The image of the lone wolf journalist, sniffing out local crime and corruption, may be a thing of the past - that's according to the results of a new enquiry launched by the International Journalists' network, which has summarised the latest changes in the field of investigative journalism.
Hunting in packs
Collaborative efforts have proved both efficient and effective: Editor of the International Journalists' network, Jessica Weiss cites the International Consortium of Investigative Journalist's recent 13-month investigation into the illegal global tobacco trade as one such success. The investigative series, "Tobacco Underground", unearthed stories surrounding a multibillion-dollar business of trafficking, which has contributed to crime, corruption, terrorism and illness internationally. Its team was composed of some 22 reporters in 14 countries, spread across a dozen different time zones, and reported on anything from "counterfeiters in China and renegade factories in Russia to Indian reservations in New York and warlords in Pakistan and North Africa".
The pragmatics of "Tobacco Underground" were by no means unusual. In the digital age many of today's investigative journalists are working in regional and cross-border networks, enabled by technology and tools that are revolutionising reporting. The European Fund for Investigative Journalism actively encourages this- providing research grants from a fund of €20,000 for stories that have the potential to make an impact; its main stipulation being that projects should include "cross-border research, networking between colleagues, established and innovative investigative methods" and be "original, innovative and intensive".
As mentioned earlier, the Internet facilitates this: On a basic level journalists have the means to communicate with each other effectively and inexpensively, benefiting from the use of a secure, online workplaces to communicate, share documents, photos and videos, and edit each other's work. But the web offers other advantages too: The information super highway is being tamed by social networking sites, such as the journalist's virtual grapevine, Twitter. Fans or otherwise, few journalists would refuse to acknowledge the speed with which the tool relays news stories globally, often providing important leads. Latest reports regarding the development of Wikileaks - "the online clearinghouse for leaked documents", permitting access to sensitive documents, is another exciting development for journalists and could provide a powerful tool for investigation.
The importance of watchdog journalism
According to ICIJ director and Tobacco Underground lead editor David Kaplan, good investigative journalists delve "deeply into complex subjects, and look at whether people in a given society who have power are exercising that power in an accountable way". Put like that, one can hardly ignore its necessity as a direct means to regulate society. Yet newspapers seeking to cut costs have cut jobs, and with investigative journalism proving to be time-consuming as well as costly, floundering local papers no longer have the means to support it.
As a result citizen start-ups have been cropping up around the globe, particularly in the U.S. The most well-known publications to date, MinnPost and Voice of San Diego, exist on a total budget of a little more than $1 million a year (with almost all of the budget going directly on reporting). The start-ups have done away with expensive print, delivery and ad sales costs as well as sports reports, breaking crime news and so on, in order to deliver serious reporting. A number of the new non-profit units, such as Pro Publica, also focus exclusively on investigative reports also. The UK's newly set up "Investigations Fund" is also looking to support "risky, challenging reporting" for which it has recognised that there is a "crying demand".
The growing trend for Citizen start-ups is mirrored by non-profit investigative centres worldwide: The current number stands at 50, with more than half of those having been established since 2000. Though the first three non-profits dedicated to investigative journalism were American: the Fund for Investigative Journalism (1969), Investigative Reporters and Editors (1975), and the Center for Investigative Reporting (1977), it is an idea that is now taking off internationally: In August of this year, the Latin American Conference on Investigative Journalism lauded two exposés of public corruption in Brazil and the management of illicit accounts within the Catholic Church in Costa Rica - an important development for two countries where a tradition of investigative journalism does not exist.
One of the biggest threats facing investigative journalism is simply that of not having enough trained professionals within the field to safeguard its survival. In countries where media freedom is seriously restricted, reporting of this kind can be dangerous - and even life threatening. Caijing, a Chinese magazine, has manoeuvred around this by training their investigators in the reportage of finance and financial investigations - which is permitted, as opposed to direct criticism of the country's Communist government. Similarly, Arab Reporters in Syria have sponsored consumer reporting on food safety in order to train people in the method. According to Kaplan "The important thing is that you establish a methodology - you get a generation of reporters trained in how to do this kind of reporting and the rest will come".
But even in countries with independent media, investigative stories have other hurdles to overcome. Kaplan commented that during "Tobacco Underground", language, cultural and technological barriers were often difficult to work with, as well as the fact that reporters were working across different time zones. Furthermore, reporters in different regions had different levels of training, varied reporting styles and standards.
A future rooted in its past
All in all however, technological advancements have so far had a positive effect on news reporting states Kaplan, which he refers to as the "great equaliser" at a time when so many other resources are being cut.
Technology aside, Kaplan maintains that "investigative journalism as a craft remains rooted in the same principles it was founded upon", calling upon its journalists to "think about stories systematically, think about multiple sourcing, look up public records, interview and follow trails - trails to people, trails of money, trails of accountability", drawing parallels between investigative reporters and "good cops and honest prosecutors" who ultimately, are "driven by the hope to leave the world a little better than how they found it."
With the emergence of non-profit start ups it is clear that these "good cops" do exist. But are there enough of them to fill in the gaps in reporting left by the recent financial crisis? By Poynter Media Business Analyst Rick Edmond's estimations, it would take roughly 1,600 MinnPosts or Voice of San Diegos to replace the spending on journalism newspapers have cut. Either non-profit grows or the newspaper industry faces facts: investigative reporting is - and should continue to be - the very backbone of quality journalism.