Friday, March 05, 2010

The truth about the price of investigative journalism online

The folks at The Business Insider went and practiced some true investigative journalism in a story about Facebook.

What they found out: in the current online-only business model, true investigative journalism is unsustainable.

Here are their tweets about the project, via editor-in-chief Henry Blodget:

All right, look, here's the truth about this investigative reporting thing...

Everyone says they want more of it. No more aggregation, please. No more links. No more slideshows. No more picture of Erin Burnett.

Just more good old shoe-leather reporting, like they did in the good old days.

And so we do it!

A good old fashioned shoe-leather investigation. On and off for two years. Wheedling, Cajoling. Secret meetings. Documents. Hush hush.

And we find out some cool stuff! Not Pentagon Papers or Watergate, mind you. But good, secret stuff about the founding of Facebook

And then we have to chat with lawyers: What happens if Facebook sues our asses off? Will we get tossed in Big House for protecting sources?

And then the fact-checking. And the "hey, guys, sorry, we've got this story you're not going to like" call with Facebook. (First of many)

And we have to write and edit the darn thing, which takes, literally, all night (I sh** you not)

And we have to make sure it's correct and fair, because who doesn't want to be fair? I mean, these are just people. And who's perfect?

And because we don't have some massive staff of 8 editors per writer or something (no wonder NYT going bust), this is a tag team effort

So, anyway, we do the investigative reporting thing. And we produce a good story! Interesting, fair, fun (IMHO). Breaks new ground. Etc.

And people like it! (Except for one guy, who says he'd rather watch ice melt than read about Mark Zuckerberg). Kudos. Sense of pride.

And of course we'd love to do three of these a day -- figure out all the bad sh** in the world, get it out there, help people know beans

But the truth is, if we tried to do 3 a day, with our staff, we would DROP DEAD. We'd also go bust. Neither being a happy outcome.

So that means...

We're going to try to give you one of these once in a while. You like reading 'em. And we like making 'em. So it's smiles all around.


We're ALSO going to keep giving you the great stuff that OTHER sites are doing (hopefully with some helpful commentary attached).

And we're going to give you house porn, and features, and pictures of Erin Burnett. Because, truth be told, you GROOVE on that sh*t!

(And so do we, by the way--we've taken our fearless moral inventory, and we're ready to admit it)

And because, thanks to the Internet, there are THOUSANDS of smart people publishing great stuff. And it would be SILLY not to link to it.

So that's the truth about investigative journalism. It's important. It's great. But it is also fantastically expensive and time-consuming
So there you have it. Online, it's impossible to sustain such investigative journalism, because the budgets just aren't large enough (probably because print is still taking quite a chunk of advertising dollars -- the split isn't helping either side) and thus neither is the staff.

That's the thing about online -- pages need to be made every day. Who's going to turn over pageviews while all your reporters are off doing stories that -- while immensely helpful to your publication's reputation and brand -- eventually don't pay off in terms of pageviews?

Say you get 200,000 pageviews on a great investigative story, but it takes you a solid two weeks (not very long in investigative journalism land) of work to do.

You've given up whatever pageviews you would have made during those two weeks -- and even if you break even, your site has been silent for two weeks. (Unless, of course, you have a big enough staff to do so. Most online-only publications do not.)

See the problem? Investigative journalism is extremely expensive no matter which way you cut it, but it's impossibly expensive for an online publication. When you can get 100,000 pageviews on a photo gallery of Miley Cyrus, and another 100,000 on a post about the Apple iPad -- in the space of two to three days -- why bother with investigative reporting?

Like the newspaper industry as a whole, it's a "public service" that must be subsidized by more profitable, but less glamorous, content.

(Ergo, why Blodget decided to publish a photo gallery with 22 -- yes, twenty-two! -- screenshots of his already-published tweets that can easily be read in chronological order from his Twitter page. Because publishing is a business, and online, pageviews rule.)

A recent Columbia Journalism Review survey noted that magazine websites' editing practices were "slack" and not up to par with their print counterparts.

It's the same problem here: without budget and staff, you simply can't guarantee the same quality.

This is not an online versus print culture clash. This is as simple as balancing your checkbook. If editorial oversight comes at a premium, investigative journalism is simply out of reach for most publications.

No comments: