The future of journalism

Our 2012 Fulbright-Harkness Fellow, Peter Griffin went coast to coast across the US to visit centres of excellence in public interest journalism. He found innovative examples of journalism and funding schemes that could be applied on a smaller scale in New Zealand…

1. You recently published research based on your US trip – what does the paper cover?

My paper Big News in a Small Country was published in Pacific Journalism Review and examines whether a small centre for independent public interest journalism would work in New Zealand. First I lay out the problem – the fact that the mainstream media’s ability to undertake investigative journalism has diminished as the business model it has relied on for so long collapses. Then I look at the rise of new centres that have set up in the US to plug the gaps, undertaking investigations and leveraging new tools in data journalism to break major stories of national significance. The US is years ahead in this trend and there is much we can learn from them. The key thing is that these organisations have not been set up to compete with the mainstream media. They partner with news outlets to publish the results of their investigations. It simply means that more resources are going into tackling the hard, expensive stories, the ones that make a big difference – and win Pulitzer prizes!

 We need to make the case that certain aspects of journalism warrant deep-pocketed philanthropists and regular news readers alike to chip in to pay for it, according to their means and unavoidably, in line with what they are particularly interested in.

2. Where did you go in the US – what were the highlights?

This was a dream opportunity as it allowed me to visit all the places I have watched with awe from afar. In New York I spent time at Propublica, the most famous of the independent public interest journalism start-ups. They are based in lower-Manhattan and have across the board, from the financial sector to the environment, they have broken major stories in conjunction with partners like the New York Times and NPR Radio.

In Washington I visited the Center for Public Integrity which has been around nearly 25 years and carefully monitors thew money flows in and out of government. They are the experts at tracking how public money is used and misused and the team there have their work cut out for them with the rise of supoerPACs – political action committees that channel hundreds of millions of dollars into political attack ads and campaign funds. This is having a major influence on politics in the US and often tracking where the money comes from is a real headache.

In Los Angeles I visited the Center for Health Reporting which is an interesting organisation because it is solely focussed on health-related issues in the state of California.

All of these organisations work slightly differently and have differing funding models. But they are making a big impact their own ways and attract millions in funding each year.

The real highlight of the trip was attending President Obama’s second inaugural speech on the Mall in Washington D.C. It was a cold day, but hundreds of thousands turned out to hear what the President had to say and while it wasn’t the euphoric mood that the president enjoyed the first time he gave that speech, he delivered a forceful, inspiring speech that made it clear he had unfinished business and planned to make the most of his second term. But US politics is brutal and even on important issues like climate change he is having to fight his political opponents every inch of the way.

3. Could we build a mini Propublica in New Zealand?

My visits to Propublica in New York and the Center for Public Integrity in Washington D.C. convinced me that a mini version of either of these great organisations will be hard to pull off in a tiny market like New Zealand.

Instead, we are going to have to go for a less resource-intensive, more grassroots start-up – at least initially.

Expecting foundations, philanthropists or the general public to chip in to fund a bunch of journalists to do worthy but unidentified journalism projects won’t work here where we don’t have billionaires willing to write out checks for millions of dollars in the name of quality public-interest journalism (ala Propublica).

What we do have are people that are willing to chip in to fund good journalist that has impact. Keith Ng proved this last year when his virtual tip jar quickly filled up following his revealing of serious security flaws in the Government’s Work and Income computer terminals.

Since then security breaches in government IT systems have been revealed on almost a weekly basis, showing systemic problems with how government departments store, access and share information.

PublicEyes will have to show its hand to gain support of the type Ng enjoyed. What are the issues that New Zealanders want to see journalists digging deeper into?

Is it environmental issues like fracking activity in New Zealand or the impact of industry on water quality? Is it the influence the hundreds of lobbyists in Wellington have on government, or the impact of powerful grocery or pay TV monopolies or duopolies in a small market? What are working conditions like in some of our more dangerous industries, such as forestry and manufacturing? How transparent and efficient are our councils in the way they operate?

The projects will need buy-in from the public to get off the ground, in the same way that Propublica’s high-impact projects attract foundation support – rather than Propublica in its own right.

4. What would be required to get PublicEyes off the ground?

For PublicEyes to work effectively it will need the following:

– Not-for-profit status – to reassure everyone that Alastair and co are not in this for the money, to lower its cost structure and to enable donors to receive tax benefits for contributing.

– A strong and credible governance structure that provides good oversight and maintains a rigid separation between funding activities and the editorial aspects of the investigations being funded. An independent editorial advisory board should also be formed to separately consider projects for funding.

– Partnerships with established media outlets which it can team up with to break stories that result from PublicEyes-funded investigations.

– A user-friendly way to donate to Scoop Foundation online – and to let others know of your worthy donation (think

– A secure and trusted way for whistle blowers and concerned citizens to send story tips to PublicEyes.

5. Many of the journalism centres you visited in the US are funded by philanthropists. Is it realistic to expect such support for journalism in New Zealand?

The appetite for this type of giving is hard to gauge. But here’s how I see it – in 2011 New Zealanders gave an estimated $2.6 billion in philanthropy. That’s every sort of philanthropy – from corporate giving to community trusts to donations dropped in collection buckets on street corners. The majority of that (nearly $1.6 billion) is individual giving.

If a public interest journalism foundation could capture just 0.001 per cent of that philanthropic spend that would equate to $260,000 that could be spent on investigative and data journalism projects. That’s enough to make a difference, cast light on three to four important and worthy issues every year.

I think it is achievable, but it is new. Journalism is not seen as a charity case. But that is changing. The public is beginning to realise that the media’s capability is vastly reduced. We need to make the case that certain aspects of journalism warrant deep-pocketed philanthropists and regular news readers alike to chip in to pay for it, according to their means and unavoidably, in line with what they are particularly interested in. That’s the challenge we face but the one that needs to be addressed early in the effort to get an independent vehicle for public interest journalism off the ground in New Zealand.