That's not to say the UK's new Bureau of Investigative Journalism won't be looking to uncover a scandal and story of that size, adds Iain Overton, the organisation's managing editor, quickly, but it will focus on finding ways to engage the public in its investigations, whether that's through monumental stories that significantly impact people's lives or by sifting through reams of government data.
The bureau officially opens its doors today with 17 freelancers and full-time staff, seven stories in development and offers to publish the results already on the table from news organisations. There is a definite commission from Channel 4 News, a collaboration agreement with the Financial Times and definite interest from Channel 4's Dispatches, Al Jazeera and Panorama on a number of other projects, says Overton.
Work at the bureau has been underway since last summer when it received a £2 million-grant from the Potter Foundation. Overton, who has worked for the BBC and, more recently, for ITN as a film unit executive on More4 News, was appointed as managing editor in September. The not-for-profit organisation is not intended to be a publisher, he says, but will look at new ways of collaboration between news organisations to produce and distribute investigations, approaching them with ideas for investigations and developing them further if an interest is shown, before returning with a fully-formed pitch. Collaborations can help provide the funding and resources necessary for heavyweight investigations and produce multi-platform results, rather than an investigation that lives and dies within one medium, says Overton.
"There are new opportunities in terms of creating ways in which journalists collaborate and bringing print journalists and broadcast journalists to create a multimedia offering. The challenge is persuading the editors that they can allow this to happen. And that's what the experimental element of the bureau is about - now I won't be the first person who has tried to do this, clearly, but it may be that I have the financial investment in the story in the first place to cause editors to be a little more lenient in their relationships," he says.
"There's an argument that most quality investigations should live across a variety of mediums. Once we get a reputation, the call to people will be if you have story that's big, monumental, heavyweight, defining and important and you're finding yourself rebuffed by other editors because they can't invest but it's a great idea, then come to me and let's see if I'm willing to invest in it.
"The BBC is very good at doing things on multiple platforms, but that doesn't necessarily apply to freelancers. The freelance world suffers from wanting to get something that's both for a book, a great article and a Newsnight special. I hope to negotiate some of those relationships (...) even though we live in a multimedia way and everybody wants to get their stuff out in a multimedia way, people still define themselves massively by a certain area. I want the people working at the bureau to say 'I'm a journalist' and be willing to allow that material to be manipulated or at least formed to suit different media."
Return on investment in an investigation should be measured in terms of the reach of that story as well as financially, and working with multimedia partners can only help further that reach, says Overton. But there is a tension here over bylines: investigative journalists old and new can struggle with the idea that a byline in print may not convert to fronting a report on TV or radio, he adds.
"I think that the story comes before the byline and providing someone is financially renumerated for a story, bylines are given where they can be and all credit is given where credit is due, that's what I can promise. I've been an investigative journalist for 12 years, but I do see that subject matters move on and ways of doing things move on and I think everyone needs to have a mini-revolution in their own life to understand that," he says.
With the Financial Times project, the newspaper and the bureau will split costs and staffing. Splashes for the paper will be prepared with enough material left over to entice broadcast partners to come on board, says Overton. Conducting an investigation into new revenue streams for investigative journalism will be a long-term goal of the bureau and collaborations could form one part of that.
Crowd-funding of investigations, as pioneered by US initiative Spot.us, is an interesting avenue, says Overton, and something he will look at, but there is a danger of "letting the cat out of the bag" by seeking funding in this way.
"There are two approaches when it comes to new revenue models: one is to make the most of the limited money available by being as multi-skilled as possible; the other is to use new technological resources to make your life as a journalist easier. For example, even though it's quite an initial outlay, you can develop quality programmes that can scrape government data and put it into a coherent way so that you get the story almost dropping into your lap. A journalist may have previously spent 80 per cent of their time sorting the data and the other 20 per cent looking for the stories and reporting it. I think if you can get the new technology to do that 80 per cent you can significantly reduce the amount of time your journalist has to invest," says Overton.
Programmer-led investigations, collaboration and gaming all present new possibilities for storytelling and conducting and distributing investigations, but should also be considered from a financial perspective: "There are new ways of interacting and engaging with people and there may be some financial avenues around that. I'm reticent to use the word games, because I think investigative journalism is too serious a thing to be turned into a game (…) but if people follow their emotional desires to enjoy themselves rather than inform themselves, don't we as journalists have some responsibility to meet them halfway and go to where the market is, rather than expect the market to come to us? I think you can do that intelligently and while maintaining your credibility."
But experimenting with new financial models for investigative journalism is a long-term goal; the bureau's first aim is to "rejuvenate investigative journalism where it is failing" and look at areas where "the spotlight of journalistic inquiry has waned over time". With its funding and team the organisation is capable of taking on big stories and projects, says Overton, who is particularly interested in using the bureau to make sense of and release more government and public service data.
"We live in age to some degree of remarkable openness on the part of government. But I think ironically the sheer wealth of information out there means you can't find the juicy bits without months and months of trawling. To some degree you need big teams to tackle this enormous information overload. This reflects the challenge of investigative journalism - to find the needle in the haystack," says Overton.
"There's lots of datasets but the government is very clever about changing the goalposts for what's presented, how it's collected and what the data means. I don't think you can get national comparison data on local councils, because the data only lets you look at each council in isolation. There's an awful lot of meaningless data published. I empathise with journalists who feel that they don't have the time to start looking at this, but I think that's where the bureau hopes to find the stories."
There are no public resources for comparing data on judges and their conviction rates for different offences, for example, or for comparing local councils, says Overton. Projects such as these might not have the initial impact of Watergate, but could have a slow-burning and profound effect on people's day-to-day living.
"Investigative journalism might have a huge role to play in informing both local communities and national communities. I think there is a challenge of combatting the perception that people have decreased attention spans. There was reams and reams written about the MPs' expenses scandal, which goes contrary to that idea," he says. "One of the challenges is for me not to do rather esoteric, information-driven investigations, but things that touch on people's lives - how do you transform that into something that engages people."
Free daily newsletter
- Why data journalism is a civic duty in developing countries
- Two years in, the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism is helping other community outlets develop membership programmes
- Tip: Remember this guide for investigative web research
- Landing your dream internship: 3 tips from WSJ’s Ryan Knutson
- Google funds 107 projects in the third round of the Digital News Initiative Fund