The future prospects of investigative journalism

Last night, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) published the fruits of an explosive, multi-year worldwide investigation into offshore tax havens. It’s not the first such investigation of theirs, and shows just what can happen when outlets collaborate to dissect matters of public interest.

Journalists from a variety of countries and outlets (including Canada’s own CBC/Radio-Canada) sifted through 2.5 million leaked documents to expose the wealthy people who stash their earnings in covert companies and trusts in places like the British Virgin Islands and Cook Islands. Many of these people are politically connected, like class-action attorney Tony Merchant, whose wife is Canadian Senator Pana Merchant.

This kind of investigation is likely the reason many young journalists go into the business – the promise of serving as an important check/balance on an increasingly unchecked oligarchy of corporate wealth and political corruption. But it’s also the kind of investigation that is less and less common these days. Not only are such projects expensive, they require long-term commitment (and by extension, long-term employees). We’re talking hours upon hours upon hours of paid labour that, for a long time, does not yield content to populate a homepage. It’s an investment in which many publications and outlets seem to have dwindling (if any) interest.

Not to get all York University grad student here, but let’s not forget that many of the media’s powerful people have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo of wealth distribution. It’s worth noting that the only Canadian outlet ICIJ listed as a participant in the investigation is a public broadcaster. What is the best way to ensure this type of work gets funded and produced?

British investigative journalist David Leigh has a few ideas, including a small monthly levy on broadband connections, and collaboration among outlets in the style we saw with the ICIJ investigation. The former is likely to draw considerable ire from people who read the news (much as paywalls have done and perhaps moreso). The latter has worked well in some cases but still requires outlets that have an interest in investing, to some extent or another, in stories with long-term payoff. Other possibilities include crowd-funded stories and investigations sponsored by non-profit or educational organizations.

Where do you go for good investigative journalism? What are your thoughts and feelings on the options above? What other ideas have you come across? Tell me in the comments or better yet, discuss it with industry peers at the MediaTech Commons, a private community for digital media workers to vent, plot, and share their experiences.

Building ourselves a future in digital media

As a news junkie whose smartphone sometimes requires surgical removal from her hand, I have a vested interest in a thriving environment for the creation and dissemination of digital media. That includes the journalists and editors who produce news, the designers and coders who develop apps, the people who engineer hardware, the community managers who spread the word, and much more.

For our Canadian content and technologies to thrive, we need an industry that attracts and keeps not only “the best” people, but an incredible variety of people. Diverse teams perform better than homogenous ones, so we all benefit from ensuring the diversity of communities that produce and distribute digital media. I’m talking diversity in the broadest sense, here, including things like gender, race and socioeconomic class.

The casualization of working conditions (i.e. an increasing reliance on contractors and particularly interns) threatens the potential for a diverse industry. Many careers in digital media require a high-risk “investment” on the front-end for workers – slugging it out in a no-pay or low-pay job whose opportunities for advancement are rapidly dwindling. Only a small slice of the population can afford that risk.

As the handful of major media companies in Canada lay off hundreds of workers, how many of those full-time internal roles will be partially replaced by a combination of contract work and unpaid interns? How many will not be replaced at all, shrinking the number of decent-paying and often unionized jobs in the sector? And what kind of leverage do independent contractors and interns have to respond to this shifting climate in any way other than to look out for Number One?

When the Canadian Media Guild approached me about creating a walled online community for digital media workers, it was an easy sell. This kind of platform can serve as a useful complement to more formal efforts to organize Canadian digital media workers. It can connect us with people, organizations and initiatives that share our goals and value our skills and knowledge. Just as importantly, it is a place to share experiences with others in our field without fear of being watched by our bosses, as on a Twitter account or Facebook post.

The MediaTech Commons is designed to help us share information and build the connections and confidence to demand better, both in negotiations with our bosses and in our careers writ large.

You can join me at the MediaTech Commons by signing up here, and you can learn more about it here. In French it’s called l’Espace MédiaTech and there’s more info for francophones here.