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The Trust

Restoring the Trust
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Can Nonprofits Fill
Mainstream Media’s
Investigative Reporting Gap?
An Open-Forum Conversation with Jay Rosen,
Charles Lewis and Dan Gilmoor

Jay Rosen, New York University, Author of the blog PressThink
Charles Lewis, Founder, Center for Public Integrity
Dan Gilmoor, Author,“We the Media: Grassroots Journalism by the People,
for the People” and the blog Bayosphere

Question from the audience: What do you predict for the future if the financial rug is pulled out from under those in the mainstream media, such as the New York Times, CBS, who are still doing investigative reporting? Would non-profits be able to fill the gap?

Charles Lewis: Well, I don’t predict futures. And I don’t know the future. I just want to make sure everybody knows I don’t have a theory about the future. . . I don’t see a lot of wonderful investigative reporting. I think the great moments in American journalism ended in the 70s. If you study over the last 50 years great moments in American journalism, I hate to use the phrase but speaking truth to power occurred with challenging authority and exposing what needed to be exposed, the high-water mark was clearly the Pentagon Papers and the Watergate case. And when the Center for Public Integrity spends $600,000 on an investigation and uses 30 or 40 journalists on six continents—I failed to mention that we have an international consortium of journalists.. . . I don’t see those entities you just mentioned right now doing investigations on that level. I see Time Magazine turning over the notes of a reporter and not doing those investigations.

So, you’ll have to excuse me if I’m slightly skeptical. I see Edward R. Murrow laying out McCarthy on the air in ’54. I see Walter Cronkite doing a five-part series on Viet Nam and LBJ deciding not to seek re-election weeks later. And [then] I go to Iraq and I see hundreds of journalists embedded. The landscape is really weak.

There are problems with the non-profit journalism model—it’s not a panacea. You have to worry about payroll and keeping the lights on and finding money. My board, almost all of whom are working journalists . . . but I was told for 15 years that I did not have a sustainable business model, and we kept growing. . . The aim of the Center was never to replace the mainstream. . . I don’t know where all this is going. . . there are non-profit investigative reporting groups all over the world. . . they are also, with their reporting, creating the resignation or impeachment of presidents on multiple continents.. . so, can great journalism occur? Can large sums of money be amassed? Can great journalists do good things outside the mainstream and filter back to the mainstream and force it to take note? The answer is a resounding “yes.” Do I know what’s going to happen in 2010 and 2020 and 2030? Absolutely not. And I’m not going to remotely attempt to tell you that. I’m one of these brick-by-brick kind of guys. I just start things, and I’m working on some new ones.

How the “Open Source” Method Can Help Us

Dan Gillmor: There’s also something that we might think about in the future with the citizen journalism sphere, and that is for investigations to be done in what might be called an “open source” method. While most big media investigations are done very opaquely—they’re done in secret—then there’s this blow-out done at the end of the process. Many of them should be done that way, if not most, but I think there are a lot of these that could be done where someone says, early on in the process, here’s what we’re looking into. Can we get your help, please, to the world? And you would find that people would have data, facts, ideas, information that could feed into the process at the beginning. As opposed to waiting to have the thing appear in print, broadcast or on the web and then say, I know something else. And then you get the follow-ups, which is the standard method. I think we ought to be experimenting with that. It’s something I’m planning on doing, to get people in on something of this sort early and invite the community, of whatever sort, to participate in an investigative piece. I suspect we’re going to find good results in some cases, not in others. But we need to try.

Harnessing the Power of Horizontal Reporting

Jay Rosen: . . . my prediction is that the power of horizontal information gathering [via a blogger or site, such as Talkingpoints, asking constituents to call their congressman to see how he voted in an illegally closed meeting, then to relay that data to Talkingpoints] as opposed to putting a lot of money in a vertical organization and asking a small dedicated group of people to find things out—my prediction is that the power of horizontal investigations to produce totally effective truth which would have been hard to do by other means, will in fact be proven over the next few years. We will see that emerge as essentially another branch of investigative journalism distributed over many people cooperating to produce really powerful work that individuals—even your Center—would find hard to do. I think this will happen. It’s already happening.

Q: How can this horizontal model apply at the local level for newspapers?

Dan Gillmor: . . . This can work better probably locally than nationally. . . Tell people in the community you’re working on the following story. Start with something simple, like local transportation. People will come out of the woodwork to tell you what they know. . .

Charles Lewis: I have an example [of this horizontal model working investigatively]. We pulled all the records from the Indiana state legislature. We had 12 news organizations—conventional, mainstream news organizations, radio, TV, the Indianapolis Star-News, not famous for their muckraking prowness—there was massive coverage all over Indiana, inside of one week. Twenty-five hundred readers contacted the paper, the largest response in the state’s history. This was called “Statehouse Sellout: How Special Interests Hijacked the Legislature.” The newspaper has since done five additional five-part series. The laws about access to information in Indiana changed within two weeks.

The Center now posts all the financial disclosures for every state legislator in America, all the 527 groups throughout America, all the political party committees throughout America, and then there’s a listserv of 3,000 local journalists in every community that can then—because their own papers, of course, don’t cover the legislature despite the 25,000 laws that are passed every year. And so now, this is a resource that they can use, sitting in their newsroom without going to the state capitol, perish the thought.

And so, that is another example of the web. And then local folks can play off of that data too and feed horizontally and in every other direction. It’s kind of exciting, what’s possible.

Neil Chase: We’ve seen examples in the past, pre-Internet, of large metro dailies that became a monopoly, didn’t do that much, were challenged by a smaller, local upstart newspaper and ended up having to dramatically race to catch up and do a better job in the end of local coverage. What you’re going to see with what Dan’s doing and some of the other citizen journalism projects and with blogs and everything else, there’s lots more information coming to light, and the good newspapers can’t ignore that. They have to take that information, and in a perhaps perfect world, they’ll take some of that and expand on it and do some better investigative reporting, but it’s gonna be a conglomeration of all these new sources that are going to give us better information.

Jay Rosen: I think if local newspapers and sites don’t start to incorporate this kind of journalism and succeed with horizontal reporting, that they won’t be the people who inherit the news franchise in those towns. I really think they have to do this. They have to find out how to use this new world because the age of mass media was different from our present world in one really important way, which is that all the readers and everybody really important in the audience, the people formerly known as “the audience” in the age of the media, were connected up, to the New York Times, to the hierarchy.

But not connected to each other; in fact, in a lot of ways, they were separated from each other by active reading of the newspaper. And now those same people might still be connected up, but they are also connected horizontally to each other. And that’s a new fact for people in journalism.

And they’re going to have to get used to doing journalism under those conditions. I think it’s a new challenge. But they still retain many advantages in that horizontal world.

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