Can you follow the money if you don't have money?
That's been the challenge for newsrooms since the newspaper business was buffeted by financial headwinds roughly a decade ago. Desks emptied, never to be filled. Travel budgets cut, fact checkers, then copy desks, and editors were all purged by publishing's retrenchment.
Often lost in the cuts was the ability to conduct watchdog/investigative reporting. The idea that a publication could commit its best reporters to a project for months seemed a mountain too tall to climb with ad revenue drying up.
From what we've seen this year, 2018 doesn't seem to be reversing the trends seen in newsrooms: more buyouts, more layoffs, mergers and closings. But there's a light at the end of the tunnel. Media companies are turning away from their heavy reliance on advertisers to fund journalism. Publishers are following the money--rather than the clicks. Now publishers are relying on reader revenue, through paywalls at print newspapers and memberships in the case of nonprofit newsrooms.
"All of this is happening against the backdrop of a shift in reliance on advertising revenue to reader revenue, and I think that's possibly a really positive thing for investigative reporting," said Matt DeRienzo, executive director at Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers, who writes E&Ps Industry Insight column. "Ad revenue was all about chasing pageviews, not impact."
And impact is what investigative journalism does well.
Pulling on the String
Shannon Mullen started at the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey 31 years ago, that's more than 10 years before Google launched and almost 20 years before Twitter was birthed. He worked in a bureau that at the time had as many people working in the satellite office as the company employs now.
In April 2016, the veteran newsman was working a regular breaking news/weekend shift--a beat that in the past was the domain of cub reporters--when an explosion ripped through a local apartment complex.
"That day I contacted one of the fire inspectors and asked him what had happened and he told me that in this apartment building, there was a basement tenant whose apartment was so overrun with cockroaches his wife had called him at work and I guess she had really reached the breaking point," Mullen said. "So I guess he sprayed the hell out of that apartment when he got home and those fumes ignited."
No one was hurt (including the roaches), but as Mullen talked more with the code enforcement officer on the scene, he quickly learned the code enforcement office was in way over their head.
From there, Mullen started a five-month journey uncovering the gross-mismanagement of the New Jersey public housing. Like some of the best investigative stories, Mullen said, it's not something he came up with as a topic, sitting around the newsroom. This was a reporter following a single story and pulling on the string until what unraveled was a tale of mismanagement and a lax government oversight.