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University of Wisconsin–Madison

The Rise of the Networks

Brant Houston is the Knight Chair in Investigative Reporting, University of Illinois

As newspapers and other journalism institutions falter, networks of investigative and alternative newsrooms are rising up, sharing resources and finding ways to more widely distribute their work.

Whether they come from mainstream or nonprofit centers or Web start-up newsrooms, traditionally competitive journalists are collaborating and cooperating. The result is they are working on stories ranging from homeland security to campus assaults to human trafficking.

This past summer about 20 U.S. non-profit groups formed the Investigative News Network with the intention of not only collaborating on stories, but also of centralizing some administrative and online tasks to save money and create more efficiently run organizations.

Since then the network has received $175,000 in start-up grant money from the Open Society Institute and the McCormick Foundation begun the paperwork to incorporate and attain 501(c) 3 nonprofit status, and created a budget and goals for the year 2010. At the same time, the network is putting the finishing touches on the job description for an entrepreneurial executive director and making plans for a dynamic Web site and a vibrant presence in the social media. The network hopes to raise a total of more than $500,000 by January.

The network also has developed membership criteria for other groups wanting to join. The basic definition for membership is that an applicant must be a non-profit journalism organization that produces non-partisan stories. The network members realize that in the new world of journalism the definition will have to be applied thoughtfully and that questions on funding and supporters will come up. Because of that, the network has established a permanent membership and standards committee to deal with those issues and any other ethical concerns.

New collaborations, many angles

Editorially, the various state and regional centers are already collaborating with the larger more established groups such as the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), the Center for Public Integrity (CPI), and ProPublica. CIR has distributed data on homeland security spending and contracts to the state groups as a part of its work on a story monitoring the expenditures. It found that those documents showed that California and some other states had missing paperwork and violated purchasing rules. CPI has released a story on campus assaults across the nation.  State groups can use the information to focus on local universities. Also, ProPublica is distributing reports and data on the federal stimulus package.

Discussions also are underway among the state and regional groups on collaborations on national and regional stories on the health and safety, particularly focusing on Medicaid and airport safety. The idea of journalists creating a network of organizations is not new.  After all, the Associated Press and National Public Radio are networks of their members. But in the digital world the number and possibilities of networks and sub-networks has increased significantly – as has the potential for advocacy journalism.

For example, another relatively recent network is the progressive Media Consortium, which lists 47 organizations as members. It formed after a gathering of journalists in 2005 and says it “is a network of the country’s leading, progressive, independent media outlets. Our mission is to amplify independent media’s voice, increase our collective clout, leverage our current audience and reach new ones.”

Among the members are Mother Jones, The Nation magazine and The American Prospect. The Web site acts as a networking tool and highlights the members’ work and blogs about national issues and media industry issues.

The Media Consortium membership qualifications include, “a journalism-driven mission, staff and organizational capacity to participate in projects that benefit the organization and the Consortium, the commitment of senior leadership to personally participate in Media Consortium activities, projects, and meetings, and a mission that promotes progressive ideals.”

From a more conservative direction comes the Sam Adams Alliance and Foundation, whose home page is simply a fundraising page. The Alliance is creating a network of state journalism groups under the guidance of the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity.  One state group, the Illinois Statehouse News, just launched and is expected to be a template for other efforts.

The Franklin Center states on its Web site that is “is a non-profit group dedicated to providing investigative reporters and non-profit organizations at the state and local level with the training, expertise and technical support necessary to pursue journalistic endeavors.”

It adds that, “At the heart of the Franklin Center’s mission is a belief that new technology can advance the cause of transparency in government.”

Unlike the Investigative News Network, it does not intend to be transparent about its donors and states emphatically, “The Franklin Center protects the identification of its generous donors and ensures anonymity of all contributions.” Because of that stance, the Illinois State News has been denied a spot in the Illinois capitol press bureau and is regarded with skepticism by the press.

International Network

In 2003, about two dozen nonprofit investigative organizations formed the Global Investigative Journalism Network. That network has held five international conferences with another one planned for the spring 2010.

The network collaborated with African journalists this fall to have its first ever regional conference. More than 200 investigative journalists, students and educators from 17 African nations gathered for a three day-day conference at Witswatersrand University in Johannesburg, South Africa.

The so-called “power reporting” conference featured panels on sports, business and investigative methodologies, hands-on training in computer-assisted reporting, and networking among the African journalists and speakers that included practitioners from the United Kingdom and the United States.

By 2007, when the Network held its fourth conference in Toronto (the third was in Amsterdam), the number of organizations had increased to nearly 40. Since then it held a conference in Lillehammer, Norway of more than 500 journalists from more than 80 countries and final preparations are being made for the sixth conference in Geneva, Switzerland in April 2010 and in Kiev, Ukraine in 2011.

The global network is increasing in number despite the many threats investigative journalists outside the U.S. face. In each of the conferences and in discussions online, journalists share the risks they take, ranging from aggressive censorship to imprisonment to assaults or death. They also talk about the lack of access to documents, data and officials. And they talk about the ethical dilemmas they must confront, especially when their pay is so low and bribes are routine.

For example, Nigerian journalists say they must deal with the tradition of “the brown envelope.” In that tradition, they it is common after a press conference for government or business officials to hand out brown envelopes containing money to journalists in exchange for assurances that a story will be written. Many investigative journalists throughout the world say they must also deal with corrupt media owners in their own countries.

The conferences and the contacts maintained on the network’s Web site (which is a work in progress) have been the catalysts for the proliferation of the investigative journalism centers as has one of the founding organizations, Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE). The Web also has allowed journalism organizations with little funding to exist because the overhead costs are so low. In addition, being Web-based makes it more difficult for governments or organized crime to stop the journalists from publishing stories.

Cross-training and social media

A further benefit of the Web and now social media is that they permit wide collaborations and cross-training among the centers and investigative reporters.

David Kaplan, a veteran international journalist who currently is the editorial director for one of the member organizations – The Center for Public Integrity in Washington D.C. – wrote an extensive report about the state of global investigative journalism in 2007 before joining the Center. Kaplan surveyed the work of 37 of the investigative centers in 26 countries and conducted extensive interviews with international investigative journalists.

His report, “Global Investigative Journalism: Strategies for Support,” was commissioned by the Center for International Media Assistance (CIMA), a project of the National Endowment for Democracy.

Kaplan, who was previously the chief investigative correspondent at U.S. News & World Report, said in his report that better networking among the investigative centers can substantially increase their access to reporting, databases, training materials, and other resources.  It could also increase cross-border collaboration among them. He said the Global Investigative Journalism Network has the potential to become an international secretariat, with a central Web site, listserv, and resource center.

Currently, the Network is revamping its Web site, has established a Facebook page, and is beginning to assemble more resources to help international investigative reporters. Information about the global network, including names of member organizations and the conferences and workshops the members’ hold can be found on its Web site.

Collaborations have already been spawned by the global network, with stories on European Union farm subsidies going to the rich and wealthy corporations, and human trafficking and corruption in the Balkans.

Meanwhile, many national and global foundations have answered the call to support the global network and conferences. The Open Society Institute has been a constant supporter, providing money for fellowships both to the global conferences and to the recent African conference. In the U.S., the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation has funded the revision and development of the Network Website.

Because of their influence and increasing visibility, investigative reporting networks should represent the highest professional standards in reporting, editing and ethical conduct. Periodic reviews of the networks and their members, and ethics training by experienced investigative journalists, could help encourage the best work possible. It could also ensure that high standards are met and prevent the kind of public distrust of the media that has increased over the past decade.

Brant Houston currently chairs the network’s steering committee and assists many of the state and regional investigative journalism centers that are forming.

BRANT HOUSTON is a professor and the Knight Chair in Investigative Reporting at the University of Illinois and also is a member of the faculty of the Graduate School of Library Information and Sciences. From 1997 to 2007, Houston was executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, a 4,000 member association, and taught at the Missouri School of Journalism. Before that, Houston was an award-winning investigative reporter for 17 years and was part of the newsroom staff at The Kansas City Star that won the Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of a hotel building collapse. He is co-author of “The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook” (Fifth Edition) and author of “Computer-Assisted Reporting: A Practical Guide”. Houston also is a co-founder of the Global Investigative Journalism Network and chair of the steering committee of the Investigative News Network in the U.S.

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