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April 19, 2012, 9:17 a.m.
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The newsonomics of risking it all

At the Logan Symposium at Berkeley, investigative reporting showed plenty of signs of life.

Alfredo Corchado was used to getting mortal threats.

He received three in Mexico, but now he was in a Laredo bar, north of the border.

You better stop what you’re doing, or you’ll end with a bullet in your head and your body in a vat of acid, he was told. And then we’ll deliver the bones to your family in El Paso.

It was a chilling warning, or at least we’d expect it to put a chill into Corchado. An investigative reporter for the Dallas Morning News (and a former Nieman Fellow), he’s been covering the ravages of drug trafficking for years, much to the concern of his parents living, as the traffickers plainly know, in El Paso. Yet Corchado goes on with his work — as do Adela Navarro Bello of Tijuana’s Zeta news magazine, Jerry Mitchell of the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., and Ramita Navai of the U.K.’s Channel 4. As Navarro Bello explained of her paper’s coverage of the drug trafficking that has consumed at 50,000 Mexican lives, “If we don’t publish this information, we are part of the problem.” (Filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz has captured Zeta’s struggle — including the murder of two of its journalists — with a new movie.)

Each is an investigative reporter who put their lives on the line to reveal stories they think readers must know about. They spoke on the “When the Story Bites Back” panel this weekend, at UC Berkeley, part of the sixth annual Reva and David Logan Investigative Reporting Symposium (live blogging of the conference, here, with a #Logan12 Twitter feed).

That panel and the entire spirited weekend, organized and led by esteemed investigative producer Lowell Bergman, tells us a fair amount about the business of journalism. Though it is not — like most of my work — concerned with the dollars and cents of the business, in its very essence, it describes why the current crazy-quilt economics of the business matters. Funding the journalism business isn’t like funding Sears and Kodak (“The newsonomics of the long good-bye”) or other fading institutions. It’s not even about saving a perhaps-vital American industry, like the auto industry.

It’s about keeping a lifeline of funding open so that our best reporters can do their jobs.

I’ll call it the newsonomics of risking it all because that’s what these reporters do. Many of the other Logan participants and attendees, thankfully, do less life-threatening work. Yet those represented at the conference — from ProPublica, the Washington Post, and New York Times to ABC, NBC, and NPR — are among the cream of the crop of investigative work and produce work with real public interest impact.

As we endlessly debate pay models, whether or not to work with Facebook, how to deal with Apple and Amazon and multi-platform journalism, the Logan Symposium is good tonic — certainly for those of us who attended, but really for all of us who know why this business matters to democracy. Whether and how the economics of the new news business work out isn’t an arcane question; it’s central to our collective future. The value of good, deep reporting is truly priceless.

So what about the state of investigative reporting? Look at the glass as half full and half cloudy.

What emerged from the conference, surprising to some, is that national investigative reporting is keeping its head above water. Both NBC and ABC talked about their expansions in the investigative area, while companies like NPR and Bloomberg have put new resources in as well. Units at the Post, L.A. Times, and New York Times may not be growing much, but seem to be sustaining themselves, for now.

“For now” is an important qualifier, and New York Times managing editor Dean Baquet’s opening interview at Logan, in its over-the-top self-assurance, bothered many of the conference participants with whom I talked. (See my related post about that.)

Washington Post investigative editor Jeff Leen suggested that there were 200 investigative reporters paid by news media in the U.S., which I calculate as one for every 1.5 million Americans. That’s not a ratio that’s going to hold many big institutions — government, business, labor — to account. Maybe that’s why as Logan participant and new-media vet Neil Budde tweeted, “How many times will ‘existential’ be used this weekend? I think count is six so far.”

Importantly, it is largely the largest news media — mainly national and global ones — that continue to put money into investigative work; these are the Digital Dozen companies I identified in my Newsonomics book. For them, as NBC senior executive producer David Corvo put it, investigative work is a “differentiator,” important to distinguishing big news brands from one another in the digital age.

What’s going on regionally is more of a patchwork.

Dozens of people like the Logan family are using their wealth to fund investigative enterprises from coast to coast, most with little fanfare. The Knight Foundation, represented at the conference by its senior advisor and grant-giver extraordinaire Eric Newton, has put $20 million into investigative journalism. With the decline in newspaper budgets, and thus in funding of investigative teams at many regional papers, such private funding has been a lifeline, though there’s a profound sense that significantly less in-depth work is being done at former powerhouse regional papers.

This Logan conference lacked the always-odd spontaneity of a Julian Assange appearance, but it offered intriguing emphases:

  • Front and center, though not appearing in person was Rupert Murdoch. After screening “Murdoch’s Scandal,” Bergman’s Frontline documentary that aired March 27, “The Murdoch Effect: News At Any Price,” made for a raucous panel. Milly Dowler attorney Mark Lewis told how the phone hacking scandal had consumed his life and spoke of the “commercial despotism of Murdochracy” in the U.K., given the News Corp. CEO’s multi-party, decades-long influence. Big questions: What next, and if and how this tale plays out in the U.S.
  • “If it’s not on TV, the American public doesn’t know it,” observed Diana Henriques, the New York Times financial investigative reporter. Yes, we may be on the brink of this multi-platform age, where old newspapers like the Times and the Journal do video alongside print, but still — in terms of notice and public action — there’s nothing like the impact of TV documentary.
  • This is a generational challenge. Journalism has always had its challenges, but never has there been more uncertainty about how one generation can pass along its best practices to the next. Through that foundation funding, a couple of dozen younger journalists and students had their way paid into the conference. Surveying the group on the last day, Robert Rosenthal, executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting and California Watch, summed his baby-boomer generation’s role: “I’m a bridge — we’re all bridges to the future.”

Bridging is, in part, what Lowell Bergman’s program does. UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program is a partner in the new Collaboration Central project, along with PBS MediaShift. With new funding, IRP will soon move into a new permanent office. It provides lots of training and fellowships, bringing along new generations to work alongside people like the Pulitzer Prize-winning Bergman, whose career has spanned from early Ramparts through CBS, The New York Times, and Frontline, and who was played by Al Pacino in the tobacco industry exposé The Insider.

Bergman paid tribute to his one-time CBS colleague Mike Wallace, underscoring Wallace’s storied tenacity. That tenacity, based on Wallace’s fierce journalistic power (highlighted at CBS, in story and video), is what it took a non-journalist to highlight in Berkeley.

Jules Kroll, who led the invention of the modern intelligence and security industry, gave the trade good, pointed advice. Saying he had heard a lot of journalists talking about how beleaguered they are, he noted, “You have a big impact.” His shared his inside view of the power of a good investigation. Colloquial translation: Stop whining and get on with it.

And that’s always good advice. As ProPublica managing editor Steve Engelberg aptly said, “They were whining in 1989, when times were good.” That’s true. There may be more to whine about these days than in 1989, but the power of great public service work, sometimes when lives are on the line, is one of the things that must propel the trade forward.

Photo of Alfredo Corchado by the U.S. embassy in Paraguay used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     April 19, 2012, 9:17 a.m.
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