Chasing philanthropy is endangering investigative journalism, not saving it

“CIR Editorial Director Mark Katches also wrote today that in addition to less coverage of San Francisco, the merged organization will do fewer overall stories: “First and foremost, we have rededicated ourselves to high-impact investigative reporting – stories that matter. We’ve largely stopped covering routine stories and breaking news, which got in the way of this core mission. Last year, we generated about 1,000 stories. By choice, we expect to produce about 200 stories this year. But the stories we go after will be the ones we think can make a difference.” – “”One powerful newsroom” pulls back from its San Francisco roots“, San Francisco Bay Guardian.

This article decries California’s Centre for Investigative Reporting’s (CIR) decision to step away from local coverage and focus on bigger issues. While I understand the fear – local journalism is in trouble and needs help – I think CIR made the right decision.

Ultimately, their mission is to produce investigative reporting. That means producing less copy but more impact.

It’s the same reason I try to stay out of the “breaking” news arena at The Muckraker and focus only on investigations. The Muckraker can’t compete with the Belfast Telegraph or the Irish News on daily coverage because it’s staffed by part-time volunteers; they have full-time, 24/7 staff. However, we can try and compete on investigative coverage.

I refer to Jay Rosen’s wisdom on this. He argues that there are four types of scoops. I’ve outlined the two most relevant to mainstream news orgs:

1) Scoop 1: You break a story before your competitors does but it would have been public anyways, sooner or later.

2) Scoop 2: You publish a story that would never have become public without your reporting.

I’d rather put my time and energy into the second one.

I’m not saying that chasing after Scoop 1 type stories is wrong. It’s the bread and butter of daily news coverage. As a reporter, it’s just not a niche I’ve ever felt comfortable in. The rush to create news means facts get overlooked. Traditionally, newsrooms had large investigative reporting teams that balanced this out by fact-checking politicians’ narratives in a way that the breaking news reporters couldn’t. Those teams barely exist anymore.

Yet the economics of web publishing, as I pointed out recently, don’t reward the 200 stories versus 1,000 formula. It rewards the content factory owners, those news sites that are constantly churning out copy – whether it be accurate or not. In that sense, the mass eyeballs = ad revenue business model of online news sites is damaging journalism.

I don’t have any of the answers. All I know is we need to invent business models to support #longreads. The BuzzFeeds of the world are on their way to cracking journalism’s revenue problem. The non-profit investigative sites and #longreads sites are not. If we chase philanthropic funding and ignore the fact that we don’t know how to make money, investigative journalism will become extinct. The world will not forgive us for that.

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