Is The Investigations Fund A Solution To The Crisis in Journalism?

Following in the footsteps of ProPublica and the Huffington Post Investigative Fund, Europe has its first foundation dedicated to “support independent journalism”.

The Investigtions Fund boasts an impressive cast list including investigative journalist Nick Davies, freedom of information campaigner Heather Brooke and intriguingly Peter Barron– formerly deputy editor of Channel 4 News and editor of Newsnight, now Google’s comms director.

(It transpires that Google is offering tech support and advice for free)

The supporting cast of advisers and supporters is impressive too: the NUJ’s Jeremy Dear, Tom Loosemore of Channel 4’s 4iP fund and Vaughan Smith, founder of the Frontline Club among them.

The mission is to “secure the future of public interest reporting in the UK”, no less:

We are setting up a fund that will support the kind of risky, challenging reporting for which there is a crying demand – and as an experiment to seek out new ways to support this vital work.

It’s an exciting prospect and a laudable plan but there is no guarantee of success. The business model is unproven and there remains an inherent conflict between public investigations and traditional media story telling, one that the founders acknowledge:

The fund does not intend to compete directly with established media, but will instead provide the seeds from which the big story can grow. It will help provide the initial cash & support required to back journalists who want to dig into risky and difficult areas: exactly the sort of things for which it is hard to get funding.

But as the MPs’ expenses saga shows us, nothing quite beats a scoop.

We know, for example, that freedom of information is a powerful tool but journalists – not just publishers and broadcasters – still want to negotiate the terms and timing of publication.

Being first matters and, as Charlie Beckett and others have argued in the past, it’s that competition that keeps the journalist on his or her toes.

That’s not to say The Investigations Fund can’t negotiate a path between the two but there will be many an editorial and ethical dilemma along the way.

A final, perhaps slightly churlish, observation.

In a section of the Fund’s website marked The Crisis, Stephen Grey and Nick Fielding revisit a theme familiar to those who have read Nick Davies’s book Flat Earth News.

They cite how job and budget cuts are threatening all forms of serious investigative journalism. So far, so reasonable. But they cite some “depressing trends” to support their position, including the following:

The average Fleet Street journalist now fills three times as much editorial space as he or she did in 1985.

Only 12% of stories in Britain’s quality newspapers show evidence that they have been thoroughly checked.

Both come from Davies’s book and both are highly suspect as I have argued in the past.

This is not to deny that a crisis exists. Perhaps these numbers do symbolise a deeper truth and as such they shouldn’t be taken literally.

But given the premise of the book – and indeed a goal of the new Fund – is to challenge sloppy, under-resourced journalism, these questionable statistics shouldn’t go uncontested.

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