He may be an investigative journalist by trade, but Guardian (UK) writer Nick Davies is not shy to criticize his own profession. Davies made headlines across the globe with the February 2008 publication of his book, Flat Earth News, a searing indictment of investigative reporting and modern journalism. The book, which details issues such as illegal acts committed by journalists on the job and "churnalism", or barely fact-checked information rehashed from PR professionals and spin-doctors, turned the spotlight on the news industry, launching a debate within the ranks of news professionals about the challenges facing the industry.
Davies is the author of five books, has been named Journalist of the Year, Reporter of the Year, and Feature Writer of the Year. He was also the first winner of the Martha Gellhorn award for investigative reporting in 1999.
To launch our series on the Future of Investigative Journalism and the challenges ahead, the Editors Weblog spoke with Davies to see what all the controversy was about and to ask Davies his views on the future of his profession.
EW: What skills does it take to specifically be a good investigative journalist? How is it different to being a beat reporter or is it similar?
ND: In principle, the skills of investigative reporting are exactly the same as those of any other kind of reporting - because all reporting is investigative, all reporting is an attempt to get at the truth, so the distinction is a false one.
There is a sub-set of reporting where somebody is actively obstructing the reporter's access to information, which means the job will be more difficult and so the skills will be more obvious, but the key difference is not in the skills required but in the time that is required. The beat reporter is liable to be under pressure to produce several stories every shift and, therefore, will be unlikely to have the time to dig into anything which is being deliberately concealed.
EW: How has the business changed over the past 10 years, ie, skills necessary, training, and so forth?
ND: The big change in the business over the last ten years is precisely the reduction of time available for almost all reporters to do their work. The beat reporter as much as the 'investigative' specialist suffers from this, because so many news rooms have been taken over by profit-hungry corporations who have cut staff and increased output and thereby made it extremely difficult for any of their reporters to work effectively. The required skills have not changed (apart from the minor technical skills of dealing with websites).
The training, however, is in decline along with the industry as a whole, primarily because colleges now train students to fit with the demands of time-starved newsrooms, eg, the quick re-writing of press releases, the recycling of agency copy; and also because colleges set up courses with 'media' or 'journalism' in the title because they know it will attract student numbers even though they have nobody qualified to teach the course, so you have sociologists and literary specialists teaching the skills of a profession which they do not understand.
EW: Is your job harder or easier with the advent of multi-platform news? Do you see podcasts and video content as useful?
ND: Multi-platform news has tended to make it more difficult for all reporters - beat, specialist, 'investigative' - to do their work because filing for audio, video and print
a) consumes precious time, and
b) dilutes concentration.
And I am not at all sure that our consumers are particularly interested in or attracted to the vodcasts and podcasts that we make available to them. Occasionally, there are stories where the print version is hugely enlivened by video - for example, the passenger video of the scenes inside the Qantas flight which blew a hole in its fuselage last month. But to make the production of audio and video versions a standard requirement for all stories is bad management and highly likely to accelerate the declining standard of our product.
EW: Do you use any of the new technologies in your reporting, ie, video, and mobile? Have these new technologies made your job easier or harder?
ND: As a reporter, I'm not concerned with the way in which my words are used. What I file may go into the print edition or onto the website or be subbed down for emails or mobile messages.
The one way in which electronic technology does impact me is my access to the worldwide web. That is a wonderful research tool, and I use it all the time. It is no substitute for dealing with human sources, but it enormously increases the amount of information that is available in the public domain. Personally, therefore, it has made my working life much easier.
However, for 'beat' reporters or for any reporter who has not been able to negotiate the time to do the job, the web does also represent a threat because it means they no longer have the benefit of a deadline at the end of the day: for most of them the deadline is always here and now because even if the printed edition is not calling for copy, the website is. Time - reporters can't do their job without it.
EW: What are your thoughts on lobby groups, such as the Taxpayers' Alliance, setting up investigative reporting units themselves and sending their articles direct to newspapers?
ND: The danger with funding by lobby groups is clear - that, at best, they will select story subjects and/or angles which suit their agenda and, at worst, that they will inject outright falsehood and distortion directly into them. But not all dangers are realised. I think most reporters would say that if they could find a lobby group which was prepared to back genuine journalism without imposing its agenda, they'd take it in a heartbeat.
The underlying point is that the inherent dangers of allowing corporations to take over ownership of news media are certainly being realised with highly destructive results for truth-telling journalism - and so any alternative is worth considering.
Over the coming weeks, The Editors Weblog will be examining how investigative reporting has been affected by multi-platform publication and the 24-hour news culture.