Digital Digging: How Fusion is producing investigative journalism for the Jon Stewart generation
Editor's note: This is the second part of a three-part series examining investigative teams at digital news organizations throughout the United States. Part one was about BuzzFeed.
Investigative reporters at Univision don't scare easily.
A company headquarters in Doral, Florida is home to journalists that have fled their homes for fear of getting arrested — or worse — because of their reporting.
"I work in a building that has a lot of people whose lives were threatened," said Keith Summa, the senior vice president for content innovation at Univision, "who had guns to their heads, who had to leave their home country because of their journalism."
Deep digging is woven into the culture of Univision, Summa says. And it's also found its way into Fusion, a news organization launched by Univision and Disney that aims to bring the news to an audience of young, diverse Americans. Since its debut in the summer of 2013, Fusion has assembled an investigative team comprising about 20 journalists from a variety of backgrounds — broadcast, print and digital — from outlets such as Gawker, The Huffington Post, NBC News and local television stations.
Their mandate: Reimagine investigations that once might've taken up two pages in a newspaper and package them for a young audience that consumes journalism on a variety of digital platforms.
"Investigative reporting — whether it's in print or on television — the form hasn't changed a lot," said Summa, the executive producer of the team. "It looks kind of like it always did. We're talking to a younger, multicultural audience, so we're always taking a look at the form and the way the story is presented."
Younger audience, newer platforms
An early example of this approach was on display in 2014, when Cristina Costantini, an investigative reporter at Fusion, teamed up with national affairs correspondent Jorge Rivas to tell the story of youth without legal immigration status breaking the law to enter the United States. The article (which was recognized by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists) was promoted by a series of short Instagram videos that featured the subjects discussing their plight.
A more recent attempt to use social apps for investigative stories came with the June premiere of "Silent River," a documentary about toxic Mexican waterways made for the ephemeral video messaging app Snapchat. Fusion is one of a handful of publishers currently on Snapchat Discover, but it's also staked out territory on many other distribution channels, including Apple TV, Roku and cable television. In all, Summa says, the company is active on at least 14 platforms.
This diversification means that Fusion can reach the company's youthful audience on whatever devices and services they're using. But the multiplicity of distribution platforms makes it somewhat difficult to approximate the total reach of the company's investigative work, Summa said. Fusion has been criticized in the past for failing to reach a broad online audience (a criticism that its editor in chief, Alexis Madrigal, responded to), and Summa says the total impact of its harder-hitting journalism can't be summed up through Chartbeat.
Fusion's investigative journalism is producing dividends for the company, Summa said. An early documentary project, "El Chapo: CEO of Crime," garnered nearly 3 million views on YouTube. On its cable network, 15 of the 20 most-watched telecasts were produced in part by its investigative team. And, Summa says, the network doubled the size of the team since fall — a step it wouldn't have taken if it didn't see the value of its work.
"I always find it very entertaining when someone talks about, 'What is the TV rating?'" Summa said. "Or, how many pageviews did that story have? Those are just two metrics out of at least 14. The great advantage we have is we can be on so many different platforms and so many different places — from the website to Snapchat to Facebook to TV to Apple TV — it goes on and on."
Passing the bullshit detector
Transparency is an important aspect of the reporting process for Fusion, Summa said. Trust of the news media is at historic lows, especially among young Americans who grew up on a diet of reality TV and shows that lampooned the news, like "The Daily Show" and "The Colbert Report."
"Personally, I believe that the audience that we're talking about has a bullshit detector that is far and away more attuned than my generation's was," Summa said. "They grew up with some great media criticism from people like Jon Stewart. So they see the bullshit."
This philosophy manifests itself in several ways, said Connie Fossi-Garcia, an investigative producer at Fusion. If reporters have a personal connection to a story, they disclose it publicly. If they decide to omit information, they explain why. And if they encounter hurdles during the course of their reporting, they let their audience know.
That strategy was on display recently when Fusion published an investigation into the spread of exploitive online mugshot galleries. Rather than presenting its reporting according to the conventions of typical TV news — with narration from an off-camera stentorian voice — Fusion cast the story as a personal undertaking by host Natasha Del Toro to get to the bottom of a coercive industry. Scenes from the six-part investigation show Del Toro discussing details with her colleagues, waiting in a car to confront an elusive source and greeting her sources with a smile as upbeat music plays in the background.
The reporting in "Mugged" is also presented from a vantage point not always apparent in investigative journalism. In one instance, Del Toro plainly states that the managers of mugshot websites can easily "screw people over," a conclusion that other outlets might leave to their sources. At the end of the investigation, Fusion also organizes a trip where several of the individuals exploited by Mugshots.com — sources in their story — attempt to confront the owner at his home. When she's turned away by security, Del Toro says that it's "time for poetic justice." Then, the camera shows the exploited sources pulling out banners with blown-up mugshots of the owner of Mugshots.com and holding them up for neighborhood passersby.
This segment — which shows Fusion essentially organizing a protest against the injustice it exposes — represents an unconventional approach to investigative journalism. Traditionally, deep journalistic digging reveals a problem and sometimes presents a solution but stops short of pillorying its architects. Summa says he views the segment as transparent journalism that makes no attempts to hide the informed point of view the reporters have developed over the course of their reporting. He also notes that the desire to confront the owner of Mugshots.com was originally expressed by one of the sources of the story, Jimmy Thompson.
"The reality is the people who manage these websites are screwing people," Summa said. "We wanted to make that explicit here, and we wanted to illustrate that perfectly...It's journalism in more than one way. We're empowering the people who were screwed over — and we're sharing information. What they're doing there is telling the story. Taking the story to the streets."
Not just for old white men
Making investigative journalism primarily for millennial audiences is new territory for Summa, a veteran investigative reporter and producer for major television networks, including ABC and CBS. At 51, Summa describes himself with mock chagrin as an "old white man" but says the cultural and ideological diversity on his team ensures a mix of fresh perspectives. Most members of his team are under 30, and the majority are non-White and female, which Summa says has led to investigations that wouldn't get reported elsewhere.
By way of example, he cited a story idea that would eventually become the basis for an interactive report examining the juvenile detention of transgender women being locked up alongside men. Over six months, three reporters reporters revealed that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials were locking up an average of 75 transgender prisoners per night in frequently humiliating conditions.
"When they pitched this story to me, I laughed, because no one at CBS or ABC would have pitched it to me," Summa said.
Fossi-Garcia, who joined Fusion just after college, agreed. Their experience is diverse, as is where they come from, including traditional news to law and advocacy, she said. "I think that diversity translates into unique stories ideas, skills and reporting styles."