Hackgate and the case for collaborative reporting

On Sunday, Newsweek published a long account from Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger of his paper’s journey in breaking the hacking scandal. Between Rebekah Brooks’ arrest that night, and the parliamentary hearings yesterday, Rusbridger’s piece has not gotten much attention. That is a shame, because it conveys an important message: that phone-hacking and its corrupt cover-up, this rottenness in the heart of British journalism, was revealed to us by journalism of the highest caliber.

The whole piece is worth reading, but there is one point I would like to highlight. Over the years that the Guardian spent pursuing this story, and publishing pieces of their findings incrementally, no other British paper thought it worthwhile to join in the chase. And instead of seeing this as a great competitive opportunity to dominate a scoop, the Guardian recognized it as a problem, appreciating that this was a story that even Nick Davies could not handle alone:

If the majority of Fleet Street was going to turn a blind eye, I thought I’d better try elsewhere to stop the story from dying on its feet, except in the incremental stories that Nick was still remorselessly producing for our own pages. I called Bill Keller at The New York Times. Within a few days, three Times reporters were sitting in a rather charmless Guardian meeting room as Davies did his best to coach them in the basics of the story that had taken him years to tease out of numerous reporters, lawyers, and police officers.
The Times reporters took their time—months of exceptional and painstaking work that established the truth of everything Nick had written—and broke new territory of their own. They coaxed one or two sources to go on the record. The story led to another halfhearted police inquiry that went nowhere.

Yesterday’s parliamentary hearings add something to Rusbridger’s account. In the Home Affairs Committee hearing, Metropolitan Police public affairs chief Dick Fedorcio suggested that the Times piece did more than prompt a new and inconclusive inquiry. He cited it as the direct cause of his decision to terminate Neil Wallis’ contract with the Met.

Moreover, getting the Times on board “gave courage to others,” in Rusbridger’s words, opening the door for pieces in the Independent, Vanity Fair, and the Financial Times, for broadcast reports and for new victims to come forward with lawsuit: “A wider group of people began to believe that maybe, just maybe, there was something in this after all.”

Stories this complex, with tentacles that reach deep into multiple powerful institutions – News International, the Metropolitan Police, Downing Street – need to be tackled like a hydra, from all sides at once. One news outlet can try to do it all, but, as Rusbridger’s article shows, it works better if each news team has time to focus deeply on one angle, and the ability to share findings freely with those who are coming at the beast from another side. Moreover, a story of this type, one that will raise shocking questions about institutions so embedded in our society, whose authority and honesty we are taught to trust, cannot break through if it comes only from one corner. True though the revelations may be – and Davies’ work was flawless - they are too easy to dismiss until they have been cross-checked and verified by multiple voices.

This is not the first time that the Guardian and the New York Times have worked closely together. Just a few weeks after the Times’ hacking story appeared, the paper appealed to Guardian for a favor: access to the latest tranche of Wikileaks documents, which Julian Assange had barred the New York Times from receiving after the paper ran a critical profile of Mr. Assange. At the time, I expressed enthusiasm for the Guardian’s decision to be generous with the documents, and hoped that it would be the start of a new paradigm for collaborative reporting. This week’s events bolster that hope.

The Guardian and New York Times collaborations have been struck at the highest levels, by phone calls between top editors. But at Public Business, we believe that all reporters and researchers should have access to the benefits this kind of partnership provides. That is why we’re working on establishing a space here on this website where journalists, nonprofit researchers and academic researchers can share their findings securely with one another, comment and build on one another’s work. Expect to see more about our plans in the months ahead.


Phone hacking: The case for open reporting?

One of the most startling claims made in Nick Davies’s forensic story about the Milly Dowler phone hacking case came fairly late, in the fifteenth paragraph: “The paper made little effort to conceal the hacking from its readers.”

The article went on to quote a News of the World story from April 14, 2002 relating to a message left on Ms. Dowler’s phone from a recruitment agency, who had received a job inquiry from a woman pretending to be Ms. Dowler.

“It is thought the hoaxer even gave the agency Milly’s real mobile number … the agency used the number to contact Milly when a job vacancy arose and left a message on her voicemail … it was on March 27, six days after Milly went missing, that the employment agency appears to have phoned her mobile.”

The full article can be found here and most readers, including the paper’s allegedly holidaying editor, could be forgiven for believing the source of the entire story was the Police. But in fact, the Guardian alleged, it was the News of the World who went to the police with the original information gleamed from Milly’s voicemail. The article then went on to say the employment agency only “appeared” to have phoned her mobile.

Confusing sources of information is a common habit which, intentionally or not, allows the journalist to ensure a level of doubt about the accuracy of the report, and how it has been reported. This culture of opaque sourcing has provided cover to weak reporting for a long time – witness the reports in American newspapers leading up to the Iraq War. In the case of phone hacking, this culture may have facilitated serious crimes.

The justification for this kind of sourcing has been the undoubted need to protect the anonymity of whistle blowers, and certainly Davies’ granting of anonymity to his sources helped the story come to light. Everyone agrees that sometimes sources need to be anonymous, the debate over how and when is older than phone hacking and won’t end soon but the Reuters guide on the subject gives a valuable insight as to the rules governing much of our foreign and business news.

But the practice of protecting sources has arguably allowed journalists to inject mystery into stories that, whilst it can make for compelling copy, doesn’t need to be there.

Journalists don’t only base stories on anonymous sources – those sources often point to facts, leaks or other ‘data’ which the journalist then uses to substantiate the story. This is especially the case when investigating businesses – including News International, and its parent, News Corporation – who must both hold and submit information on their activities.

Currently this ‘data’ is jealously guarded, an asset held by the journalist or newspaper which allows them to gain an advantage over their competitors. Even such ‘data led’ stories as the Telegraph’s MP’s expenses exclusive or the Wikileaks data releases appear over a period of time with data made public gradually; and they are the exceptions.

It’s only natural that for-profit news organisations, and journalists chasing exclusives, would be reticent about making widely available data which could lead to further scoops. Furthermore seeking and revealing more information than necessary goes against much of the reporter’s training – to sift through data and highlight only that which is important to the reader and to the story.

The Wikileaks solution is to provide a new, independent, institution – between the press and the source, which receives the data, makes it publicly available and in the process allows journalists to follow up on the leads it may or may not provide.

But that solution – whilst effective – risks replacing the role of the journalist as the trusted investigator who hides his sources with the journalist as simply an information collator, carrying out little investigation of his own beyond verifying the facts as provided to him. It also means that the data presented to the public is self-selected not according to any definiton of the public interest, but according to what happens to be leaked, or the whims of the intermediary body. Leaks themselves can be a source of media manipulation.

This is why there may be a role for independently funded investigative work where the research uncovered is not owned by the journalist or the newspaper but instead is made publicly available – possibly through a newspaper’s own website, possibly on a separate site – allowing the work to be accessed and built on by other reporters and independent researchers.

The argument  for this is especially compelling in the case of business reporting. Funds for research into the wider impact of what businesses, including media companies, do are limited and the financial and legal risks of such research are high. Those journalists who do investigate stories such as home lending prior to the financial crisis, or the activities of News International may find parts of the story without being able to piece together the entire picture.

Finally, a successful experiment in transparent, investigative reporting could be a small step to redeeming the reputation of journalism itself by showing, to put it bluntly, that the search for truth does not have to be dirty, secretive or corrupt.

For further reading see the Media Standards Trust’s Transparency Initiative.


A poor blueprint for digital journalism

Last week, Columbia Journalism School put out a report on the business side of digital journalism.

It begins by laying out the unpleasant reality of what the news advertising business looks like today, focusing on the mismatch between traffic and revenue. An ever-expanding share of news audiences is online, but the greatest share of news advertising revenue is still in newspapers and on TV. That pattern, gleaned from interviews with news outlets in 2010 and early 2011, is similar to what we learned in our own preliminary research in 2009 and 2010.

One thing we did, though, was to look at news consumption as opposed to simply news consumers. Because it is not just that news organizations have to serve more readers online with less money. It is that they have to serve more content to more readers online with less money, and with that money targeted to the level of the individual story. The implication: for digital journalism to be sustainable as a standalone business, for its wee slice of revenue to cover the large percentage of consumption it represents, every story must pay for itself, and must cost less.

This report, to its credit, is blunt about that reality. It explores a handful of strategies for making news pay online, but it emphasizes that each one must be accompanied by bean counting on the editorial side, beyond what will come naturally from crashing production costs.

While it takes note of sites that have managed to eke out profits on a teensy budget, its business-side focus means there’s not enough evaluation of the content these sites have produced. It asks, for example, whether the hyperlocal model can support ‘serious accountability journalism’ but then fails to establish which – if any – of the hyperlocal sites profiled (TBD, Baristanet, The Batavian, Patch) qualifies as providing ‘serious accountability journalism.’

In failing to answer that question, this report doesn’t do much to challenge the contention made by last year’s reports from both Columbia Journalism School and the F.T.C. that certain types of public interest reporting are too fundamentally expensive to fit in the new market, that they will have to be supported by the public and nonprofit sectors. [More on these proposals here.]

We believe strongly that on the business beat, there is a unique case, both ethically and financially, to be made for nonprofit funding for certain types of stories, which is why we’re doing it.

But we would still like to see more discussion of the public-interest potential of for-profit media models. There is lots of good discussion about how to make news profitable, and lots of good discussion about how to make news better, but there is not enough discussion and research that tackles these questions together. That can’t be a good thing, for the media or the public.

As for the report’s findings and recommendations on the business side, they are mostly the things we already knew:

1. News is not going to become profitable online until the online advertising industry gets much more sophisticated, and more significantly, consistent, about its metrics. Unfortunately, this isn’t really something news executives have it in their power to solve, so they’re stuck waiting for an awful lot of dust to settle.

2. The best opportunities for making money from news come from focusing on niche verticals and hyperlocal sites. To break even, the report suggests, these sites should use tracking tools to advertise differently to their enthusiast regular visitors than they do to the rest. In particular, they suggest, an enthusiast site can show its most devoted users big, expensive, roadblock ads that have to be clicked through to access the site content and charge advertisers an additional premium for accessing these users. There’s something deeply wrongheaded about suggesting that news organizations can be more successful by treating their most devoted customers to the most annoying form of advertising, by suggesting they can ‘get away with it,’ and thereby encouraging the very callousness about audience that got the media in a rut to begin with.

3. Paywalls are not a solution. The report points out how inflated the numbers for subscriptions have been and how quickly subscriptions fall off after the initial buzz has worn off, two problems we’ve noted before. Like many media wonks, the report’s authors are more sanguine about the sustainability of tablet subscriptions. But they are completely (and justifiably) skeptical of the iPad as the tablet that will make this model work, given the 30% commission Apple charges publishers for using its platform. The report notes that one publisher – Time, Inc. – has had luck setting up its own sales platform for tablet subscriptions. That is heartening, but the report doesn’t go into the details of Time, Inc.’s pricing model, subscription stats, or revenue. Not especially useful to the news exec looking to use it as a blueprint.

The main purpose of reports like this is to provide best practices and cautionary tales to the rest of us. Because it lacks qualitative analysis of the websites profiled, and sufficient financial detail, this report fails to fulfill that purpose.