Shop Notes

What we're reading

Posted: April 14, 2015 | Tags: journalism

Illustration by Sydney Ling

As students of investigative journalism, we don’t want to make our living pumping out a steady stream of regurgitated click bait, but some would consider us lucky to be paid at all after graduation. Reading Philip Meyers’ “Public Journalism and The Problem of Objectivity” validates our endeavors. And Reading the work of the “new journalism ecosystem,” about the growth of nonprofit news organizations throughout the country, gives me hope.

The need is certainly there, and so are the channels, yet there’s still a lot we’re tasked with to make success of those channels.

Project World, an Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE)-sponsored group, recently detailed challenges facing freelance journalists. For the past five years, a lack of resources and support has caused freelancers to forfeit at least 600 stories, the group reports. Forty-three percent of about 240 surveyed spent more time seeking revenue than they did developing stories. Thirty percent said they financed their own reporting, not always recouping their investment and getting paid far less for their work than they did five years ago.

Another piece by the Global Investigative Journalism Network on how to crowdfund stories gives us a sense of what's required to survive this way.

 “Public Journalism and the Problem of Objectivity, ” which we’re reading in our data-driven journalism class with David Donald — formerly data editor at the Center for Public Integrity and winner of the 2014 IRE award given in Meyer’s name — highlights the connection between investigative reporting and public journalism and reminds us why we do this work.

When Meyer wrote the essay 20 years ago, he said, “public journalism, properly done, is an immediate net cost to the news media that practice it.”

What he said then holds true today, although many news organizations are more concerned about profits than adhering to Meyer’s tenets of public journalism:

 • “Instead of flitting from event to event, a news medium should stay with a problem or issue — even at the risk of redundancy — until it has focused community attention on all its aspects and citizens can deliberate rationally about it. ”

•  “The motivation of politicians is a thing worth knowing, but it is far from the only thing. ”

•  “Expressing your views is a good thing. Making an earnest attempt to understand someone else's views is equally important. ”

In  “The Future of CAR: Declare Victory and Get Out! ” Meyer said we just need to figure out how to brand and market our clearly needed product. He also reminds us that “corruptions of public journalism are a lot cheaper than the real thing,” and the Cincinnati Enquirer provides evidence of this by advertising vacancies for investigative reporters who would work to “monetize” their audience.  

Here are three basic things we could do more of to market ourselves and serve our mission, as seen in and informed by what we’re reading:

Increase the use of multimedia, creating various access points for people who may not be inclined to read through a long story.

A few examples:

• The Center for Investigative Reporting has done admirable work incorporating art into its journalism with its well-received “Techsploitation” graphic novel last year, and this month engaging its audience directly on the street about the Domestic Awareness Center and a rise in surveillance by law enforcement amid tensions in Oakland. I’m also a big fan of CIR’s Off/Page Project, which blends their investigations of public housing with the work of local poets.

• The Washington Post’s presentation of stories like this one about the Rosebud and Pinewood reservations in South Dakota, by Sari Horwitz and Nikki Khan, shows the benefit of news organizations having in-house video production. Horwitz also won the American Society of News Editors award for distinguished writing on diversity for the piece, giving it points for my second recommendation:

Reach out to a diverse community. Pew reports news engagement is growing fastest among millennial minorities using mobile devices. Minorities also bear the brunt of some of our most prominent challenges.

A few examples:

• Almost 20 years ago, William Julius Wilson wrote “When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor, ” which studied the impact of stereotypes on black men seeking employment. Employment rates are still highest among black men. Wilson’s insights may help as we explore this and other problems affecting the demographic.

• More recently, Bryan Stevenson wrote  “Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, ” providing the most comprehensive work on lynching in America. Desmond Tutu referred to Stevenson as a young American Nelson Mandela. Stevenson is a professor at the New York University School of Law and the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, where researchers documented 3,959 racial terror lynchings of African Americans between 1877 and 1950 — at least 700 more than previously reported.

• The state of redistricting and its impact on democracy, including the Supreme Court’s upcoming and recent decisions.

Sharing. Not just pushing out stories on social media, but sharing entire databases. These works provide a wealth of data that journalists can keep returning to and reporting out so that we can keep attention on issues. This sharing of resources strengthens journalism, not just within, but also across communities.

A few examples:

• The Swissleaks score from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists.

• A project between ProPublica and local partner the Lens, a nonprofit in New Orleans, examining the state of wetlands in the Gulf coast.

Another moniker for Meyer’s view of public journalism is “solutions journalism.” It’s up to us to ensure the work of the new journalism ecosystem is as relevant and engaging as it can be. We have work to do.

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