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Investigative Journalists Discuss the Future of Their Craft

Investigative Journalists Discuss the Future of Their Craft

By Kim Bowden

Auckland (Pacific Scoop/Pacific Media Watch): “Investigative journalism is to media what poetry is to the literary world,” argue industry experts at a conference in Auckland - it is vital but it will never make any money.

Journalists and media academics from Nepal, Australia, New Zealand and several other Asia-Pacific countries tackled issues surrounding the future of longer-form investigative journalism during a panel discussion at the Media, Investigative Journalism and Technology 2010 conference at AUT University this weekend.

The conference - first of its kind in New Zealand - was organised by AUT's Pacific Media Centre.

The panellists, chaired by the presenter of TVNZ7’s Backbenchers programme, Wallace Chapman, agreed good investigative journalism is essential if the industry hopes to continue its core function of holding the powers that be to account.

Independent New Zealand journalist Jon Stephenson said investigative work was “the core business” of journalism, making the comparison that without it, the industry is like “a hospital where you do elective surgery but no emergency or trauma.”

Funding and the future
Uncertainty and debate centres around how to fund and distribute investigative stories in a corporate-driven media environment, say the panellists.

Bill Birnbauer, who has 35-years experience working for various Australian newspapers, said that in the same way poetry had its merits yet generally was not commercially viable and needed to be subsidised to survive, so too investigative journalism.

“The future for investigative journalism lies outside of mainstream media,” he said.

Birnbauer suggested a funding model that relies on donations from government and NGOs as one way of providing for investigative work.

Wendy Bacon, director of the Australian Centre for Independent Journalism, said while there was still interest for longer-form stories in the 21st century, story lengths in newspapers were continually being cut.

She said non-fiction books written by journalists were on the increase, as well as documentary films, as a means for journalists to tell their stories.

Key role for universities
Both Birnbauer and Bacon argued universities had a role to play in the future of investigative journalism and Bacon highlighted numerous investigative projects she had been involved in with university students.

Birnbauer said going forward, universities around the globe needed to collaborate further on such projects, to better carry out the Fourth Estate role.

“I will tentatively call it ‘university muckrakers’,” joked Birnbauer.

He said the concept of collaboration between commercial news publishers and independents is also an interesting new trend, challenging the traditional and “arrogant” mindset held by newspapers of “why would we take someone else’s copy?”

He referred to major stories published this year by both the Washington Post and the New York Times under the “ProPublica byline”. ProPublica describes itself as “an independent, non-profit newsroom that produces investigative journalism in the public interest”.

Stephenson, who has worked independently as a journalist in Afghanistan and Iraq, was less optimistic about the ease with which longer-form investigative pieces by independent journalists can be published, in New Zealand at least, and half-joked, “independent journalism can be a synonym for poor”.

Investigative ideas not ‘sexy’
“There seems to be a perception among people who call the shots in media…people aren’t interested in heavyweight stories,” he said.

“Ideas aren’t sexy.

“It’s very, very tough to get any traction for investigative stories.”

Although online media is being touted as “the holy grail,” Stephenson’s answer to the question of where to publish investigative stories was in mainstream media, which still had the “punching power.”

Panel contributor Kunda Dixit, publisher of the Nepali Times who was also keynote speaker, said too often online work got “lost in the tail” of mass information online.

“Yes, the space is there, but is anyone reading you?” he asked.

Dixit was cautious of Birnbauer’s suggestion of a possible funding model for investigative journalism which relied on donations and other support from governments or NGOs, such as Amnesty International, and said it had the potential to compromise the independence of the media, especially in the developing world.

He said traditional media, especially newspapers and radio stations, was “booming” in the developing world, in contrast to the situation in Western countries.

Kim Bowden has been studying toward a Postgraduate Diploma in Communication Studies at AUT University.


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