Can we afford quality investigative journalism in the digital age?


In the 2009 political thriller film, “State of Play,” Russell Crowe plays Cal MacAffrey, an old-fashioned but honest hero of journalism.

When a scandal is revealed, MacAffrey is committed to the truth and not to his friendship with a politician. He works passionately on his story, discovering detail after detail. He is not approachable for any kind of benefits offered, while spending as much time as he can on this one and only story for his newspaper.

From the digital point of view, he’s wasting both time and money.

How many stories could Russell Crowe as Cal MacAffrey have written in the same period of time? At least 20 within two weeks. And they would have been keyword-related and optimised for search engines. Easy to consume and perfectly linked to offerings the company can make money with.

A journalistic investigation doesn’t really contribute to the chief financial officer’s profit and loss account, just to the marketing guys focused on the reputation of the newspaper’s brand.

These issues go far beyond any thoughts on paid content, as I explained in a recent blog post. It’s all about newsroom organisation.

Nowadays, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein would be hard-pressed to find an employer patient enough to reveal the Watergate scandal step by step. The reporters published about 200 pieces of content in The Washington Post before President Richard Nixon stepped down.

Can we, the media managers of the digital age, still afford this quality journalism? Will we?

The biggest mistake on the publishers’ side has been that the price for regular stories, which are easy to write, wasn’t far below the price of special ones; the salaries of the editorial staff creating both kinds of stories were similiar. All the members of a newsroom – editors, reporters, and producers – were seen as a team.

Now, due to cost-saving plans implemented over the years, a huge shift is rescuing quality journalism.

The assumption is there is a pyramid of quality in the newsroom’s work. The new observed approach is that you have to save money as much as possible at the bottom of the pyramid to justify the quality work, which is becoming more and more expensive. And new technology helps with that approach, because it’s all about organisation of content.

Crowd sources like decrease the average price for stories by providing explanations needed to complete complex storytelling (“What is Hepatitis B?”).

Cloud services like Daylife help create dossiers on topics and import sources of content automatically, to deliver useful photo galleries or news feeds. did even more, allowing 1,000 select authors to deepen their Forbes stories by contributing their own insights, comments, or news, and incentivised them with attention, branding, and occasionally payments.

There are more examples than these three that show how media companies are now investing the money needed for Woodward-and-Bernstein quality journalism.

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