Remodelling Journalism: Impact, Not Money
Words by Nehir Hatipoglu
Not long ago, the University of Sydney held a panel about the future of journalism. One of the speakers was Robert J Rosenthal, an esteemed journalist and Executive Director of the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) based in California. According to Rosenthal, public-service journalism is becoming increasingly crucial in the face of radical technological and global transformation.
As digital disruption has been causing traditional media organisations to break down, new models of journalism focused on social change have emerged, Rosenthal said. In public-service journalism, success is not measured by money, but impact, argued the panellist.
He explained that the CIR flourished as the first non-profit news organisation in the US focused on investigative journalism. Procuring revenue from grants and donations, the CIR does not have to focus on whether a story will sell, instead its journalists can fully concentrate on serving the public.
“Our metric of success is not money or traffic of eyeballs, it is that the stories we do lead to change,” said the director. The journalists at CIR measure their success with an impact tracker, a tool that tells them the influence a story has had. The code of the tracker measures impact by analysing the change an article has brought. There are different types of change according to Rosenthal. It can be huge macro-change on national laws, but change can also happen on a micro-level.
For example: the CIR covered a story about Latin-American women being raped while working on the field. One of the women who went on camera was transformed by the experience.
“That woman’s life was changed completely, because she became a spokeswoman and the worst thing in her life made her someone who could speak to high school students and tell her story,” said Rosenthal.
However, public-interest journalism is much harder in Australia according to ABC journalist Alice Brennen, who was also present at the panel.
“We don’t have a culture of philanthropy here,” she said. “We don’t have this sort of a class of people who want to give money to and who believe in journalism and its role in democracy and who are willing to donate money for this cause.” The ABC reporter said that to support public-interest journalism in Australia, it is very important that big media organisations like Fairfax and the ABC support and pour resources into investigative journalism.
Public-interest journalism is a challenging field, as reporters constantly face law suits or even arrest and are targeted by governments, said Rosenthal. “Our president calls the press the enemy of the people.”
Yet in Australia, undertaking investigative journalism is even harder than the US. “We do not have something like the First Amendment in the States” said Brennan. As a consequence, journalists in Australia are much more vulnerable to lawsuits and defamation.
The US’s First Amendment to the Constitution protects the freedom of the press and prevents the government from restricting the distribution of information and thoughts. In Australia, the laws are more restrictive and there is access to far less information, making it much more difficult for investigative journalists, said the ABC journalist. In the face of these challenges, it is up to the people to demand a strong press, said Brennan. They will only do so, however, if journalists are able to engage them with their stories.
“We are fearful of engaging for fear of losing our impartiality or objectivity when in fact you bring more people to the story if you emotionally engage with it,” said Brennan. Using narrative forms to make readers empathetic towards the story and the people in it is one method of garnering audience support. Comparing Australian journalist’s unwillingness to engage with strong narrative forms like those found in the New Yorker, Brennan recommended that Australian journalists need to learn from the successful model in the US and bring their story to life.
What do you think? Are narrative forms the only way to save investigative journalism?
Note: Some of the quotes have been edited for better readability.