Good News About The News Business
At first glance it does not look like a promising time to be a professional journalist. Not only have the internet and DIY communication tools weakened their financial structures, but authoritarian political actors in many once-promising democratic regions are compromising media independence and security. Fewer journalists were murdered in 2016 than the previous year, but the number of attacks on journalists around the world is “unprecedented,” according to the Index on Censorship.1 Even the United States, once considered the gold standard for press freedom, has a president who maligns the mainstream news media as “enemies of the people.”
An unexpectedly bright spot in this media landscape is the growth of local and cross-border investigative journalism, including the emergence of scores of local nonprofit investigative journalism organizations, often, like Hungary’s Direkt 36, populated by veterans seeking honest work after their old organizations have been compromised by political pressure. These journalism “special forces,” who struggle to maintain their independence, are surviving in even dangerous environments, with few stable resources to support them, because they are connected by a global network.
Despite the dangers and uncertainties, these journalists are inventing a potent new form of massive, cross-border investigative reporting. Its only agenda is to hold the powerful accountable to the people. These journalists are more secure and powerful in their watchdog work when they work together across borders. Despite this so-called “post-fact” era of “fake news” and propaganda spread virally on the internet, they are having a real impact with projects like the Panama Papers. They are developing a new culture and using digital tools to cast a spotlight on corruption and injustice, working even in places where an individual journalist working locally might be killed or jailed for such work.
Two heartening examples — one from the US and one from Europe — illustrate the new culture of collaboration that is emerging.
First, there is the story of David Farenthold at the Washington Post, who had a tip that a charitable foundation set up by presidential candidate Donald Trump was violating the law by buying his portrait with charity funds, and hanging the picture in one of his private clubs. Farenthold Tweeted to his followers that he needed some help. One of his many Twitter followers in Miami took up the challenge, and spent all day as an amateur detective, poring over tourist snapshots on TripAdvisor’s website. She found a photo of what appeared to be the portrait in question, hanging at Trump’s Doral Country Club in Miami.
But how could Farenthold figure out if it was still there? This was a private club. A news anchor at Miami’s Univision Spanish-language television network checked into the club’s hotel at midnight, as a guest, after leaving his on-air shift. The maintenance and housekeeping workers — who were part of Miami’s vast Spanish-speaking community and fans of the Univision TV anchor — were glad to help. They unlocked the bar where the picture was still hanging. Farenthold later explained to a radio interviewer that unless Trump’s private club was a soup kitchen during the day, serving free food for poor people — which it certainly was not — this was a violation of the charity laws.
Farenthold won a Pulitzer Prize last month for his investigative work. Another Pulitzer went to the extensive Panama Papers project — which started as an emailed offer of “data”, sent to Bastian Obermayer, a reporter at Suddeutsche Zeitung in Munich. This turned out to be the most massive leak in history — 4.6 terrabytes of information about a Panama law firm’s work laundering and hiding illegal assets for people like Vladimir Putin and the Prime Minister of Iceland. It was unmanageable for one reporter, or even one whole newspaper, to handle. So Obermayer turned to the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a nonprofit network who eventually mobilized 400 reporters from 70 countries to work secretly on the project. They adapted their own encrypted version of Facebook and Tinder to connect reporters to each other and pool their findings.
Putin and Trump have managed to survive these scandals, but Iceland’s Prime Minister and Spain’s minister of industry had to resign, and there were many other impacts when the Panama Papers stories were finally published, simultaneously across the world, a year ago. Stanford University Prof. James Hamilton estimates that for every $1 spent on investigative journalism, society gets $100 in benefits. While philanthropy remains a precarious business model for their expensive and sometimes dangerous work, journalists feel their future is promising. As one said, “If you kill me, four will take my place. If you kill all four, 40 will take their place. And if you kill all 40, 400 will take their place.”
Ellen Hume, a veteran journalist, media analyst and teacher, is a non-resident fellow at the Center for Media, Data and Society at Central European University in Budapest. She is an advisor to Direkt 36 in Hungary and founder of Hungary’s Not In Our Town racial tolerance project. This article is adapted from her 2017 research paper analyzing the new models of investigative journalism.