The Story Isn’t All That Matters

(This is an edited version of the remarks given by Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation on Sunday, April 15, 2012, at the Logan Symposium on Investigative Reporting at the University of California at Berkeley.)

Investigative reporting is journalism at its purest and most potent. Still, it is all too rare. The economics of this public service have come unhinged in the digital age. That’s why the Knight Foundation focused on investigative reporting, investing some $20 million. Thank you for recognizing this with the Markoff Award.

It is easy to see why Knight believes in investigative journalism. Jack and Jim donated their personal fortunes to the foundation to be recycled to the communities where they owned newspapers and to journalism itself. We’re the only foundation of our size with a president, two vice presidents, a senior adviser and two program directors who grew up in news.

That is the problem. We are the choir. The choir is a closed system. During this past century, our tight network of journalists taught itself professional reverence for the Fourth Estate:  Taught itself, and often ignored everyone else.

Last fall, Knight Foundation worked with the Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism to release a new survey about local news. A headline in the survey needs more attention.

Sixty nine percent of America believes that if local newspapers no longer existed, it would be no big deal.

If newspaper news is gone, people think, they’ll get the news from radio, TV and the internet. But we know that’s not so. For better or worse, daily papers still produce most of the country’s local news.

People don’t know. Why? Who gave them that idea? We did. We did not want anyone in the kitchen as we worked out our recipes for great news.

Journalists have helped create a nation of functional news illiterates.

In Orlando, I asked about 800 investigative reporters and editors if their journalism produced significant social impact. Every hand went up.

I asked if they thought the average American understood investigative journalism. One hand went up.

Then I asked: Is it part of your job to help people understand the impact of what you do? No. Most investigative journalists, more than two thirds, in fact, did not think so.

Many of you here today may agree. You might be thinking: I have plenty to do already. This is just not my job.

I disagree. The digital age has upended traditional media. Everything is back on the drawing board. At this moment, what people think of journalism really matters.

Yet we are fighting over the cookbook while the kitchen is on fire.

It is a defensive reaction. American newsrooms are among the most defensive workplaces measured. They are like military combat units, hospital emergency rooms and nuclear power plants. Their features are perfectionism, oppositional thinking and strict routines. This helps us verify and clarify the news. It does not help us innovate.

At the heart of all this is the great, glorious story. I have my entire life worshiped at the altar of the story. I know my mantra:

Focus on the story. The story is all that really matters. If the story is good enough, it will change the world.

The entire 20th Century journalistic gestalt put the story alone at center stage.

But we were wrong. Since it is never too late to run a correction, here’s mine:

The story is not the only thing that matters. A story by itself does not change the world.

Someone must absorb it, share it, act on it and yes, even pay for it.

Yet even now, we love to revel in the story, the whole story, and nothing but the story.

We live in an open, networked digital age of communication but still tolerate institutions that are closed and inward-looking.

Basic story quality is an issue, but not our biggest issue. It has something to do with why young people find printed daily newspapers outdated, but there are larger factors.

In the digital age, it simply makes no economic or environmental sense to fell trees to make newsprint to roll onto presses, to be slathered with ink, bundled and tied, to be thrown onto gas-guzzling trucks and dumped in piles to be crammed into cars and flung onto the driveways of America.

Yes, we do need better stories. But we need far more than that. We need news literacy. We need engaged communities. We need transparency and accountability.

Knight Foundation recognizes that transparency is a key value. Today, I’m announcing that we’ve adopted a new policy. From now on, to receive grants from us, news providers will need to reveal their project’s major donors.

Many of the online investigative nonprofits here today already do this. But universities, public broadcasters and foundations have not embraced transparency as a digital-age news value. To work with us, these institutions will have to change the way they do things.

My question for you is: Can investigative reporters further open up the way they work?

       Telling the stories behind our stories is not always easy, but can be done.  At IRE I gave three examples, from ProPublica, California Watch and Public Integrity. Together, from just these three stories, the nation derived hundreds of millions of dollars of social benefit.

These stories are from nonprofit newsrooms. To raise money, they know they must show impact. But they are not the norm.

A more typical example is an excellent book by Thomas Peele, Killing the Messenger, about the story leading up to the Chauncey Bailey murder. Chauncey’s was the first high-profile murder in a generation of a journalist over a story on American soil. Knight invested $125,000 in the Chauncey Bailey project to finish the story and find the killers. UC Berkeley, the Maynard Institute, the Oakland Tribune and many others worked on it. Thomas Peele was a very important part of that.

In the end, District Attorney Nancy O’Malley said: “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.” 

Public official credits journalists. Stop the damn presses! Yet you will not find the DA’s quote in Peele’s comprehensive book. Good reporters put the story first. No one speaks for the journalism. The book reviewers do not focus on it. The readers don’t know about it.

The Chauncey Bailey project has won more than a dozen awards given by journalists to journalists. Peele and others have explained it at conferences given by journalists for journalists. Journalism schools will teach that type of collaborative journalism to the students of journalism.

And here we go again. Are we the most self-centered industry on the planet? That DA’s quote could have been in huge type on the back cover of the book.

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

We should. Here’s how we could.

Contests have proliferated. There are 200 major ones, thousands if you count regional awards.  Sometimes, the winners are reported to our loyal news audiences – but that’s not the same as reaching out to the folks who don’t know where their local news really comes from.

        If contests cared about communities, not just journalists, they’ll help the people know how and why the best journalism happened.

Say a great investigation gets California to release earthquake safety funds for schools. The contests that grant it awards notify PTAs, teacher organizations, administrator’s organizations, even state officials. The contest sends letters, posts on Facebook, blogs, emails, does videos. The contest explains that it is doing this outreach because the role of journalism is not understood in the digital age.

(This would mean the letters journalists write to contests claiming credit would be publicly vetted. Transparency is a good thing.)

We should be including communities in our conferences as well. No journalism conference should happen anywhere without a session involving the leaders and the citizens of the host community.

Every convention can create an “open journalism” session, like the way Lowell Bergman brings CIA and FBI officials to this investigative reporting symposium. Take apart the news flows, talk frankly about them, hear complaints, offer suggestions. Cover it on the web.

Open contests and open conventions would create thousands of community encounters.

Professional organizations and our professional publications can help by focusing on impact. They can help verify and clarify impact, show how to track it, explain how to be honest about true impact. And when there isn’t impact, they can unpack those projects and see where they failed to engage people.

Journalism schools could be teaching 21st century literacies – digital, media, news and civic fluency — to every student in the university. News literacy should be a general education requirement for college graduation. Journalism schools could push hard for 21st century literacies to be taught in k-12 schools so they can reach all Americans.

There are roughly 100,000 general news journalists in America. Perhaps 250,000 journalism and communication students and professors, and some 500,000 people loosely categorized as doing nonfiction editorial work. If we open up, and change our orientation to reach outward, we could engage millions.

We could help a lot of people see how journalism matters. But we also will have to listen to a lot of people who find news, as it is presented today, to be too boring, too negative, too slanted and simply out-of-touch. If we truly listen, and engage, we will gain insights into why some of our investigations produce instant impact and others cause absolutely nothing.  By thinking beyond the story, we can help the story.

We need to understand the science of impact. Do stories create more impact when people think they can fix the problem? When they have the groups, tools or systems to fix it? What makes them consider it a priority? These are complex questions. The answer “who, what, when, where, how and why” may no longer be enough.

In 1903, the Rubens Crayola line, aimed at artists, started with just six crayons – the who, what, when, where, how and why of crayons. Today, in Windows 7,  36 bit color allows 68.71 billion colors. From six to nearly 69 billion in a bit more than a century.

Reality is somewhat more colorful than our early tools could handle.

So it is with journalism. The story of investigative reporting is a story of fewer artists but more colors.

Look at the membership in Investigative Reporters and Editors. It has gone from 5,000 at its peak, to a valley of 3,200, and back to today’s 4,200. Better but still down.

 Look at the American Society of News Editors census. There are now 40,600 daily newspaper journalists, down from the peak of 56,900. And in the case of daily newspapers, the peak was 22 years ago.

But look at the new powerful digital tools like Document Cloud. The new nonprofit digital news organizations and their Investigative News Network. Right here in the Bay Area you have the opportunity of a lifetime with the merger of the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Bay Citizen. Rally around it.

Journalism schools are stepping up. Student journalism on the front page of the Boston Globe and Washington Post, in the New York Times, on ABC, CNN, PBS, NPR. If teaching hospitals can save lives and law schools can take cases to the Supreme Court, certainly great journalism schools can expose the facts that will help right wrongs.

Still, there’s an awful lot of important news not yet reported. Once digital adoption becomes universal, I hope news flows will rearrange themselves and the new business models eventually will settle in. But eventually is not immediately. In the meantime, how much corruption and confusion can one country take?

We just can’t solve our most difficult problems without more investigative reporting.

Journalists, contests, professional groups, conventions and journalism schools all can help us get it by working the demand side, by helping people understand why we need it.

Does that mean you give up independence? No. Does it mean you can only do the most demanded stories? No. Does it mean you have to put numbers behind everything you do? No.

All it means is answering a simple question:

If investigative reporters do not explain the impact of their work, who will?