If investigative journalists don’t explain the impact of their work, who will?

Above: Police investigated the scene of Oakland Post editor Chauncey Bailey. (David Paul Morris/San Francisco Chronicle via Associated Press

(Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president at Knight Foundation, delivered this luncheon talk on June 11 at the annual convention of the Investigative Reporters and Editors.)

So here we are in a large room with some of the world’s best investigative journalists. Talk about a tough crowd. Makes me want to start out not by saying anything, but by collecting some information.

How many of you, by a show of hands, believe investigative reporting is worth much more to society than it costs?

Nearly everyone. That was too easy.

Next question. How many of you believe that the average American – the cashier at the grocery store — understands the true value of investigative reporting?

Only one hand is up. Yes, our nation has news literacy issues.

One more question: How many of you believe it is your responsibility to explain the value of investigative reporting to society?

Some of you are saying yes, but a minority. Mostly the educators and nonprofit folks.

That’s what I want to talk about. I appreciate the fact that for at least 100 years investigative reporters – including me, when I did it – considered themselves too busy to worry about whether the world understands how journalism works.

But we are in a digital age of communication, and in this networked, two-way world people now are part of our process. We have to recognize that.

If investigative journalists don’t explain the impact of their work, who will?

Two years ago, just after the media money meltdown of 08-09, when everyone said we were doomed, I came to your lunch in Baltimore to say Knight Foundation had approved an investigative reporting initiative that would total $15 million.

Well, that was wrong. If you add it all up, including endowments, what we’re doing with investigative journalism is closer to $20 million.

You can’t spend that much looking for new ideas without learning a few things.

We learned in just two years, that you can create new news organizations from scratch and win Pulitzer Prizes. You can invent document handling software used by hundreds of newsrooms. Your brand new networks can make money in distribution deals with century-old wire services. You can collaborate, with nonprofits and for-profits. Journalism education has an amazing role in investigative reporting: You can reach millions of people with kick-ass investigations on the national transportation system done by students in partnership with major newspapers, networks and web sites.

Today, there are hundreds of nonprofits that didn’t exist two years ago, perhaps 50 focused on investigative reporting, and scores of foundations funding news and information who didn’t really care about it a couple of years ago.

Even though there are fewer of you on the commercial side, we have seen in the last two years how you are using new techniques and technologies to double your investigative powers.

You don’t look dead to me.

We’ve also learned something about business. Just because an investigative unit is a nonprofit doesn’t mean it escapes reality. A story by itself does not save the world. It must be seen, understood, acted on and yes, paid for.

So we learned the new nonprofit organizations need the four Cs – content that matters, connectivity that reaches people, the ability to build community, ways to explain what they do so they can raise cash. The four Cs — content, connectivity, community and capital.

And yes, we learned from our grantees that good investigative reporting is worth far more to society than it costs. Far more.

ProPublica and NPR revealed that veterans with concussions were being wrongly treated for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder at a cost of more than 30 times what’s needed. Multiply that by the tens of thousands of veterans, and one can say that by fostering change in the military’s diagnosis and treatment regimens, this reporting is saving society – conservatively – $200 million.

The Center for Public Integrity and the Washington Post exposed bad U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development loan policies. Six big lenders are kicked out of the program. That’s a savings of more than $100 million to the taxpayers.

The Center for Investigative Reporting and its dozens of commercial partners exposed earthquake hazards in California schools, officials finally made it easy for schools to tap a $200 million quake safety fund.

So there you are: Just three stories. Three. With a social impact of more than $500 million.

Add to that the priceless impact of lives improved or saved.

I have some advice for Washington. A new plan for deficit reduction. Increase by tenfold the number of investigative journalists in America and just let nature take its course.

Seriously, if we don’t tell this story, who will?

I know some of you already are listing all the reasons why detailing financial impact is a bad idea.

Numbers or no numbers, we need to expose the cops who run wild, or nurses who kill people, or colleges that brush aside rape.

And we need to do stories even when they cost society money. Like the money spent for railroad ties in New England because they used the wrong concrete. Or the money spent to shut down the death penalty system in Illinois because they executed the wrong people.

And we need to do some stories even if nothing happens right away. Like exposing the companies getting rich from war with no-bid contracts. Humility is in order. Even great stories sometimes do not change the military industrial complex.


So yes, this is complicated. But just because it’s complicated… that does no excuse us from trying.

 If relentless monitoring of the gas drilling industry saves millions, or billions because we avoid water pollution cleanup, we need to add that up.

If exposing credit card company abuses saves consumers many millions, or even billions, we need to add it up.

These are real stories. We can do more to run the numbers.

I agree with the way Paul Steiger of ProPublica explains it:

“Where there are clean dollar savings, we should take credit for them. When the success is qualitative, we should rejoice in that.”

Either way, it is up to journalists. No longer – with 15,000 journalists cut in the past four years, too many of them investigative – can we say “it’s not our job.”

This is a fact-based profession. Fact-based arguments about our value are better than faith-based arguments.

If there are many different types of impact, including none at all, why can’t we just say so?  If it’s complicated, explain it. Investigative reporters are good at that. Let’s give the folks who teach news literacy some raw material. Let’s not leave it to others.

The future of investigative reporting will be brighter if we can more clearly communicate our obvious dollar value and our even bigger social value to American citizens.

You may not like to crow, but these days, you better at least tweet. If you are uncomfortable doing it yourselves, do it through IRE. Not just at conferences like this, but to the 300 million Americans who didn’t come by today for lunch.

I’ve asked you to do it, so let me end by doing it myself through a story I know well.

In 2007, on a street corner, Oakland Post editor Cauncey Bailey was killed by a man with a shotgun.

This was the first murder of a journalist on American soil over a domestic story since nearly 30 years earlier when a car bomb killed Arizona Republic reporter Don Bolles.

When that happened, journalists created the Arizona project, murderers went to jail, and this organization, Investigative Reporters and Editors, was born.

So when it happened in Oakland we knew what to do. Finish Chauncey’s story about the shaky finances of a local business called Your Muslim Bakery and find the killers.

Knight Foundation gave the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education a $125,000 grant to create the Chauncey Bailey project – an investigation with nonprofit journalism, commercial journalists and student journalist from all media.

It was not easy, that experiment in collaboration. But it turned out to be a model for what California Watch would later do. That’s because Dori Maynard at Maynard Institute, Rosey Rosenthal at Center for Investigative Reporting, Sandy Close at New American Media and Martin Reynolds at the Oakland Tribune – and many others — made it work.

The journalism revealed Chauncey’s murder was part of a pattern of murders, kidnappings and other crimes. Not just the trigger man, but an accomplice and the mastermind, ended up behind bars. And after it was revealed that the police had delayed a raid on the bakery that could have prevented the murder and then tried to cover it up, the police chief resigned.

And now, just days ago, the verdicts came in. The man who ordered the murder of Chauncey Bailey, and his accomplice, are guilty. They’re looking at life without parole. And the trigger man, who flipped on them, got 25 years.

Did the Chauncey Bailey project have impact?

District Attorney Nancy E. O’Malley, said this: “The investigation and prosecution of these violent crimes has been a top priority of my Office … With today’s verdicts, justice was served, and we hope that the outcome will provide some closure to the families of the victims …   These verdicts also stand for our abiding conviction that violence against the free voice of the press will not be tolerated in our society.”

The prosecutor continued by saying, “I would especially like to recognize and acknowledge the Chauncey Bailey Project (which) worked diligently and tirelessly to ensure that the defendants responsible for these senseless murders were brought to justice.”

Here is the bottom line: a $125,000 grant, new model in investigative collaboration, three convictions, police chief resignation, press freedom and justice upheld.

I’ve been helping foundations make journalism and media grants for 10 years. I can say without hesitation that this is the best $125,000 grant I have ever made.

If you’ve got a better story of impact, I’d like to hear it. But what’s really important is that you not just tell me. You need to find a way to tell everyone, including that clerk at the grocery store.

Thank you.