Investigative journalism will survive and flourish as the business model for newspapers slowly shifts from an advertising-based model to one based on subscription revenue, according to David Barstow of The New York Times. This kind of journalism is embedded in the business model of the NYT, which now has 1.6 million subscribers, he says.
Barstow was speaking on a panel at the Australian Press Council’s annual conference in Sydney yesterday, with multi-award-winning investigative journalist Kate McClymont of The Sydney Morning Herald, on the topic of “Is Investigative Journalism an Expensive Luxury or a Necessity?”.
Both agreed that their brand of journalism was a necessity, albeit an expensive one. Kate said that newspapers needed to differentiate themselves and “the way to do that is unique content. More and more readers will be willing to pay for that.”
Barstow, who has won three Pulitzer prizes, said that new digital tools enabled the paper to count how much time people spent reading each story and it was a “happy shock” to him to learn that long-form investigative pieces were getting a large number of readers who stayed till the end.
He said he was a “child of Watergate” and was propelled to go into journalism by watching the movie All the President’s Men, which traces The Washington Post’s exposure of the scandal. “Perhaps some young person today will be similarly moved by watching Spotlight,” he said.
The general public respond to investigative journalism because “we all have this feeling that we are being ‘spun to death’ by the powers that be,” he said, adding that he had a particular focus on multinational corporations because he tried “to find concentrated power and pay very close attention to it”.
Both journalists agreed that the death of local papers was a serious problem for the community because local councils were hotbeds of corruption. Kate said she receives many calls about local issues but news organisations now lack the staff to follow all of them up.
Barstow said that people outside journalism were “way too hung up on whether a whistleblower is a good person”. He gave as an example Merrell Williams, the man who blew the whistle on the tobacco companies, which resulted in billion-dollar payouts. Williams, a thrice-divorced bankrupt alcoholic, was motivated by money rather than morality, he said, as he had copied the legal documents with the hopes of using them as blackmail material. Ultimately, his actions changed history.
The keynote speaker for the conference, renowned Russian journalist Anna Nemtsova, said that the future of journalism in her country lay with the internet. There, thousands of bloggers write stories that are shared on social media, unfettered by censorship or oversight by the Kremlin.
Nemtsova, Russia’s leading investigative journalist, is the correspondent for US-based magazine Newsweek and website The Daily Beast and also writes for Politico, Foreign Policy magazine and the Russian BBC. The Moscow-based journalist says she loves the community of internet reporters, citing a group who focus on justice issues and make a career of attending all high-profile court trials and transcribing the proceedings. For journalists who can’t attend the trials, this is extremely helpful.
And as Russians live on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter, it’s now much easier to get information out.
Although Russia has thousands of free and independent publications, the majority of people get their information from television and “that’s why Putin is so popular, with an approval rating of more than 80%”.
While Kremlin officials don’t often speak to freelancers, it is not a big problem, Nemtsova says, as she can always watch Putin’s press conferences, which can go for four hours, on television.
“But if something is happening somewhere, I go there; I need to see it with my own eyes and there are people there and they speak to me.”
Nemtsova writes often about the role of women in her country: “In Russia there are 11 million more women than men and men die seven years earlier.” Life expectancy for men in Russia is only 64. “So there are lots of lonely women looking for men — there are plenty of good stories there.”
Last year Nemtsova won a prestigious Courage in Journalism award from the International Women’s Media Foundation after a series of reports from Ukraine involving considerable personal danger. She said that she had been abducted twice but played down the issues, saying that all journalists faced them. Reporters must be witnesses and go to conflicts and report what they see with their own eyes, she says. In Russia journalists are often seen as soldiers who are on the side of the government, so the community of freelance writers is vital.
Nemtsova reported on the shooting down of Malaysia Airlines MH17, in which 38 Australian citizens were killed. Seven journalists were killed during the war in Ukraine.
“It’s a big tragedy to lose colleagues and friends but it’s a bigger tragedy to lose them in peacetime.”
The 43-year-old began reporting on the crisis in the north Caucasus and central Asia 10 years ago as a researcher for The Washington Post and has a particular focus on human rights and social issues. She travels from Moscow, where she lives with her husband and son, across Russia by herself and also creates ground-breaking multi-media projects. “If I need to use something, I borrow it from someone else,” she said.
Not many journalists now go to Chechnya, where there is very high unemployment and serious human rights abuses. There are increasing numbers of young Russian citizens who are being recruited by Islamic State and leaving for Syria.
While Nemtsova’s editors keep tabs on her and express concern for her welfare, there’s no time for psychological debriefing, she says: “The beast is always hungry.”