Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Investigative journalism a public trust

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A recent Free Press editorial appropriately called for a new mandate for the CBC (CBC needs fresh mandate, April 14). That mandate must include independent coverage of local, national and international news.

Investigative journalism is dying. It costs a lot of money to retain professional journalists who make the calls, hit the streets, and do all the research it takes to uncover a new story or keep bringing fresh information and angles to existing stories.

Think of how much it cost the Washington Post to keep Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward working on the Watergate story, and many other stories that started out looking like a total waste of time and money because of stonewalling by the guys who were trying to get away with things.

The problem is we can no longer afford to maintain effective news operations. Newspapers all over North America face severe financial difficulty. Yes, we can share and distribute news much more cheaply, but the cost of uncovering original news stories remains the same. The news aggregators, the bloggers, the tweeters and citizen journalists are often interesting but they cannot provide a news apparatus with accountability. The really big, inside stories usually only come from a professional newsroom staffed by experienced, well-trained journalists.

When I was an assignment editor at a small, local TV newsroom, my first job was to scan the newspaper to determine which stories I should assign for our reporters to follow up. We just didn't have the staff and other resources to uncover many new stories. But the bigger stations, especially the national TV networks, had the kind of resources to perform like a newsroom at a daily paper. No longer.

CTV, CBC, ABC, CBS and NBC are laying off staff as fast as... newspapers. Again, a truly free press suffers.

The stock of the New York Times fell from $100 to a low of three bucks before rebounding a little. You can buy a share in the most respected news outlet in the world for about the price of a night out at the movies, and that is because layoffs have hit it, too.

We cannot replace this with media networks like Bloomberg News, with their Inside LinkedIn infomercials. Or the Big Board at Gawker, which feeds the Google algorithm of "most hits" with the latest news about Justin Bieber or Helen Mirren posing naked as the Queen.

The current state of affairs was best summed up in a debate between David Simon, a former investigative journalist with the Baltimore Sun (and creator of one of television's most revered series, The Wire) and Arianna Huffington, then editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post -- the prime example of "new media."

When Simon pointed out he has never seen a representative of the Huffington Post at a school board meeting or his local cop shop, or even at his state's General Assembly, Huffington huffed: "I was not around when the printing press was invented and I imagine the people who wrote on stone tablets would make similar arguments. This is a linked economy, it's search engines, online advertising and citizen journalism, and if you can't find your way to that then you can't find your way."

It is interesting to note Huffington's main claim to fame and fortune was her ability to get people to write for her online post for free while she undermined the true meaning of a free press. Her attitude reeked of sitting back and seeing what Facebook turned up.

So far, this paper, the Winnipeg Free Press, has been an anomaly in that it has been able to survive and maintain a top newsroom despite being a mostly "stand-alone" media outlet which cannot spread costs through a chain's economy of scale and bulk purchasing, but there have been compromises because of cutbacks in the newsroom here. Arresting the slide seems to be moving newspapers to develop websites to enhance their capacity through video capability and inclusion of blogs and citizen journalism in hopes of becoming viable.

But, as Paul Steiger, who founded ProPublica, a non-profit website for investigative journalism in 2008 says, "There is no business model, one that makes a profit, for investigative reporting."

There is public broadcasting, which presently consists of CBC/Radio-Canada. But why can't we develop a national newspaper independent of business and politics and unions and special interest groups?

CBC is often criticized for being a closed shop of left-wing journalism, but I am afraid it is fast becoming our only hope.

Private business operations like the Free Press are the best way to go, but unless the public and the advertisers can get behind the idea of a truly free press, we may have to depend on an arms-length public outlet for independent, investigative journalism, as it seems to be the only way we can afford it.

If you think political and business leaders are getting away with a lot of stuff right now, just wait until they don't have to worry about some reporter finding out what they're doing and blabbing to the rest of us.

A free press is essential to democracy, yet we are losing these outlets for investigative journalism, bit by bit and year by year. A truly independent free press must be a central mandate of the CBC moving forward.

 

Don Marks is a freelance journalist based in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 16, 2014 A9

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