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A New Way of Creating Investigative Journalism?

Paul Steiger, outgoing editor of The Wall Street Journal, proposes a foundation-backed method for gathering investigative journalism.

Photograph by Soffia Gisladottir

In Philip K. Dick's novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? the first sign that the environment was degrading irrepairably was that owls -- the symbol of wisdom -- began to fall dead from the skies. It's an image that didn't make it into Ridley Scott's epoch-defining film adaptation of Dick's novel, Blade Runner, but he heaped other, different symbolism into the movie, which became a vision of a ruined world that continues to gain influence. In 1995 Martin Walker interviewed William Gibson and wrote: "When he first saw Blade Runner, Gibson staggered from the cinema in despair, fearing that someone else had already cornered his nightmare future. Slowly, he realised they had the street scenes and the landscape but not the mindscape, not the alternative sensory universe of the Net."

In an interview in Wired magazine this month Scott talks about a newly-tweaked version of Blade Runner he's just released and the movie's influence on urban planners and architects. Wired asked Ridley Scott what it was like to be discussing a movie that he began 25 years ago.

It's been ongoing so long, it never went away. So I'm used to it. It kept reemerging, and that's when I realized that it had really unusual staying power. And it's all very well, at the time, as the person who made it, to say, "Well, I knew it had." But I didn't, really, at the time. I knew I'd done a pretty interesting movie which, in fact, was extremely interesting but was so unusual that the majority of people were taken aback. They simply didn't get it. Or, I think, better now to say they were enormously distracted by the environment.

Wired: What do you mean, "enormously distracted by the environment"?

Scott: Well, we — I mean I had new ground to address: the idea of doing a film that is not necessarily futuristic in the sense of the, futuristic science fiction, but actually more as a look into the future, and the future possibility, which can be more interesting. Because then you're touching on various possibilities of, like, replication, which now are quite commonplace, but 25 years ago they were barely discussing it in the corridors of power where you have to — you know, like the Senate and things like that. They hadn't even gotten to that point. I'm sure it was firmly in biological institutions and laboratories, but they hadn't yet gone for permission. It was almost 10 years or 15 years after Blade Runner that I read about replication. Now, the film is not really about that at all, it's simply borrowing that possibility and addressing it and putting it to making a sort of unusual protagonist or antagonist that will be leveraged into a Sam Spade or one of those detective, film-noir kind of stories. So people will be familiar with that kind of character, but not at all familiar with the world I was cooking up.

Ridley Scott talks about at the time being aware of the spectre of environmental breakdown, what we now call global warming, and giving that a futuristic aspect. What he created, in a way, was a kind of speculative investigative journalism. The question is now, since we're living in a Blade Runner world, who is going to notice the owls falling, the erosion of wisdom, when the kind of investigative journalism undertaken by major newspapers as a public trust is disappearing?

One of the feeds I subscribe to is Jeff Jarvis's Buzz Machine and he writes today about a new organization, Pro Publica, created by outgoing Wall Street Journal editor Paul Steiger.

I think that if we analyze the staffing and production devoted to investigation in American journalism, we’ll find that it’s a pretty damned small proportion of news budgets. And I suspect we’ll find that if it is not supported by large media organizations, it could be supported by foundations and public donation. That could come from independent organizations like Pro Publica and others (in its list of comparables, the Times misses the Center for Public Integrity). It also could come from independent journalists like Josh Marshall.

There is one caution to this: These organizations can be backed by and run by people with axes to grind. And so we may find an imbalance in investigation. That’s why the role of the editor, the journalist upholding public standards, remains important. Jay Rosen saw that when he started New Assignment and initially planned on having the public assign the stories (which I hope he still does); the editor stood in the way of the axes. And at Pro Publica, I have every confidence in its independence and intellectual honesty because it has Paul Steiger at its helm. It’s hard to name a more respected editor in this country.

No, foundations are not the salvation of newsrooms as we knew them. But this one could demonstrate that we could save — even expand — the scope of investigative journalism. I’ll be eager to watch.

Jeff Jarvis. Buzz Machine.

Jeff Jarvis links to a New York Times story about Pro Publica:

Paul E. Steiger, who was the top editor of The Wall Street Journal for 16 years, and a pair of wealthy Californians are assembling a group of investigative journalists who will give away their work to media outlets.

The nonprofit group, called Pro Publica, will pitch each project to a newspaper or magazine (and occasionally to other media) where the group hopes the work will make the strongest impression. The plan is to do long-term projects, uncovering misdeeds in government, business and organizations.

Nothing quite like it has been attempted, and despite having a lot going for it, Pro Publica will be something of an experiment, inventing its practices by trial and error. It remains to be seen how well it can attract talent and win the cooperation of the mainstream media.

Richard Perez Pena. The New York Times. October 15, 2007

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