Tuesday, 1 September 2009

How much does a fact cost?

Opinion is cheap, so the maxim goes, but facts are expensive. The question is, how expensive? Gerry Marzaroti, editor of the New York Times Magazine, is unequivocal: “Investigative reporting is very, very expensive,” he says. A Hurricane Katrina story his magazine recently published on its front cover cost $400,000 to produce.

Or at least it would have done had his own reporters done the investigating. As it stands, the story was put together by a freelancer named Sheri Fink, who financed the first four months of the investigation herself. As her story gathered pace, she was part-financed by the Kaiser Foundation, a US health research lobby, and ProPublica, a non-profit news organisation that funds investigative journalism.

Fink’s tale is undoubtedly of (US) national interest. She investigates suspected cases of euthanasia at a New Orleans hospital marooned by the floods of Hurricane Katrina back in 2005. The article is too lengthy to describe in detail here, but Fink’s efforts are well worth spotlighting. She introduces new evidence, analyses “previously unavailable records” and interviews “dozens of people who were involved in the events at Memorial and the investigation that followed.” It took her two and a half years.

Those facts that are buried underneath reputations, those nuggets of information hidden by the rich and powerful, are always the hardest, and therefore the costliest, to exhume. Harvard’s Nieman Journalism Lab blog holds a running tab on the cost of investigative reporting. Among the most expensive editorial investigations it can find is The New York Times’ Baghdad office, which costs $3 million a year to run.

There are UK parallels. How much did the Daily Telegraph sink into exposing the MPs’ expenses affair, bearing in mind the initial cost of the leaked documents, and the 25 journalists the newspaper assigned to the task? According to Telegraph assistant editor Benedict Brogan, you can add to that the price of “lawyers [and] all sorts of experts”.

Let’s just focus on the cost of uncovering the facts. Assuming an average journalist salary of £40,000 (although some will have been on considerably more) and a conservative estimate of three months’ work, the direct cost of the expenses investigation would have been at least £250,000. Add to that the cost of acquiring the information, which could have set the Telegraph back anything up to £300,000 and the pressure on a publisher to recoup their editorial outlay begins to tell.

Canny news editors are well aware of the value of just one Duck Island, of course. In May, Telegraph sales were boosted by an average of 18,718 copies per day. The problem comes when the economics start to cloud judgment. Competition from low-cost Web publications has left traditional reporters with evermore spaces to fill. Fewer reporters reporting news is a situation that inevitably deprives editors of the kind of stories that tend to shift more papers. With newspaper sales on the decline and advertising revenues down, publishers are increasingly less inclined to hire more reporters. And so the decline of the newspaper industry descends into a depressing, self-fulfilling prophecy.

Or at least the old model does. Back in June, 4iP and Screen West Midlands announced funding for an interesting start-up called Help Me Investigate. Founder Paul Bradshaw describes his creation as an online “platform for crowdsourcing investigative journalism. It allows anyone to submit a question they want to investigate,” and volunteers to club together in order to find the answer. Because it relies on the goodwill of participants rather than the whim of megalomaniac publishers, the breadth and variety of investigations is assured. Examples of current questions include: “Is it less safe to have a baby at night?” and “Where is Diana really buried?”

Bradshaw has already achieved notable success for the citizens of Birmingham, where the company is based. A question concerning the most likely place to get a parking ticket prompted a Freedom of Information request, which revealed that the most ticketed street was Alum Rock Road in Washwood Heath, where drivers received an average of nine tickets per day—almost twice as many as the next most ticketed area. Data released by Birmingham City Council also showed that in July, wardens were handing out an average of 200 tickets a day more than at the same time last year.

According to Bradshaw:

“Investigative journalism is about more than just ‘telling a story’; it is about enlightening, empowering and making a positive difference. And the Web offers enormous potential here, but users must be involved in the process and have ownership of the agenda.

"The Web allows you to ‘atomise’ processes, [to] break them down into their constituent parts. The site breaks apart investigative journalism, allowing users to contribute in specific and different ways. This is not citizen journalism. It is micro-volunteering.”

Despite Bradshaw’s protestations, some will inevitably see Help Me Investigate as another Web threat to traditional reporting. If the crowd proves to be more adept at investigative reporting than the journalist, it challenges the essence of the journalist's medium, the newspaper. But such questions misunderstand the nature of collaboration. Does it really matter if extra credit is attributed for a discovery deemed to be in the public interest? Is an official, unpaid army of sources and helpers so very different to the current unofficial, unpaid model?

Writers with bylines almost as big as their egos may despise sharing the limelight. But perhaps those journalists and editors that come to regard Help Me Investigate as a source rather than as a threat, may well find that the cost of their investigations has suddenly and miraculously been reduced.

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