who needs to know a source's identity. It can be hard enough to convince a source to trust one reporter, never mind three or four.

Also, when mistakes happen, as they inevitably do, they can be much harder to control across multiple distribution points. CIR's Robert Rosenthal recalled an incident in which CIR's California Watch team found a small potential issue in a story set to run the next day in a range of partner publications. Rosenthal decided to inform each paper of the issue.

"That is not a call you want to have make to any newspaper," he said. "We had to make it to 14."

Perhaps the most likely source of problems is that journalists tend to be skeptical of each other. News organizations are still competitive.

Stephen Engelberg, managing editor of ProPublica put it another way at yesterday's panel on collaboration: "If the quintessential narrative formula for a non-action, non-horror Hollywood movie is 'Boy meets girl. Boy pursues girl. Boy and girl fall in love,' then in the world of collaborations its 'Boy meets girl. Boy is skeptical of girl. Boy mistrusts girl. Things work out."

Engelberg suggested a deceptively straightforward method to head off this risk: "Direct and honest communication." He recommends meeting in person when possible, and making sure to address tough questions early and often: "What story do we think we're doing? Who is doing what?"

As for the risk of getting scooped by bringing your idea to someone else? -- "After 75 collaborative projects I have yet to see that happen," said Engelberg.

Those concerns aside, there's no shortage of recent examples that demonstrate the value of collaborations:

NPR and ProPublica collaborated on an investigation showing that the military is failing to diagnose and treat soldiers' traumatic brain injuries. The story was on NPR -- broadcast and site -- and on ProPublica's site, where you can find video and pictures of injured veterans, a timeline of the issue, and a large selection of documents from the investigation. This partnership reporting has already lead to an expanded Senate scrutiny of the issue.

The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, ProPublica and ABC News investigated the U.S. government's treatment of civilian contractors. Their exhaustive investigation, "Disposable Army: Civilian Contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan," exposed the suffering of contractors injured or killed abroad, and the woefully substandard treatment many received when they returned home.

The Center for Public Integrity, NPR and five regional investigative journalism centers investigated the handling of sexual assault cases at colleges across the country. They created a comprehensive account of lax enforcement, light sanctions and inconsistent reporting by college administrators.

As collaborative projects like these continue to develop, perhaps the most important unanswered question, CIR'S Rosenthal said, is: "How to sustain them? How do you keep these going?" After all, many of the issues being investigated should always be investigated.

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The Value of Investigating...

June 12, 2010

Regardless of the uncertainty surrounding funding for investigative journalism, enterprising reporters continue to do indispensible, impactful work.

Below are some examples from Friday's (6/11) panel at the IRE Conference -- "Year in Investigative Reporting." It was hosted by Doug Haddix and Mark Horvit from the IRE and was a powerful demonstration of the public service and enduring relevance of these projects. It also served to highlight journalists' creative use of the Internet to clarify complex issues. (Thanks to Doug Haddix for sharing the PowerPoint. The descriptions below are adapted from the presentation, which will be posted on the IRE Web site soon.)

The Boston Globe: "Jobs Program Lost Its Way -- And Tax Money."

The Globe reporters looked at 16 years of data on a Massachusetts program designed, like others across the nation, to give tax breaks to incentivize corporate investment in the state. But do these taxpayer funded incentives actually pay off? They found that, while the incentives always helped the companies, they frequently didn't come close to giving tax payers their money's worth.

Click here for a interactive map of the results.

Chicago Tribune: "Nursing Home Sexual Violence: 86 Chicago cases since 2007 -- but only 1 arrest."

More than any other state, Illinois relies heavily on nursing homes to house mentally ill patients. A Tribune investigation found that government, law enforcement and the nursing home industry have failed to adequately manage the resulting influx of younger residents who shuttle into nursing facilities from jail cells, shelters and psychiatric wards. The number of residents convicted of serious felonies has increased to 3,000. Among them are 82 convicted murderers, 179 sex offenders and 185 armed robbers.

The Tribune also created extensive profiles of especially dangerous homes, along with a freely accessible database for citizens to search the safety records of all homes in the state.

The New York Times: "Toxic Waters" Series

The Times comprehensively tracked the causes, extent and effects of polluted water across the country. They found more than 20 percent of water treatment systems violated key provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act. This 35-year-old federal law regulating tap water is so out of date that the water Americans drink can pose what scientists say are serious health risks -- and still be legal. In the past five years, companies and workplaces have violated pollution laws more than 500,000 times, but the vast majority of polluters have escaped punishment.

The Times created graphics showing pollution levels across the nation and the decline in EPA enforcement. They also enabled citizens to find water polluters near them and gauge the safety of their own tap water.

Hearst Newspapers: "Dead by Mistake"

Heart journalists worked across newsrooms in a number of states to investigate preventable medical errors. They found that over 200,000 Americans die each year from such errors, and that states' reporting of the mistakes was "sparse and secretive."

Hearst created a map showing states' reporting requirements and a searchable database of hospital safety records in five states. They also created a tip sheet to help patients reduce their risks, along with a guide on ways you can demand change to the system.

NPR: "Unintended Acceleration Not Limited to Toyota"

While Toyota's recall dominated the headlines, NPR analyzed data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and reported that unintended acceleration has been a problem for many auto manufacturers. The NPR team also revealed that Toyota's problems went back farther than the year that the automaker's recall began.

NPR made the data on unintended acceleration complaints for all carmakers available and searchable by year on their Web site.

This is just a small sampling. If investigative journalists want to tell the story of their impact, there's no shortage of examples to highlight.

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Who Will Pay for Investigative Journalism?

June 10, 2010

This is Nathan Tobey, FRONTLINE's online engagement coordinator. For the next few days, I'm blogging from the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) Conference in Las Vegas.

Before I left, Mike Sullivan, FRONTLINE's executive producer for special projects, pointed me to the investigation that put the IRE on the map. A year after the organization's founding (1975), one of its members, Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles, was murdered while looking into land fraud and organized crime. The IRE came together, and 38 journalists from newspapers and TV stations across the country went to Arizona to finish reporting Bolles' story.

Three decades on, the IRE's still going strong. But its members face a very different challenge now: the collapse of funding models to support their work. While the revelations reporters dig up are essential to blogs, news aggregators and social media sites, these new media entities are undercutting newspapers' and television stations' advertising-driven business model faster than they can devise a new model to replace it. Google believes that its targeted advertising, along with paid online subscriptions, can eventually generate enough revenue to help bridge the funding gap -- but that remains to be seen.

So who will pay for investigative journalism?

On the flight to Las Vegas, I talked this over with veteran investigative reporter Joe Bergantino, director of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting. His organization, along with other pioneers such as ProPublica and CaliforniaWatch are working hard to develop innovative funding models.

On the first day of the conference, a variety of new funding approaches were discussed by a panel -- "Nonprofit Watchdog Centers: The do's and don'ts of fundraising." Currently, most investigative groups are funded by philanthropic individuals and foundations, which can only do so much, for so long. "Foundations cannot sustain you indefinitely," said panelist Sue Hale, a media consultant for the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.

Coming out of these discussions, here are a few interesting questions that came up:

1. Is "research-for-hire" a model?

The Economist and a few others, including the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, are making money by doing research-for-hire. Is there a model there? If you do try it, Joe Bergatino cautions, "you should consider this as a separate arm of the organization. It should not be done by the same people doing the journalism."

2. Why don't media outlets see the uniqueness of depth?

Why are traditional media outlets still focusing on breaking news, sports coverage and other short-form work at the expense of investigative journalism? Many people are getting breaking news from Twitter and local sports coverage from hyperlocal sites and Facebook. Most of the national sites end up publishing slight variations on the same stories each day. Investigative journalism is, arguably, the only truly unique content news outlets have to offer. It's time to turn this model on its head.

3. Does investigative journalism need to be rebranded?

How can journalists make the funding of investigative reporting a priority for the public, foundations and civic-minded corporations? Perhaps investigative journalists need to do a better job of telling their story and making the case for the value of their work. After Watergate, its value was celebrated. Today, it's not really part of the national conversation.

The worst-case scenario is that there just aren't enough Americans who would care about investigative work, even if they did know more about it.

4. How should we creatively diversify our funding sources?

On yesterday afternoon's panel Joe Bergantino noted: "When you look at how journalism has been funded historically, it's often been supported by other unrelated revenue-generating parts of organizations they were in." In the past, the owners of many conglomerates did not expect their news operations to make a profit. Now, conglomerates almost uniformly do. So perhaps journalists can start their own diversified ventures to fund the journalism, or work closely with a business that will.

Ending yesterday's panel on an up note, Maggie Mulvihill, associate director of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, said: "It's absolutely the most exciting time to do investigative journalism in the 20 years I've been doing this. Many people and organizations are interested in partnering with us and supporting our work. And we are finding ways to do what we love. I would gladly scrub the floors three days a week, if I could do this the other two days." Moreover, the Internet has created more opportunities for audience engagement and true interactivity than ever before.

As a side note, if you have not checked out Demand Media, take a look. They have mined search-engine data and relied on freelancers to take the Internet ad-based funding model to its logical and disciplined extreme. In the process, they've come up with one of the few genuinely profitable models for creating content. It is fascinating, and a bit disturbing.

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