The future of investigative journalism - Communications Committee Contents

CHAPTER 6: Convergence

220.  One of the characteristics of convergence is that the moment will soon arrive when everything which is currently distributed through the press and which is broadcast by radio and television will also be distributed via the internet.

221.  The advent of new technologies and the increasing take-up of social media both as a means of communication and as an additional way for journalists to obtain information have had a significant impact on investigative journalism. The way in which people receive news and information is changing at a rapid pace as new technologies enable information to be shared in real-time around the globe. Traditional news outlets such as newspapers and television stations are under immense pressure to break news, whereas in the past stories could be developed and published either in an evening news bulletin or in the following day's paper.

The role of social media in investigative journalism

222.  Social media offers journalists new ways of contacting sources and accessing information from around the globe. Ms Elizabeth Linder, Politics and Government Specialist, Facebook, pointed out that, "As information becomes more available ... searching for that information also gets better."[171] The Bureau of Investigative Journalism noted that:

"Social media is of increasing importance for the dissemination of news, and allows people who would never normally read a particular newspaper to be aware of its journalism by recommendations by people they are connected to via social media sites. Mobile devices such as e-readers and iPads allow for instant access to news almost regardless of location, giving further opportunities to find and read investigative journalism."[172]

223.  Martin Trepte, Editorial Director, Maidenhead Advertiser, spoke of the benefit for local newspapers of using social media. He said:

"Twitter and Facebook enable you to connect with a wider audience and with people in a different way. They might previously have phoned you up, or you might have phoned them. If you have followers you can put something up on Twitter. As an example, we were taking a picture of some demonstrators who were opposed to a big, ancient tree being cut down. The photographer was going round there in about an hour. The chief of the protesters put a message out on Twitter. By the time the photographer got there about 30 people were there for the photo. If she had had to ring around we would probably never have had that many people there. So, in terms of reaching particular interest groups, because you do sign up to follow people on Twitter, there is a new way of contacting people."[173]

224.  Mr Paul Lewis, Special Projects Editor, The Guardian, said that:

"In terms of how social media should work and does work for investigative journalists you could really split it into two. It is a bit of a false dichotomy; I will do it anyway. One of them is to say you can use it to broadcast and disseminate the information that you find out, so to tell people what you are finding out. Secondly, it is for other people to help you in your journalistic endeavour. The fascinating thing is actually the two are one and the same. So journalism becomes a lot more like a conversation; the news article is not the finished product, it is the first version and it is constantly corrected as people help you in that process."[174]

225.  In relation to Twitter, Paul Lewis said:

"There are 140 million tweets sent out each day, each of them their own small, tiny digital footprint. As a journalist that is really something quite remarkable. It means that there is a record of most things particularly important or controversial things that happen and that is what you need. You need a record. You need evidence. So from that perspective, it is a really exciting time."[175]

226.  Paul Lewis explained how journalists can use social media to contact witnesses in this way:

"To give you a very good example, I think, of where it has worked well, there was the death of a detainee on an aircraft from Heathrow to Angola and this is one of the cases I spoke about in the video you mentioned. I think this is a good example of the story that you would not be able to investigate in any other way, and therefore it would have been virtually impossible to investigate it, certainly at that speed, prior to about 2008."[176]

227.  Ms Clare Sambrook, a freelance journalist, spoke of the benefits of using social media to publicise investigative reports. She said:

"There are lots of very good online publications and then also online we can promote the work through Twitter, for example. So, if you get a really astonishing piece—like we had a ... piece on the Breivik massacre—and it just went ... around the world. We got loads and loads of people reading that. It was a piece that would not have appeared in a national newspaper, a piece by a Norwegian giving context to what had happened very, very quickly. It would have been extraordinarily difficult for him, as somebody unknown to a national newspaper, to get that kind of space. So, there are all sorts of benefits to online publication and online research, massive benefits."[177]

228.  However there are also risks which journalists must be aware of when using social media. For example, it is often still necessary to talk to sources face-to-face in order to verify sources and in order to be able to reassure potential whistle-blowers that they will be protected wherever possible. Ms Elena Egawhary, an investigative journalist on the BBC's Newsnight programme, told us that:

"I do not think that the role of journalists has actually changed at all with the internet. Journalism remains the same, which is that you gather from all the sources you can and you try and find the truth of the situation or as close to what you think is the truth of what you have received from all of your sources. The thing with the internet is that we now have a lot more sources that we can start going through, but I do not think the nature of journalism itself has changed. I think the skills are still the same. You talk to as many people as you can; you go to as many places as you can; you read as many documents as you can; and you hope that out of this mass of information you somehow get to the place that you are trying to go to and you get the proof for the story that is there ultimately with all of this information that you are gathering."[178]

229.  A recent example which highlights the problems facing journalists in trying to verify source information online, especially when there is no 'real' publisher, was the example of the 'Gay Girl in Damascus'. This blog was purported to have been written by a citizen journalist and it gained worldwide readership and was followed by major news organisations in 2011. It purported to be the diary of a 25 year old lesbian woman living in Damascus and writing about her life at a time of political unrest. However, this was later discovered to be have been written by an American man living in Edinburgh. It was a complete fabrication which highlights the problem of lies on the internet and the need for all journalists, and investigative journalists in particular, to verify as thoroughly as possible their sources. It also raises issues about how the use of unedited and unaccredited material can mislead the public and poses the question as to whether there may be workable ways of validating material and verifying sources.

230.  We welcome the use of social media by journalists as a means of contacting people around the world in order to access content and information which might otherwise be extremely difficult and time-consuming to identify. We recommend that the PCC tightens its guidance on the use of information provided by citizen journalists using social media and we warn journalists to be extra vigilant in verifying information found online. Where appropriate, news organisations should issue clear internal guidelines for all staff on how to use such data. In addition, given the challenges which will only intensify in this area, we recommend that further thought be given to considering what, if any, workable ways might be proposed to aid the processes of validating material and verifying sources.

Data journalism

231.  A huge amount of information, much of it statistical, is now made available online by public bodies as part of the Open Data agenda and the Government has recently announced its investment in the Open Data Institute. Requests for specific types of information can also be made by individuals under the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (FOI). This revolution in the accessibility of public information clearly represents a significant new opportunity for investigative journalists and perhaps even for citizens interested in researching particular issues. Jeremy Hunt MP, Secretary of State for Culture, Olympics, Media and Sport, underlined this point: "If we unleash citizen journalists on vast swathes of government data we are opening up big, big opportunities both to hold Government to account and also to learn things about our society that we never knew before. It is a very, very big opportunity."[179]

232.  However, these new opportunities bring with them new challenges. One arises from the sheer volume of data. For example, the Bureau of Investigative Journalism claimed that "theoretical open access does not necessarily translate to practical transparency. Public bodies now release so much data that it is entirely possible for important information to be deliberately buried or unwittingly lost. Some information is provided in non-searchable PDFs, or so scattered that it requires considerable time and effort to collect, despite the individual elements being available."[180]

233.  In addition, analysing this data often requires an in-depth understanding of computing and data software. Professor Jon Crowcroft, Marconi Professor of Communications Systems in the Computer Laboratory, University of Cambridge, told us that:

"Vast amounts of data are not necessarily a barrier to making some forms of investigative journalism easier, because the vast amount of computing power that is very cheaply available, almost freely available, offsets that ... the biggest barrier seems to me, as in many walks of life, that to do anything reasonably new you might need to do some new piece of computing that might need some extra skills and resources in the journalism world that they might not have."[181]

We have certainly heard evidence that, at present, many journalists do not have sufficient training in computer skills to be able to exploit the new opportunities of data journalism. On the one hand, this has created a need for specialist analysts who must be recruited at additional cost. On the other, it has underlined the need for better levels of training in statistical methods and software for journalists in general. John Mair, Senior Lecturer in Broadcast Journalism at Coventry University, for example, told us that "modern students need to learn data journalism. They need to learn all the normal journalism methods but also how to handle data."[182] We therefore welcome the fact that several universities have begun teaching these skills as part of their respective journalism courses.

Finding a business model online

234.  We do not think it is overstating the case to say that in the last 10-20 years there has been a technological revolution. Not only has the use of the internet grown exponentially over the past decade, but the development of smart phones and tablet computers has meant that all of this can be done just about anywhere. As acknowledged by the Government in its written evidence to this inquiry: "Virtually all publishers involved in print now have an online presence, but with varying success as they learn how to use the relatively new media to their advantage."[183] In addition, websites, blogs and social media sites are all now routinely used as news sources by a large section of the population together with traditional media. These largely unregulated forums undermine the business models of traditional news sources such as newspapers, television channels and radio stations as some of them offer similar content free of charge and they can divert audiences and readers away from traditional news sources.

235.  Online delivery models will continue to form a significant part of news organisations' business models in the future. New business models for investigative journalism are likely to emerge which enable the producers of content to monetise what they produce. In some cases, this is already happening. Richard Tofel, the General Manger of ProPublica, told us that they had had some success selling e-books for Amazon Kindle devices and that there was "considerable potential" to develop this revenue stream.[184]

236.  Some newspapers have put most of their content behind a paywall, an online device which prevents users from accessing the content without a subscription. Mr Richard Caseby, Managing Editor of The Sun, told us that: "The Sunday Times and The Times have a paywall and think that does show a real way forward for them."[185] Mr Caseby also told us that the use of apps as a means of accessing news content was increasing rapidly. An app is a piece of software developed for mobile devices which enables news providers to charge readers to download. He said that the Sunday Times has around 120,000 paying users on the iPad, adding that: "What is fantastic about the business models of newspapers or magazines on the iPad is that you can probably charge about eight or nine times as much for an advertisement on the iPad as you can on a website."[186] Paywalls and mobile software apps are relatively new technologies and Mr Alan Rusbridger, Editor, The Guardian, told us that, "it is not a given to me that any salvation would lie through the route of putting up a paywall."[187]

237.  Martin Moore, Director, Media Standards Trust, highlighted the models emerging in the USA as an example of how investigative content might be delivered in the UK in future. He said:

"Look particularly at the American models, because they have, as I say, experimented in many different models, whether it is through foundation funding or through mixed funding. There is a rather innovative man called David Cohn, who created Spot.Us,[188] which is public funding, if you like. People donate towards particular stories. The news organisation start-up we are working with in South Wales is doing a similar thing. The key, I think, is that, first, it will be mixed and, secondly, it will not be profitable in the way it once was. In many areas, actually, it will not be profitable at all."[189]

238.  Dr David Levy, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, told us that although technology offers many new opportunities for journalists and news organisations, going forward, "the main model for investigative stories will continue to be larger organisations that are seeking to enhance their brand by putting themselves, as they would see it, at the cutting edge of journalism."[190] We agree with Dr Levy that—for both newspapers and broadcasters—delivering high-quality investigative output is likely to remain an important part of many news organisations' brands. As described above, although the way in which people access news and current affairs content, including investigative journalism, is likely to change in the next 5-10 years as a result of increasing convergence between media devices, we do not believe that this will have a significant impact on the type of investigative content produced. Rather, news outlets will deliver content which they will be able to market in different formats to different audiences at different prices.

239.  We believe that the newspaper industry will develop a range of different models through which to monetise content online. In this regard we agree with Martin Moore that: "One of the key things to say is that there is no silver bullet. I do not think there is anything specific that one can say, 'That will do it'."[191] For example, printed newspapers, which are more expensive to produce, are likely to continue to be published and sold at a higher price than their online counterparts. News organisations are also likely to offer content online and charge this at different levels, offering free access; subscriptions; micro-payments for single articles and websites and online applications tailored to different devices such as mobile phones, tablet computers and e-readers. There is no doubt that it will be challenging for the newspaper industry to respond to this technological change, but as well as creating a threat to traditional business models, these changes will also offer many new opportunities for the industry to deliver interesting and informative investigative content to people in different ways.

240.  We welcome the innovation which is emerging in trying to find a way of monetising investigative journalism content online and making this information available to users in a variety of different ways at a range of different price-points. However, although take up of online services is increasing rapidly, these remain relatively new developments and we are in the early decades of a digital revolution which will bring change on a scale that is irresistible and profound. We heard much evidence which painted a pessimistic picture of the economic problems facing investigative journalism but we have heard no evidence that leads us to conclude that investigative journalism will disappear: we believe that it will continue.

241.  As news organisations adapt their business models to these changing circumstances and new players enter the marketplace, we will observe with interest the extent to which people are prepared to pay to access online content and if so, which devices will prove most popular and what the correct price-point for investigative stories will be.

242.  The technologies upon which investigative journalism now often relies are developing at an ever-faster rate. The outcome of developments in this area remains uncertain but we are confident that investigative journalism will adapt if sufficient scope is given to allow the industry to build successful models online. It is essential that any legal or regulatory reforms take account of these new technologies and that in an age of increasing convergence it is often the same content which is delivered through different platforms. It is vital that any such changes do not make the position of investigative journalism yet more precarious in what is already a difficult market in which to operate.

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188   This is a website through which the public can commission and participate with journalists to do reporting on important and perhaps overlooked topics. Ideas for investigative stories are posted on the website and then individuals can contribute to the cost of pursuing the investigation. Once the money has been raised, the investigation is started and Spot.Us will then work with news organizations to distribute content under appropriate licenses Back

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