Tuesday, June 14th, 2016
Photo by Jeff Watts
Roughly a quarter-century ago, hardly anyone foresaw what was about to happen to the commercial news media in the world's most industrialized democracies or why. Or fully imagined the new, technological innovations and publishing permutations that would ensue, including the rise of the nonprofit news organizations.
Who knew or could have known that between 1990 and 2015, the number of professional journalists at U.S. newsrooms would drop from 56,900 to 32,900? Who could have imagined that beginning in the late 1980s network television news staffs would decline by 50 percent in the ensuing decades?
Much has been written, of course, about how things got to that point and what could have and should have been done to avert it. Many people, myself included, concur with the laments of iconic Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper editor and author Eugene Roberts about what happened to the print news media and why. He has blamed the owners’ overweening greed, their profound lack of vision and overall what he has characterized as the “corporatization of newspapers,” as they and their investors were “harvesting” their profitable, mature investments for decades, yet not preparing for the new, disruptive digital technologies. That, and the incessant pressure for decades on newspapers to sustain untenable, annual profit margins of 20 to 30 percent, were all “a prescription for suicide.”
Around two decades ago, broadcasters and newspapers also were beginning to consolidate media properties, merge newsroom staffs and reduce investigative reporting staffs. Having seen specific, nationally important stories not aggressively pursued by media companies, I began to fully realize that there are finite, logistical limits to the extent of journalistic truth-telling — especially if you are a mere newsroom general-assignment reporter, assigned to cover multiple subjects simultaneously.
It was in March 1989 that having recently quit "60 Minutes" a few months earlier for related reasons, as the investigative producer for senior correspondent Mike Wallace, I founded and for 15 years led the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit organization “examining public service and ethics-related issues in Washington, with a unique approach combining the substantive study of government with in-depth reporting.” Besides my frustration with close encounters of the worst kind involving internal censorship issues within network television news, I also had noticed there seemed to be little investigative journalism in Washington. Indeed, in my view, with some notable exceptions, few of the nation’s capital press corps had done much original reporting about two of the biggest U.S. political scandals of the late 20th century, the savings-and-loan and the Iran-Contra scandals and the systemic, illegal activities they represented, respectively. And yet, instead of professional chagrin or humility about that in the national press corps, I saw only smug arrogance and indifference. And that outraged me.
The Center for Public Integrity was just the second nonprofit news organization started with the explicit intent of doing investigative reporting. The Center for Investigative Reporting had been the first, founded in 1977 by four journalists (Lowell Bergman, Dan Noyes, Henry Weinstein and David Weir) in Northern California, and now publishes its work from a new, multimedia platform called Reveal. Another nonprofit organization begun in 1977 was the Foundation for National Progress, which from San Francisco began publishing a new magazine that sometimes featured important muckraking, called Mother Jones. And fast forwarding to 2008, Herbert and Marion Sandler, co-owners of the second-largest savings-and-loan corporation in the U.S., Golden West Financial, and respected, former Wall Street Journal Managing Editor Paul Steiger co-founded ProPublica, a nonprofit news organization based in New York.
Reveal News at The Center for Investigative Reporting produces written stories, radio documentaries and even live theater performances related to its investigative reporting.
Today, these are the four largest, investigative journalism, nonprofit news organizations in the United States. In 2014 (the last year of available, online IRS 990 filings), their respective annual total revenues were: Center for Investigative Reporting, $10.3 million; Center for Public Integrity, $9.6 million; Foundation for National Progress (publisher of Mother Jones), $13.5 million; and ProPublica, $10.3 million. I have described how and why these and other nonprofit organizations came to be, including in this chapter in a 2010 book published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.
But from the early nonprofit muckraking days of the 1970s and 1980s to today, we have seen an astonishing development unprecedented in American journalism history, in which, despite the bleak commercial media economics afflicting professional newsrooms everywhere, their newsgathering coverage capacities drastically diminished, regular, veteran, rank-and-file journalists refused to leave their truth-telling profession. They might have to become publishing entrepreneurs, and start their own news organizations, and in fact, scores of them did just that.
Today there even is an Institute for Nonprofit News (originally, until March 2015, known as the Investigative News Network, proposed / co-founded in 2009 by journalists Bill Buzenberg, Brant Houston, Robert Rosenthal and yours truly). In a memorable and now historic weekend meeting at a beautiful conference center called Pocantico, hosted and managed by the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, we proposed the creation of INN to a group of journalists (nearly all of them founders) from 27 nonprofit, nonpartisan news organizations, and we all signed what has become known as the Pocantico Declaration (the first draft of which I wrote). INN's mission, we declared, "is very simple: to aid and abet, in every conceivable way, individually and collectively, the work and public reach of its member news organizations, including, to the fullest extent possible, their administrative, editorial and financial well-being."
Today, INN is led by Executive Director and CEO Sue Cross, a veteran journalist and former senior vice president of the Associated Press (America's very first not-for-profit news cooperative organization, incorporated in New York in 1846). And INN has now grown to over 100 nonprofit news organizations!
Along the way, a hybrid form of nonprofit news organization also has evolved, besides the more typical, stand-alone, 501 (c)(3) tax-exempt, incorporated entities: university-based, multimedia newsrooms.
Five of the largest and most established such entities in the U.S. were founded (or co-founded) by veteran investigative reporters:
• The Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism (Brandeis University; Founding Director Florence Graves in 2004);
• The Investigative Reporting Program (University of California at Berkeley, Graduate School of Journalism; Director Lowell Bergman in 2006);
• The Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism; Director Sheila Coronel in 2006);
• The Investigative Reporting Workshop (American University School of Communication; Executive Editor Charles Lewis in 2008); and
• The New England Center for Investigative Reporting (Boston University College of Communication; Executive Director Joe Bergantino [co-founded with Maggie Mulvihill] in 2009).
The extraordinary evolution of this exciting, new nonprofit journalism ecosystem of hearty souls determined to hold those in power accountable by publishing credible, independent information at the local, state and national levels accelerated in just the past decade, to great expectations.
As comparably small, research/reporting centers within behemoth, nonprofit academic institutions, their annual budgets are so relatively miniscule, they are nowhere to be seen in their respective university's annual IRS 990 documents. And as a result, the details about their respective annual operating budgets, senior staff salaries, and other telling details, are more opaque than that which nonprofit incorporated centers are required by law to report each year.
Several more nonprofit, tax-exempt, incorporated, stand-alone research/reporting centers, founded and led by journalists in the U.S. today, have a formal or informal affiliation with area universities and their professors, students or physical infrastructure, such as libraries, studios or other facilities. For example, in 2009, veteran, award-winning journalists Andy Hall and Lorie Hearn each respectively founded the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism in Madison, Wisconsin, and inewsource in San Diego, California, and they and their organizations each closely interact with the University of Wisconsin School of Journalism and the San Diego State University School of Journalism and Media Studies.
All of the above organizations and respected journalists, in addition to creating important, public-service journalism content, also happen to be mentoring future generations of reporters and editors. (Full disclosure: Since their respective inceptions, I have served on the board or advisory boards of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and inewsource).
The extraordinary evolution of this exciting nonprofit journalism ecosystem of hearty souls determined to hold those in power accountable by publishing credible, independent information at the local, state and national levels accelerated in the past decade, to great expectations. Why then? Because it was, as noted earlier, the nadir of the U.S. commercial news media carnage in which many thousands of reporters and editors lost their jobs.
There were numerous manifestations of the extent of this crisis within the journalism profession. For example, in late 2008, with annual entries for the Pulitzer Prize in-depth reporting categories — Public Service, Investigative Reporting and Explanatory — down 30 percent or more, the Pulitzer Committee decided to open up its eligibility application process and begin accepting Pulitzer Prize submissions from online-only news outlets, including new nonprofit news organizations. That was a seismic and pragmatic acknowledgement of the changing journalistic landscape, unprecedented in the 91-year history of the Pulitzer Prizes.
And since 2009, four nonprofit, online news organizations have won Pulitzer Prizes: ProPublica (2), Inside Climate News, The Guardian (U.S.), and the Center for Public Integrity. Also, that same year, the Associated Press announced that it would syndicate to its member newspapers the investigative news stories from four online, nonprofit publishers: the Center for Public Integrity, the Center for Investigative Reporting, ProPublica and the Investigative Reporting Workshop.
And finally, in the most recent sign that “the times they are a changin,' ” in January in a stunning development, H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest donated his Philadelphia Media Network (PMN), which owns Philadelphia's two largest newspapers — The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News and their joint website, philly.com —to the nonprofit Institute for Journalism in New Media (part of the Philadelphia Foundation), and he also donated $20 million to endow it. The Philadelphia Inquirer is the third-oldest newspaper in the United States, begun in 1829, and its journalism has won 20 Pulitzer Prizes in the last century; the Philadelphia Daily News was founded in 1925 and it has won three Pulitzer Prizes.
According to Lenfest as reported by The Washington Post and others, the newsroom will continue to publish "independent public service journalism and investigative reporting that positively impacts the community, while also creating innovative multimedia content."
In January in a stunning development, H.F. “Gerry” Lenfest, donated his Philadelphia Media Network, which owns Philadelphia's two largest newspapers, to the nonprofit Institute for Journalism in New Media.
The last time a nonprofit organization became the owner of a major commercial newspaper in the United States was in 1975, when St. Petersburg Times owner and publisher Nelson Poynter created the Modern Media Institute, which eventually became the nonprofit Poynter Institute for Media Studies. In his will, he donated his ownership of the newspaper (which changed its name in 2012 to the Tampa Bay Times) to the new institute.
Of course, as I have noted in the past, there are other, older “trust ownership” models in other countries, such as The Guardian in England, owned by the Scott Trust; Ouest-France, the largest-circulation daily newspaper in France, owned by Groupe Ouest-France, which is 95 percent owned by the Société d’Investissements et de Participations, SIPA; and the Toronto Star, the largest circulation newspaper in Canada, owned by Torstar Corporation, which is controlled by the Torstar Voting Trust.
Advantages of nonprofits
Certainly no one is suggesting this nonprofit news organization model with its various permutations regardless of country, initial financial situation (starting at zero or inheriting a bequest, etc.) or precise legal construct (which can vary according to country) is easy or a panacea. But on the other hand, is anything in life, entrepreneurial or otherwise, for profit or not for profit, easy? For the past quarter-century, I have suggested that nonprofit investigative journalism has numerous advantages over the commercial model. And as David Levy and Robert Picard, the director and then-research director of Oxford University’s Reuters Institute, respectively, observed in late 2010, “When structured and staffed correctly, alternative structures can help keep news organizations focused on the public interest aspects of accountability journalism both at the national and local level.”
Internationally, there has been substantial activity evident in the nonprofit news milieu for many years, as my colleagues Pietro Lombardi and Daniel Farber-Ball have reported here. I described my own epiphany about the increasing importance and exciting new potential of international, investigative newsgathering collaborations in the fall of 1992, at the first overseas journalism conference in which I was invited to participate.
It was a relatively small confab in which some of the world’s preeminent reporters and editors met for a few days, just blocks from the Kremlin, the extraordinary timing and historic setting full of drama and uncertainty. In fact, just over a year earlier, there had been an unsuccessful, attempted coup d’etat against Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, and only nine months prior to our Moscow gathering, the Soviet Union itself had fallen, he had resigned from office and 15 new independent republics, including Russia, had emerged, led by President Boris Yeltsin.
The conference keynote speaker was former Washington Post Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein, for whom I had worked at ABC News in the late 1970s when he was the Washington bureau chief. I also was fortunate enough to meet other, astonishingly courageous muckrakers there from around the world whose reporting had enraged the powers that be. Some of these journalists had been arrested or imprisoned; watched in utter horror as their sources were murdered in the streets of South Africa; and, in one case, in Colombia, not only received dozens of death threats, but over a period of years, her newspaper's offices and her home had been separately blown up, and her sister, a documentary filmmaker, had been killed.
Meanwhile, all of these very real occupational hazards were otherworldly and eye-opening to the U.S. investigative reporters in attendance, and indeed, in stark contrast, the Americans mostly seemed to lament how long their Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests had taken.
At the dawn of the Internet age and the infancy of the still new and-not-so-familiar or understood creation of the World Wide Web, as renown British journalist Phillip Knightley eloquently observed, a reporter in London or anywhere else requesting advice or assistance from another journalist in the world could only communicate via a “snail-mail” letter or fax or a costly long-distance phone call. But now, with the prospect of these exciting new technologies, and their enormous potential looming large to us all, he argued that competitive, squirrelly and sometimes downright paranoid investigative reporters must loosen up and cooperate and collaborate more with each other across borders.
And he provided compelling, specific examples of exactly how that could be done, how sometimes it was already being done. I realized he was absolutely right, but also recognized that the notion of traditional news organizations collaborating with each other as publishers was still far-fetched at that time. In fact, for example, it took 20 years and 750,000 pages of leaked, classified documents before The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel collaborated on the massive Wikileaks national security stories.
Back then, in the early 1990s, I didn’t understand why there wasn’t already a global, multimedia outlet with cross border muckraking capacity. The time, it seemed to me, was now. Furthermore, I also knew there were literally hundreds of excellent enterprise journalists around the world with almost no outlet for serious writing, especially about international issues. And the Center for Public Integrity in Washington seemed uniquely qualified to (at least attempt to) create an online platform to facilitate and publish such important global work. It may have not been remotely apparent to anyone else — indeed, it was an absurd notion for a small, hardly known, three-year-old nonprofit with meager resources — but nonetheless, it was glaringly obvious to me, and I saw a thrilling opportunity to move the Center into this important space.
In late 1997, following five years of conversations with many people I respected in the U.S. and around the world, and some essential project funding, I proposed — and the Center Board unanimously approved — the creation of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists. I hired Maud Beelman, a respected veteran foreign correspondent for The Associated Press and a recent Patterson Fellow just back from covering the wars in the former Yugoslavia, as the first ICIJ director. And with the advice of veteran journalist Bill Kovach, a Center Advisory Board member, then curator of the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Jim Risser, then curator of the Knight Fellowship program at Stanford University, we were able to identify more than 50 preeminent investigative journalists from outside the U.S. whom we invited to become members. They all accepted, unanimously. By the time I stepped down as executive director of the Center (including ICIJ) at the end of 2004, we had roughly 100 premier investigative journalists in 50 countries on six continents. And today, there are over 190 ICIJ reporters in 65 countries on six continents. To date, their work has won more than 20 journalism awards.
Photo from Twitter account
Maud Beelman, ICIJ's first director
The original, investigative, online content developed by the members and the Washington staff of the ICIJ transformed the Center for Public Integrity into “the first global website devoted to international exposés,” according to the "Encyclopedia of Journalism" (2009). And in recent years, over 100 investigative reporters throughout the world have combined their mutual trust, expertise and energies to do original reporting about offshore banking, tax evasion and avoidance issues, with 50 or more major news organizations simultaneously publishing their work! This is, as recently noted, an unprecedented global, investigative journalistic collaboration.
These recent, various "leak-based" projects — Secrecy for Sale, Luxembourg Leaks and Swiss Leaks — while astonishing and epic in scale — also provided a logistical learning curve for the ICIJ and for its many participating journalists and news organizations. But even with those remarkable successes, who could have imagined that the Consortium's next collective investigation, its 26th, would involve more than 370 journalists in 76 countries, analyzing 11.5 million leaked records, and revealing “214,488 offshore entities connected to people in more than 200 countries and territories”? By any standard, the publication of The Panama Papers was and always will be seen as a seminal, groundbreaking moment in the history of journalism, a feat of international reportorial and publishing collaboration previously unimaginable.
Coincidentally, just months after the Center for Public Integrity began in the U.S. in 1989, a third of the way around the world, another nonprofit investigative reporting organization began to emerge. Nine Filipino journalists led by founding Executive Director Sheila Coronel created the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalists, its fearless reporting years later bringing down a corrupt president, Joseph Estrada. The organization's slogan: "Journalism with an impact: We tell it like it is. No matter who. No matter what." Over the ensuing quarter-century, the PCIJ, which has received support from the U.S. Embassy, the World Bank and various foreign-aid agencies, has published 1,000 investigative reports and 1,000 other stories in major Philippine newspapers and magazines, produced five full-length documentaries for television and "launched over two dozen books."
To date, for its accountability reporting, the Philippine Center has won over 150 awards. Meanwhile, Coronel left the Philippines to become not only the first director of the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism, but also the dean of academic affairs at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
A few years after the Philippine Center began, in 2001, more than 8,500 miles away, three investigative journalists, Stefan Candea, Paul Radu and Sorin Ozon, former reporters for a Bucharest newspaper, Evenimentul Zilei, created the Romanian Centre for Investigative Journalists (RCIJ). It has never had a traditional office; its operations instead run from the one-room apartment of one of the co-founders. Most of its initial grants have come over the years from the Danish government, the European Union, the U.S. Agency for International Development. As Radu told me, "RCIJ is in a permanent stage of crisis because we don't have long-term financial support." Nonetheless, over the years, it earned a reputation for its courageous investigative articles about the arms trade, offshore media ownership and international organized crime groups.
Candea and Radu, whom I’ve known for many years, each of them brilliant, fearless, prize-winning journalists who have done remarkable reporting in often-dangerous situations, subsequently were awarded prestigious Harvard University Nieman and Stanford University Knight fellowships, respectively, in the United States. And along the way, their dynamic professional and intellectual interests have grown but also diverged.
For example, during his time at Harvard, Candea became fascinated by the efficiency of “experimental approaches and the chronicle of innovation in journalism at Harvard and MIT labs like C4, Berkman and Nieman Lab. Students and professionals got the opportunity to get involved with cutting-edge projects in research but also in solving real-life problems.” Upon returning to Bucharest, Romania, with only a fraction of their respective resources, he created Sponge, an “open and collaborative media lab in Eastern Europe.” Its idealistic purpose: to be “the entry point for media-related visionaries who recognize a real-life problem: the lack of information in the public interest. We experiment with technologies and digital tools, with the aim of producing and promoting free, relevant and verifiable content of public interest.” That same spirit of innovation also spawned a nonprofit, in-depth, multimedia magazine, The Black Sea, which Candea has characterized as “a lifeboat for journalism in the region.” It was made possible by financial support from the German Marshall Fund.
In addition, Candea is now working toward a doctoral degree, his dissertation research examining “Cross Border Networks for Investigative Journalism.” A collaboration between the Communication and Media Research Institute (CMRI) at the University of Westminster in London and the European Institute for Journalism and Communication Research in Leipzig, Germany, he is researching “the problems that cross-border networks of investigative journalism face” and exploring possible “solutions that are strengthening the networked community for investigative journalism.”
Most recently, Candea has helped to organize and launch a new, informal network called “European Investigative Collaborations,” with membership ranging “from large media to small investigative nonprofit [organizations], covering Europe,” from Der Spiegel to The Black Sea. The first project, published in March, was published by 11 media organizations in 10 languages in Europe, focusing “mainly at the weapons used in the terror attacks in France last year and at the black market for arms in Europe.”
At the same time, since his Stanford Knight Fellowship, fellow Romanian and RCIJ co-founder Paul Radu has also been exceedingly energetic and creative. Along with another Knight Fellow the same year, Justin Arenstein (founder of the African Eye News Service, AENS, in South Africa in 1994, and co-founder of the Forum for African Investigative Reporters, FAIR, among other entrepreneurialism), Radu created the Investigative Dashboard, “a transnational collaborative effort to help journalists and civil-society researchers expose organized crime and corruption around the world.” It has three remarkable elements: “a crowd-sourced database of information and documents on persons of interest and their business connections, a worldwide list of online databases and business registries, and a research desk where journalists can go for help in sourcing hard to find information.” (Full disclosure: I am a member of its advisory board.) Radu separately is the co-creator of the RISE Project, a new online platform for investigative reporters and hackers in Romania.
The Investigative Dashboard has been developed and is administered by the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP), which began in 2003 as a collective entity of “20 regional non-profit investigative centers and for-profit independent media stretching from Eastern Europe to Central Asia.” It was co-founded by Radu and Drew Sullivan, an American journalist with experience in media development overseas, who studied at the University of Missouri and directed a reporting center in Sarajevo.
Today, Radu is the executive director of OCCRP, and Sullivan is the editor. There is no question that OCCRP stories have helped, as noted on the organization’s website, “to change laws, spur investigations and indictments and raise public expectations of both media and government.” With a full-time staff of 32 people, its courageous work recognized and honored with 33 awards in just the past three years alone (2013-2015), OCCRP is one of “the world’s leading cross border investigative reporting organization(s).” It is heavily funded by the U.S. government, in particular the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and various foundations.
Grit, tenacity and determination
That there are now 27 non-U.S., nonprofit, investigative news organizations identified in the Investigative Reporting Workshop's survey is utterly remarkable, for multiple reasons. Nearly all of this entrepreneurialism comes from rank-and-file muckrakers — not from traditional publishers or business-minded folks or wealthy individuals. In other words, scrappers determined to make it work, somehow, some way, in order to investigate the uses and abuses of power. In many cases, finding sufficient funding has been and it remains a very serious, difficult issue, not surprisingly. I so admire these social entrepreneurs' extraordinary grit, sweat equity, integrity, tenacity and determination, irrespective of country or continent.
But so much else of what has evolved is also remarkable. Who knew in 1999 when the then-executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) in the U.S., Brant Houston, and the founder/director of the pioneering but now-defunct Danish Institute for Computer Assisted Reporting (DICAR), Nils Mulvad, were commiserating in Europe over wine and agreed that it would be a great idea for investigative reporters throughout the world to periodically gather and learn from each others' best practices — much like what happens in the various conferences — that it would actually come to pass and, become institutionalized.
Indeed, the evolution of the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN) and its international conferences has been magnificent to behold. I have attended and spoken at eight of the nine to date, and was present and spoke at the very first global conference (Copenhagen, Denmark in 2001). I attended the first, formal, organizing/steering committee meeting of representatives from 35 journalism organizations throughout the world in Copenhagen (2003), and participated in the subsequent global conferences in Toronto, Canada (2007), Lillehammer, Norway (2008 and 2015), Kiev, Ukraine (2011) and Rio de Janeiro (2013), Brazil, missing only the Geneva, Switzerland, conference (because of my book-manuscript deadline). And I certainly intend to join my colleagues at the 10th Global Investigative Journalism conference in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 2017, co-hosted by the Investigative Journalism Programme at the University of the Witwatersrand. That global conference will represent the fourth continent in which Global Investigative Journalism conferences have been held.
Global Investigative Journalism Conference
The natural, almost "kumbayah" manner in which this global phenomenon came to be has been inspiring and fascinating, beginning simply with an inspired idea and a bevy of like-minded, investigative souls across the world who recognized that finding information and holding those in power are increasingly borderless and culturally transcendent pursuits, necessarily requiring human collaboration, even in this Internet Age. This discernible, self-initiated international community of reporters, editors, publishers and journalist/academics has grown from the initial 300 who attended that first Copenhagen conference in 2001 to the highest conference attendance to date, 1,350 people in Rio de Janeiro in 2013.
In fact, the GIJN did not become formally incorporated until October 2014; the initial board officers were GIJN co-founder Brant Houston, Center for Public Integrity/ICIJ deputy director Marina Walker and Margo Smit, the then-director of the Flemish-Dutch Investigative Journalism Association. The initial board members numbered 15 and these were elected by member organizations. GIJN, led by Executive Director David Kaplan, remains a decentralized network with staff in five cities in four countries. Despite holding conferences around the world since 2001, as these confabs got larger and more expensive, especially when held in less-affluent countries, the need to raise funding for them became greater and more pressing. But you can't raise money without a legal and financial mechanism in place. GIJN's important U.S. Internal Revenue Service (IRS) tax-exempt status (a prerequisite to raising and receiving foundation and other philanthropic funding) was not granted until July 2015. To date, the GIJN now consists of 138 member organizations (including the Investigative Reporting Workshop) from 62 countries on five continents, and to date, its conferences have "brought together more than 5,000 journalists from 120 countries since 2001."
Last fall, I spoke at the Ninth Global Investigative Journalism conference back in Lillehammer, Norway, in October, in which 1,000 journalists participated from 121 countries in a program that featured more than 160 panels, workshops and special events. No single panel was more moving or inspirational than the opening, keynote event, entitled, "Investigative Journalism Under Attack." It opened with this dramatic video production, and later included featured journalists under constant physical threat and stress: Drew Sullivan, co-founder and editor of Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (who discussed imprisoned Azerbaijani journalist Khadija Ismayilova); Clare Rewcastle Brown, a British journalist and publisher of the Sarawak Report in Malaysia, operating under constant death threats in the Borneo Rainforest; Rafael Marques de Morais, Angolan journalist and founder of Maka Angola; and Marcela Turati, a Mexican journalist and co-founder of the network Periodistas de a Pie (Journalists on Foot), "dedicated to training journalists to improve the quality of their journalism and to defend freedom of expression."
Less dramatically but also important, over time, a discernible group of hearty veteran investigative journalists around the world has moved into academia. Besides occasional reporting and writing, these journalists — myself included — also are teaching hundreds of aspiring reporters how to do investigative research and reporting. And at these conferences, a vibrant and inspiring "academic track" of presentations and peer-reviewed, academic papers now exists. I moderated two panel discussions. The first was "Sustaining High Quality Journalism," in which Columbia University professor Anya Schiffrin and I spoke about the academic papers we had written and submitted prior to the Lillehammer conference.
And the following day, "Studies of Cross-Border Investigations" with Anas Aremeyaw Anas, the chief executive officer of Tiger Eye, a video news organization in Ghana, and Evelyn Groenink, investigations editor of ZAM Magazine and previously the founding director of Forum for African Investigative Reporters (FAIR). Anas has become known around the world for his personally dangerous, undercover sting investigations exposing allegedly corrupt officials and appeared and spoke with a covering over his face to hide his facial identity.
The academic paper I wrote and submitted at the Norway conference was entitled, “Accountability Information, Across Borders.” It has been posted online with all of the other such GIJ conference papers at the Investigative Journalism Education Consortium, begun in recent years by Knight Professor Brant Houston and other Midwest-area professors. The consortium is based at the College of Media, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, made possible thanks to support provided by the Robert R. McCormick Foundation.
Essentially, I amplified upon some concluding observations I had made in the final pages of my 2014 book,"935 Lies: The Future of Truth and the Decline of America’s Moral Integrity," about the need to enlarge the public space for accountability reporting, research, studies and collaboration. As noted in Norway from the paper, “It is increasingly apparent that holding those in public or private power accountable is and must be a collaborative undertaking, given how fundamental reliable information is to democracies and to the entire concept of self-governance everywhere. Public interest, academic, non-government organizations (including public policy-oriented “think tanks”) and other investigative or data-gathering organizations and individuals increasingly must share their information, knowledge and expertise. Of course, not all organizations or their personnel are created equal, in terms of competence, quality controls and standards, and simple, reliable accuracy…
"Years into this extraordinary 'here comes everybody' world of the web and globally accessible online information, the question is how to attempt and indeed, how to accomplish such a gargantuan task, and do so as efficiently and as realistically soon as humanly possible in this borderless world.”
Scores of reporters working together worldwide
Four months prior to this GIJN conference, I was invited along with three other U.S. journalists — Paul Steiger, founding editor-in-chief, CEO and president of ProPublica; Ayan Mitrra, Texas Tribune managing editor; Patrick Cooper, NPR’s director of audience engagement — to travel and speak about “nonprofit journalism” to German journalists in Magdeburg, Germany. The daylong event was sponsored by the Global Center for Journalism and Democracy (GCJD at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas) led by Kelli Arena, a former CNN Washington correspondent and now Dan Rather Endowed Professor, and the University of Applied Sciences, Magdeburg-Stendal (UMS).
A few days later, in Berlin, I spoke to the staff, friends and supporters of one of the most impressive and important new nonprofit reporting organizations in Europe, CORRECT!V. I honestly don’t think I could have been any more warmly welcomed. It is well-funded, with a full-time, paid staff of 21, which is atypical of most nonprofit journalism startup organizations anywhere in the world. Its website is smartly designed, and its content uses drawings and cartoons along with the prose and photos in a visually appealing way. The news organization's motto is: "Investigations in the public interest" and its goals and pronouncements are bold and direct: "We are the first nonprofit investigative newsroom in the German-speaking world. Our goal is to give citizens access to information." Led by publisher David Schraven and Executive Director Christian Humborg, its journalistic reporting aspirations appear to extend far beyond the German-speaking world. Keep watching CORRECT!V.
Late last year, I spoke to students and faculty about investigative reporting in the context of my book and more broadly investigative journalism, starting with Cardiff, University in Wales. Although I had never been to Wales, I had a particular interest because my father’s family ancestors had emigrated from Wales to the U.S. in the 17th century. I had been invited to visit and speak at the Cardiff School of Journalism, Media & Cultural Studies by Richard Sambrook, deputy head of school and director of the Centre for Journalism, following his 30-year career at the BBC, where he was a producer, editor and manager, culminating with serving as the director of the BBC World Service and Global News.
He is perhaps best-known, though, as the former director of news at the BBC around the time the U.S., the United Kingdom and other “willing” countries invaded and began the 2003 Iraq War, without the approval of the United Nations Security Council and based upon the supposed (and we now know specious) national-security threat posed by Iraq’s “weapons of mass destruction.” He successfully and credibly weathered the storm of pressure from the Tony Blair-led British government, furious with the BBC’s aggressive coverage of its rush to war. We had some very illuminating, insightful conversations about the state of journalism and journalism education in the U.S. and the U.K. and much more.
What most impressed me about the Cardiff University School of Journalism, Media & Cultural Studies, created within a decade of when the time American University’s School of Communication was created, was its academic heft, in particular the extent of its PhD program. And especially the data journalism teaching and research there by Glyn Mottershead, senior lecturer of digital journalism and co-director of the master's of science computational journalism program there. Mottershead, trained years ago by preeminent data journalist David Donald, now data editor at the Investigative Reporting Workshop, is doing collaborative data journalism/academic research with professors at the Cardiff University School of Social Sciences.
Who knew that day that roughly three and a half months later, there would be an ISIS terrorist bombing not far from where we sat in their offices, in the heart of downtown Brussels’ European Union (EU) government office buildings.
While I was in Cardiff, the horrific Paris terrorist attack occurred, and a week later, I was participating and speaking at the annual conference of the Dutch-Flemish Association for Investigative Journalism (Vereniging van Onderzoeksjournalisten, or VVOJ), held in The Hague, the seat of government for the Netherlands. VVOJ was formerly led by Margo Smit, a respected Dutch investigative journalist and member of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, and is currently led by Tanja van Bergen. With more than 650 members (about two-thirds of that number attended this particular conference), VVOJ "aims to enhance investigative journalism in the Low Countries — Netherlands and Flanders, Belgium — in the broadest sense of the word." Its mission and program activities are similar to those of IRE in the United States — organizing and overseeing professional training and conferences — but VVOJ began 27 years after IRE, in 2002.
My conference session, "Collaborating Across Borders," was moderated by my old friend Ides Debruyne, whom I first met in 2000 in Brussels, and who has become an important figure in European investigative journalism funding in Europe (together with his colleague Brigitte Alfter), as co-founder of the Belgian Pascal Decroos Fund for Investigative Journalism, the VVOJ and the government supported journalismfund.eu, of which he is managing director. The session included Kristof Clerix, a talented, young reporter for MO, a Belgian magazine. Much of our discussion was about the Center for Public Integrity's International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, how it came to be and Clerix's latest efforts as part of the massive offshore banking scandal coverage that involved literally scores of reporters collaborating around the world.
After the Paris attacks
Just two and a half weeks later, we were back together again, this time in Brussels. It was only 11 days after the post-Paris, anti-terrorism "lockdown" in Brussels had been lifted that I arrived, and some of the streets and plazas still appeared quasi-deserted, a heavily armed police presence still evident. Nonetheless, during the day, I met and talked with Dutch-speaking public television producers and editors at VRT Brussels about possible investigative reporting projects. And that Monday evening, at the Flemish-Dutch House DeBuren, a kind of community gathering place in downtown Brussels, the capital of complex Dutch/Flemish/French Belgium and the entire European Union, I spoke to about 75 people from a small stage in downtown Brussels, interviewed by Clerix and also taking wide-ranging questions from the audience.
That morning, not coincidentally, there had been a major story in the Flemish-language newspaper, De Morgen, featuring an extensive interview with me I had earlier done with the writer Hans Van Scharen at the VVOJ conference in the Hague, and a substantial discussion about my recent book, with a three-page layout, which ironically never occurred during my 12-city 2014 book tour in the United States and London (or for that matter, ever), where they mostly speak and read English.
The next day, Ides took me to Thomas More University College in the Flanders part of the culturally diverse Belgium, the city of Mechelen. We spent a few interesting hours touring and talking with professors and administrators there from various local journalism schools who all mercifully spoke English among other languages, and we discovered (or were reminded) that the issues surrounding teaching about investigative journalism are truly universal.
Photo courtesy Politico
Charles Lewis talks about investigative story ideas with POLITICO's European staff in Brussels last December.
Later that afternoon, Ides and I spent nearly two hours at the recently opened, posh new Brussel offices of POLITICO, which in April 2015 began publishing the Europe Edition of the successful news organization originally begun in the U.S. by former Washington Post reporters John Harris and Jim VandeHei and publisher Joseph Allbritton. At the reporters' request, I talked for more than an hour with the newsroom staff, mostly about possible investigative story ideas involving conflicts of interest, lobbying and corruption in Brussels and Europe. And later, Ides and I sat down for a podcast interview, conducted by POLITICO reporters Laurens Cerulus and James Panichi (posted on their Soundcloud, iTunes-channel and website). Three and a half months later, there would be an ISIS terrorist bombing not far from where we sat in their offices, in the heart of downtown Brussels’ European Union (EU) government office buildings.
These autumn speaking jaunts in Belgium, the Netherlands, Wales and Norway were considerably more feasible because I was already in Europe. On faculty sabbatical from teaching last fall, I had been invited to be a Visiting Fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom. It was a terrific experience, in the midst of roughly 20 fellows, visiting fellows and academic researchers from all over the world, with fascinating and wide-ranging lectures and seminars every week — from the cultural phenomenon of Japanese press clubs to media repression and government corruption in Fiji, to "new and social media" exposés of government-sanctioned destruction of ancient antiquities in the name of urban progress in Beirut, Lebanon, to the most definitive international research data about the extent of online journalism, advertising revenues and the usage of mobile phones versus tablets country-by-country.
Dr. Klaus Miller, a visiting professor from Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, spoke to us about "Data Analytics: Can data save journalism? How analytics change the newsroom and beyond?" one of many interesting, weekly presentations with questions and answers about the present and future role of emerging technologies on media companies and journalism in the 21st century. Miller's observations hit a nerve with me, and I later corresponded with him via email. I mentioned to him that, according to Wired magazine, the co-founder and chief technology officer of Narrative Science ("a company that trains computers to write news stories"), Kristian Hammond, had told a small conference of U.S. journalists and tech folks in 2011 that a computer will win a Pulitzer Prize within five years. And when asked what percentage of news he predicts will be written by computers in 15 years, he had answered "More than 90 percent."
I asked Miller if he agrees with this assessment, understandably alarming to most veteran journalists. His response: "I think the quote you highlight has some truth to it and is coherent to my outlook . . . I would not want to make a statement of how long it will take computers to be able to produce text as good as human writers can do this today, but from my knowledge in text recognition and machine learning, I would assume that at some point machines will be able to write text as good as humans can."
While at Oxford, I also gave a public talk at Nuffield College (one of the 38 colleges within Oxford University), regarding "Investigative Journalism and U.S. Politics." The raucous, shameless American presidential politics, with interminable two-year campaigns costing hundreds of millions of dollars for just each major presidential candidate and billions overall for members of Congress versus Parliamentary and British elections could not be more different. And my specific references to the flagrant conflicts-of-interest as reported in three (1996, 2000 and 2004) "The Buying of the President" books and "The Buying of the Congress" (1998) books written by yours truly and my then-colleagues at the Center for Public Integrity, updated to the current circus-like context, was apparently appalling to many in the international audience. But the personal highlight of that memorable evening was being an honored guest at the formal, Oxford "high table" dinner afterward, accompanied by Dr. David Levy, director of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Dr. James Painter, director of the Reuters Institute Fellows Programme and others.
Photo by Edwin Okoth
Workshop Executive Editor Charles Lewis, professor Ting Wang and journalist Rodrigo Berndt Carro at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.
I also gave another, less formal talk at the end of the fall session for fellows and visiting fellows at the Reuters Institute. I had been asked by James Painter to speak about "International Initiatives on Investigative Journalism" since my colleagues were from all over the world. I reviewed the specific history and evolution of the Center for Public Integrity's International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and it was well-received, judging from the comments and questions afterward.
My research proposal to the Reuters Institute as part of the application process had been entitled, "Tear Down These Walls: Exploring the Efficacy and Potential of Journalistic and Academic Data, Research and Reporting Collaboration," and it followed up the final pages of my book in which I described a new, interdisciplinary research field known as "Accountability Studies" and called for greater collaboration between investigative journalists, academic researchers, independent researchers at thousands of often high-quality "think tank" institutions and other serious, well-educated, hunter-gatherer, knowledge workers throughout the U.S. and the world. With the fine help of my Oxford and American University grad student researchers, Ryan Powell and Meghan Puryear, I learned a great deal about the extent of interdisciplinary and cross-profession research collaboration in North America and Europe in particular. And of the various interviews I conducted while in the U.K., I particularly enjoyed meeting and talking with former, longtime Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger in Oxford and the founder of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, in London.
My research on this important subject of accountability research continues now that I am back in the United States, and it will manifest itself in the months ahead. But despite the immensity and profound potential of this particular, exciting subject, it is only one element within the extraordinary recent past, present and future of nonprofit investigative research and reporting in the United States and around the world.
This essay was recently updated.