Investigative journalism’s future depends on partnerships, public data

As traditional news outlets across the country cut back, investigative journalists have been confronted with a difficult question: How do we hold the powerful accountable in the midst of hard times?

Journalists in Colorado have tackled that question by launching two projects aimed at increasing the quality and quantity of watchdog reporting throughout the state. The projects — Colorado Data Commons and CitizenAtlas — have received a total of $336,900 from the Knight Foundation. The projects are just two of the 19 projects that won this year’s Knight Community Information Challenge, an annual contest that helps location-based foundations meet local information needs. Knight, which announced the winners today, awarded a total of $2.26 million this year.

It’s not surprising that journalists and foundations are looking for money to bolster investigative efforts.

“Investigative reporting has been especially hard hit by cuts. It is part of what the FCC’s Information Needs report calls a crisis in local accountability journalism,” Eric Newton, senior advisor to the President at Knight, said via email. “That’s why these nonprofits are springing up and getting community foundation support.”

Laura Frank, executive editor of the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network, says the Colorado-based projects will help fill the void created by cutbacks. The void was especially noticeable after the Rocky Mountain News — which had two full-time investigative reporters and a rotating team of reporters who worked on investigative stories — folded in February 2009.

“When the Rocky closed, it was traumatic,” said Frank, who was one of the paper’s two full-time investigative reporters. “But the silver lining of the dark cloud is there are some really exciting projects going on [now] that may actually create something that’s better than what we had before.”

Frank and the others involved with Data Commons and CitizenAtlas hope the projects will:

  • Make it easier for the public to access and understand public data.
  • Foster greater collaboration among investigative journalists throughout the state.
  • Give the public a way to participate in the investigative storytelling process.

Data Commons is being led by the Denver Foundation, a group that offers Denver residents meaningful ways to give back to the community. In partnership with the Rocky Mountain Investigative Network and the Piton Foundation — a group that helps poverty-stricken children and their families — the Denver Foundation plans to identify the barriers that prevent people from accessing government data. They’ll use much of the $134,900 from Knight to create online tools that will help people access the data.

The Piton Foundation has received $202,000 to lead the CitizenAtlas project, which is an extension of Data Commons. With the help of the Denver Foundation and the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network, the foundation plans to create free tools to help citizens translate public data into stories. They’ll also provide outreach programs and training to underprivileged citizens who want to tell their stories and use the CitizenAtlas site once it’s created.

The Denver Foundation’s Rebecca Arno explained the CitizenAtlas plans via email, saying they hope to create “a story-builder to pull together visual, narrative and data elements into unified and compelling stories; a data visualization tool that helps people build data into powerful visuals; and a place where these stories come together in a compendium of community action.”

Data Commons and CitizenAtlas both address the reality that there are many people who would like to access public information but don’t know how. “People want to dig up information themselves, and they want to know if it’s true or not,” Frank said by phone, noting that some government entities make it especially hard for people to find public data. “We can help them access information that actually gives them the answers to the questions they have.”

Helping people access public information through databases and other online tools is a hallmark not just of the Colorado-based projects, but of investigative journalism projects nationwide. (Several of this year’s Knight News Challenge winners were geared toward similar efforts.)

The Texas Tribune has helped lead the way with its interactive databases, which have enabled readers to locate their lawmakers in the Capitol, access information about prison inmates, and see how minorities have driven population growth in Texas. When I reported on the site’s databases earlier this year, Texas Tribune CEO and Editor-in-Chief Evan Smith told me: “We understand that access to information is what makes people more thoughtful and productive and engaged citizens. Without access to information you have disengagement from the political process and the policy process.”

The other two hallmarks of Data Commons and CitizenAtlas — collaboration and public involvement — reinforce the new shape of investigative journalism.

ProPublica, the Center for Public Integrity, the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network (which was a Knight Community Information Challenge winner last year) all collaborate with traditional news outlets on investigations, which has become increasingly important as newsroom staffs have shrunk. Others are partnering as well. In Colorado, Public TV began a partnership in 2009 with Colorado Public News to produce local investigative stories that would have been difficult to cover on their own.

Efforts to get the public more involved with investigations have also helped news outlets fill the void. California Watch has been successful at getting the public involved with, and interested in, its investigations. And some investigative journalists have turned to social media to solicit tips from the public.

Public involvement is important to the folks at VTDigger.org, one of the Knight Community Information Challenge’s other winners. The site received $104,000, the majority of which will go toward hiring an investigative reporter to cover energy and health reform issues in Vermont.

VTDigger.org, which is “led by journalists, powered by the public,” encourages readers to help with investigations.

“We respond as often as we can to reader tips and comments,” Anne Galloway, the site’s editor and sole investigative reporter, told me. “We have also launched a companion site, Tipster.VTDigger.org, that includes a forum and anonymous tip box that gives readers an opportunity to interact directly with reporters.”

As they’ve adapted to changes in the industry, investigative journalists have found ways to help watchdog reporting not only survive, but thrive. Frank says she hopes the Knight-funded investigative projects will lay a framework for the future.

“Have new organizations like the I-News Network filled the gap? Not entirely,” she said. “But we are building something that will be better than we had before. We are more than a gap-filler. We are the evolution of investigative journalism.”

Disclosure: The Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network was a winner of the Poynter Promise Prize, an incubation project in entrepreneurial journalism run by The Poynter Institute.

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    On the subject of the Fourth Estate and watchdog journalism, Bob Gibson, Executive Director of the University of Virginia’s Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership, recently said: “If we don’t have a watchdog function, then we have a lapdog function, and that doesn’t serve the voter very well. We need journalism that goes out and challenges what is being given reporters as the facts. We need to look behind the facts and find out where they’re coming from, and what the interests are of the people who are giving us those facts. Local government and state government and the federal government today are even more than ever in the news business themselves. They are putting out news as if it was the entire package and expecting people to buy it and I think Americans have to be a little bit skeptical and have to look behind where those governments are putting out facts.” (Gibson appeared on the Charlottesville, VA, politics interview program Politics Matters with host and producer Jan Madeleine Paynter discussing journalism http://bit.ly/pm-gibson)