Journalism is changing. As the meteoric rise of online media has decimated newspaper revenues and caused traditional media to drastically cut costs, investigative reporting budgets have been among the hardest hit. This has left many Americans wondering who will keep a critical eye on the government entities and private corporations that wield tremendous power in today's society.
Some 15,000 U.S. journalists lost their jobs in 2008, and major newspapers cut staff by more than 20 percent. “These grim numbers are harbingers of a worldwide crisis that undermines the very foundation of liberal democracy,” said Yale political science professor Bruce Ackerman in the UK's Guardian, adding: “Without Woodwards and Bernsteins, there will be even more Nixons and Madoffs raining mayhem and destruction.”
American University's School of Communication (SOC) stepped into that void with the 2008 launch of its Investigative Reporting Workshop, which is already helping to fill the information gap – with deeply reported investigations – and developing new models of sustainable, hard-hitting journalism in the digital age. Your browser may not support display of this image.
The Workshop is studying what works in this new environment, developing collaborations with other journalism organizations, and conducting investigative reporting on the issues Americans are most concerned about.
As the debate over health care reform heated up in 2009, a Workshop investigation found that Barack Obama's health policy czar served as a director of corporations that faced scores of federal investigations, whistleblower lawsuits, and other regulatory actions. While Americans were wondering if the nearly $200-billion bank bailouts made any difference to the nation's financial health, the Workshop's BankTracker project was analyzing data from over 16,000 banks and credit unions to help clarify where the industry stood and which banks were on the strongest – and weakest – footing.
And while the Workshop conducts its own investigations, it is also helping to nurture the burgeoning nonprofit investigative journalism sector.
“Amidst all the troubling news about the state of journalism, the exciting news is the historically unprecedented, emerging new ecosystem of investigative reporting centers throughout the nation,” says the Workshop's executive editor and SOC distinguished journalist in residence Charles Lewis.
AU has a role and a responsibility to provide new direction and new models for serious journalism to fill the social need left by the crisis in the industry. --Chuck Lewis
Lewis, who produced investigative reporting for ABC News and 60 Minutes and founded the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity in 1989, is also a driving force behind the new Investigative News Network. That alliance of 20 organizations, of which the Workshop is a founding member, aims to build the nonprofit investigative reporting ecosystem into a powerful force that will bring key issues and concerns to the American consciousness for years to come.
Lewis is particularly excited about partnerships the Workshop recently forged with mass media pillars msnbc.com and the Associated Press. MSNBC worked with the Workshop on the BankTracker project and co-published the health care reform investigation, while the Associated Press announced that it will distribute content from the Workshop – along with three other nonprofit investigative reporting outlets – to its 1,500 member newspapers.
“We're seeing exciting growth in foundation-supported and other nonprofit journalism organizations that are producing public service journalism, which is at the heart of AP's news values,” says Sue Cross, a senior vice president at the Associated Press.
Thanks to the AP agreement, the Workshop's content is expected to soon be within reach of editors at nearly all U.S. daily papers.
Former SOC Dean Larry Kirkman sees the Workshop's success as more evidence that his university is playing an integral role in building a new foundation for today's shifting media landscape.
“Our agreement with AP, like those with msnbc.com, USA Today, and Gannett, reflects the emerging realization in mainstream media that there are valuable opportunities to collaborate with nonprofit journalism projects. American University has become a hub of R&D in bringing investigative reporting to wider audiences, in engaging, informing, and involving people in the issues that matter to them,” said Kirkman.