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Investigative Reporting Conference: “It’s Over”

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Sunday, Aug 9, 2009
This year’s annual Investigative Reporters and Editors conference was less than an upbeat affair. In fact, with so many newspapers folding these days, you could say the sense of doom was palpable. Still, some speakers were able to show how they are keeping investigative journalism alive, though, it could be argued, just barely.

Investigative Reporting Conference: “It’s Over”


In “State of Play,” a recent movie set in the last-gasp world of newspaper journalism, Russell Crowe’s character is an investigative print reporter who joins forces with a young blogger to bring down a powerful senator and expose the evil intentions of a Haliburton-like company bent on world domination. It’s a great flick for celebrating old-fashioned shoe leather journalism.


But only briefly. The final image on screen is a sobering reminder of reality, i.e., printing presses stamping ink onto the front page of the paper while a mournful ballad fills the soundtrack. Message to old-fashioned shoe leather journalists everywhere: It’s over.


As it turns out, “State of Play” was a perfect set-up for the annual Investigative Reporters and Editors conference I attended in Baltimore earlier in the summer. Because even as industry leaders tried to be as optimistic as possible about the prospects for investigative journalism in a post-newspaper world, and even as they tried to extend a hand to Internet pioneers and talk up blogging, there was a palpable sense of doom.


The signs were everywhere. First of all, many of the presenters were wearing name tags that said “free lance” under where you were supposed to identify your news organization, which in most cases meant they had been laid off, some only the week before. During one session, I ran into an old friend with a highly successful political blog who said he expected his newspaper to terminate his contract shortly—as in, it could happen any day, which it did.


To its credit, IRE addressed employment anxiety at its conference by organizing a panel on free-lancing and setting up sessions such as “Doing great work in tough times.” The panel on “Alternative models for investigative reporting” was a slice of good news, a reminder that not-for-profit investigative journalism is increasingly finding a home on the Internet. Meanwhile, IRE also offered its usual sessions on court reporting, database searching and watchdog investigations to keep government accountable—all of which remain necessary endeavors in a democracy, to be sure.


It was hard to see so many worried faces and it probably didn’t help when former Washington Post editor Leonard Downie Jr., himself the recipient of a buyout, bluntly told a packed auditorium that “It’s over,” meaning that the network and newspaper news monopoly had ended and that a new model has yet to emerge. He acknowledged that it was going to be tough times for traditional news reporters in their 40s and 50s. (It should be noted that Downie, unlike many displaced reporters, has a lifeboat available to him: academia.)


Downie was part of a two-man “Showcase panel” at IRE in which he shared the stage with Bob Woodward (portrayed in another great journalism movie, “All the President‘s Men”).
In their dialogue, the two commiserated over the torment of enduring lunch with the long-winded Al Gore. They promoted Woodward’s new book in the works, an examination of the Obama Administration—not exactly a departure from his old books on previous administrations. Downie got to throw some jabs at Internet maven Arianna Huffington and then managed to get himself elected to IRE’s Board of Directors during the course of the conference.


As always at professional conferences, some unfortunates drank the Kool-Aid: One starstruck man in the audience prefaced his question for Woodward by saying that it was “an honor to breathe the same air” as the journalism legend. (Hey, I show “All the Prez” to my journalism class and I respect the man’s body of work. But this was overkill.)


If, at IRE, Woodward-Downie’s message was “see ya, wouldn’t want to be ya” to the rank and file journalists in the crowd, it was refreshing to see other presenters offering more inspiring and empowering lessons. The panel I liked best was an all-female trio under the heading of “Invisible populations.”


It featured Mimi Chakarova, who combines photography and recorded interview on dark topics such as human trafficking in Eastern Europe and rape in post-invasion Iraq. (Memo to Downie and Woodward: while you guys were suffering through lunch with Gore, Chakarova was posing as a prostitute in Eastern Europe and had to run for her life before the pimps settled on a price and conscripted her into human slavery!) She said it took years to earn the trust of the women she interviewed and photographed, and that many don’t have an understanding of what being on the Internet means, which poses an ethical dilemma as she approaches them about sharing their stories and being identified in photographs. She said some human trafficking victims have offered to remove their shirts in photos to show the burn marks of cigarettes that were put out on their breasts by abusive johns. In a rare show of concern for subjects by a journalist, Chakarova declined to take them up on their offer, powerful as these photos would have been.


Two other women on the panel also showed the kind of passionate commitment that makes the best journalism so fresh and exciting. Karyn Spencer, of the Omaha World-Herald, investigated the state of Nebraska’s irregularities in medical examinations. It seems that autopsies in Nebraska are routinely performed by county attorneys with no medical training and they often take their best guesses at cause of death—not a bad deal if you plan to murder someone. The other panelist, Ruth Teichroeb, who worked at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer until it closed in March, talked about the importance of reporters giving vulnerable people control over when and where the interview takes place, and how they want to be quoted.


Teichroeb and her fellow panelists represent a newer school of journalism in which reporters think about the effect of their work on the lives of the subjects they write about. But as IRE proved, it wasn’t time to write off old-school journalists yet.


In a lively panel discussion with Sy Hersh and James Bamford, prize-winning journalistic veterans who both write about national security, the outlook was a bit more uptempo than among some of the other old-timers. Bamford said he loved alternative media, citing Alternet in particular, and Hersh disparaged editors (“We could probably lop off 70% of editors and be better off”) and pretended to scoff at the notion of reading up on a topic before writing about it. He even mocked the New York Times for raising its rates while offering “an inferior product.”


Not surprisingly, Jill Abramson, managing editor of the Times, projected a far more sanguine outlook on the ‘grey lady’ during another IRE panel discussion. She told the audience she was “bullish” on her paper’s future, citing its still-large newsroom, successful website and undiluted commitment to news.  While I am a great fan of her newspaper/website, I didn’t quite believe her words of cheer. I hope I’m wrong on that one.


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