It's time to kill investigative journalism
These are the speaking notes for a talk that former Yukon News editor Richard Mostyn gave to students attending the Canadian University Press National Conference on January 14, 2012 in Victoria, BC, at the Harbour Tower and Suites. These notes convey the general thrust of the talk, but are essentially a studio cut of a live performance. The notes are re-printed from Mostyn's blog, where he originally published them.
Good afternoon. My name is Richard Mostyn. I am a newspaper man, a writer, a journalist. And, I'm encouraged to see so many enthusiastic journalists here. I got into this biz because I wanted to change the world for the better.
So I have a question for you.
Do you want to fight tyranny? Or do you want to spend your career chronicling the dangers of dust mites?
It is an important question, because today our industry is in peril.
I'm sick of headlines about Katy Perry and Russell Brand. The fact I even know the guy's name is disturbing.
I am sick of watching cows swept away in floods on the 11 o'clock news. And of inane TV news that is only relevant because somebody happened to shoot tape of the event.
I am a more than a little tired of watching reporters engaging in scrums with politicians, which are useless.
Frankly, I am disenchanted with what passes as journalism these days.
And investigative journalism must shoulder some of the blame.
Perhaps it's time we killed it off. Bang!
Yeah, you heard that right - investigative journalism should be killed off in the post-newspaper age.Its time has passed.
And now you're pulling out your programs, wondering if you walked into the wrong room.
I was going to talk to you about investigative journalism in the post-newsprint era.
Instead I decided to talk about ending investigative journalism in the post-newsprint era.
And so, here you all are, trapped listening to heresy.
Hear me out.
There's all sorts of mewling and hand wringing about the demise of newspapers. And I was going to engage in a little of it myself.
But I changed my mind.
Who cares about the fall of newspapers? I've loved newspapers, and I don't care.
Today, it is a ridiculous business model. As dead as the trees they are printed on.
And we all know it.
I live in Whitehorse, a tiny city of 22,000 on the fringe of the known world. The guy who owned the paper I used to work at would have to truck huge cylinders of paper thousands of kilometres to the plant and store them. He had a press that cost a fortune. And four times a week we'd truck aluminum plates to the plant, stick them on the press and then fire off 8,500 copies of the paper. Then we'd have a bunch of paid staff bundle them into little piles, load them on another truck and drive them all over town. Then little children would bundle up and walk through snowdrifts sticking them in mailboxes throughout town and the reader would have to get out of their chair, walk to their mailbox to retrieve it. It is insane.
Especially today when all the information can be disseminated to everyone in town, immediately, at the push of a button.
And you don't get ink on your fingers.
So the newspaper is gonzo.
What I do worry about, however, is the end of newspaper-style reporting.
It represents the best and purest journalism. Now, broadcasters are going to harrumph. And all you young wanna-be camera and mike jockeys are going to roll your eyes. I don't care.
Fact is, your reliance on those devices screws up your reporting. You are beholden to the machine. You need tape.
A good print journo doesn't need anything. Except perhaps eyes and ears. Whatever they see or hear, they can write. And, if done it right, they can make it compelling - even the dreariest number-heavy story. You radio and TV guys can't do that - and when you TV types encounter one of those data-rich stories you always get some accountant you have interviewed to walk down a sterile hallway with a folder in his hand, looking busy, to fake action.
Don't get me wrong, there is great audio and video stories. I'm a huge fan of This American Life and RadioLab and other amazing broadcasts. But, as a general rule, radio and TV are weaker mediums than the written word.
Writing, after all, lies at the heart of every great story across all mediums. Writers can make any story sing. But, these days, writing is being choked out by video and audio - often bad audio and video.
It's easy to see why.
Radio and video is passive. It streams over you with no effort. Reading is tough - it takes work, and time, to pour through 1,000 words. Increasingly, we don't have it. Because we're distracted by TV and radio and Facebook and Twitter and hockey and work and ... and ... it's endless.
Sure, we have so many interesting things available to us that it's incredible. We live in a rich time. We have 500 channels, and podcasts and ubiquitous music and films and 10,000 magazines right down to Toy Poodle Groomer monthly.
But it is terribly easy to lose ourselves in our own little world, and become annexed from the bigger issues. All this stuff is like motes of dust in hurricane. There is nothing to tie it all together.
If we like poodle grooming we can live it all the time without bothering to learn anything about the latest physics breakthrough, the melting of the icecaps or the latest genocide in some far flung republic.
You would think that, with a 24-hour news cycle, such things might get more play.In fact, the opposite is probably true.
It forces us journos to feed the goat at a breakneck pace. We cut corners on fact checking and take virtually every story we can find to fill the time and space. And the audience is swept along in the flood.
Suddenly, the fact Katy Perry is divorcing some guy is news. Or the marriage travails of Tiger Woods. Or the fact that failing to properly wash your sink with bleach can breed killer bacteria.
Sure, the public eats this stuff up. But does that make it news? Is that the litmus test?
It is the social equivalent to living off a diet of Twinkies.
Our society is literally drowning in information.I think this is a problem.
Too much of a good thing can, sometimes, be a waste.
Remember where I'm coming from - a twice-weekly newspaper in the boonies. As such, for most of the last two decades, we were competing against other media outlets with a daily feed. (Today, with Facebook and Twitter, the weekly isn't constrained like it once was, but that's probably another topic).
People used to ask me, "Don't you get frustrated getting beat by the CBC and Whitehorse Star every day."
And I laughed in their face.I didn't give a damn what they did. I was more interested in what I thought my readers would want to know. I made it a point to look to the future, not look in the rear-view mirror.
And, I don't believe I was ever beat. Certainly not very often. And I didn't care if I was, because I'd just do the story better. Deeper. Or I'd ignore the issue because it wasn't that significant and publish two stories that never even occurred to my supposed competition.
And the readers loved it.
We had more advertisers and more readers than any other publication in town.
And, at the end of the year, we'd have dozens of stories to choose from for potential awards. And we won plenty - so our peers were impressed too.
So, what's the trick?
Here's where we start carving into to the meat.
Don't rush the story. Especially if it is a good one. Take your time and get it right. Build a case over time, in little, easily digestible steps. The breakneck pace is a construct, an illusion brought on by ego - we're worried someone else is going to get the story. Better to worry less about the other guys and more about your readers.Most important of all, be curious, skeptical, tenacious and patient.
That's how I busted the Yukon premier for heroin dealing.
It wasn't some big investigation. I was curious. We knew the Dennis Fentie had a criminal past. He once told me, "You can't do time in the house unless you've done time in the big house." And then he laughed. I laughed alongside him, wondering what he was talking about. Then I heard he'd done time a maximum security prison in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. And the offhand comment made sense.
In the run-up to an election campaign we started poking around into Fentie's past.
In this case, a colleague of mine was on the story. She fought hard to get the court records, but they were locked up tight.
And, not surprisingly, Fentie wouldn't talk.
So, we cheated a little bit, writing an editorial alluding to Fentie's criminal past in general terms. Fentie stormed into the office, flashed his pardon and told us he'd been busted for a narcotics offence. He wouldn't elaborate.
And the issue died off. Fentie won a majority government. And my colleague, a talented reporter, moved on to a new gig in a bigger city.
The rest of us wondered what kind of narcotics offence would land a guy in a maximum security prison.
On election night, a woman told me it was marijuana. Fentie and his handlers had told the volunteers this. "My son is addicted to cocaine. You don't think I'd help out on this campaign if it was something stronger, do you?" She said, chiding the paper for making a big deal out of what she had been convinced was a minor matter.
Do people go to maximum security prisons for marijuana? I wondered.
It could have been a big marijuana possession, some of my colleagues suggested. I doubted it. We argued because we didn't know.
I thought similar discussions were probably happening throughout the territory. But it was difficult to get into the story - it was a dead issue.
But when you are being swept along the information stream, there are always other branches hanging out over the water.
Shortly into Fentie's term, there was a conference of all political leaders in Western North America. The premiers of BC and the NWT were going. Fentie wasn't.
Why? I thought. I was curious, and didn't believe the spin that it wasn't important to the Yukon.
I had an idea - it was his drug conviction. He couldn't enter the US because of his record. True, or not? I didn't know, but suddenly his old conviction was relevant again. The premier couldn't do his job because of his past.
I'd like to tell you it was some huge investigation that got to the bottom of this, but it wasn't. Not really. We'd already tried that, burrowing through the legal system to get the documents.
This time, I did something simpler. And I got lucky.
I asked one of his former New Democrat colleagues if he knew anything. The guy said he didn't know much, but noted Fentie's cellmate was living in his riding. The guy had coffee every morning at the same restaurant. I phoned the next morning. The guy was reluctant to talk - he wanted to check with Fentie first - but he did say one thing that was useful. He told me Fentie had been a truck driver who had been busted in Edmonton.
That one fact changed everything. Until then, everyone assumed Fentie had been living in the Yukon.
I phoned the Edmonton Journal and asked for its morgue. The person on duty was fantastically helpful. They looked up the news story, which revealed Fentie had been part of the largest heroin trafficking ring in the city's history.
The resulting story, Fentie Dealt Heroin caused a stir.
People were outraged. At Fentie. And at me. Political supporters wanted to kill me.
And Fentie and I didn't talk much after that. Until he resigned.
What you should take from this is that it wasn't about a major investigation. It was just simple reporting. It's what we do. Or what we should do.
But too often we don't.
Who does journalism serve?
There are several reasons.
Some people just aren't up to it. They are not suited to the job.
They worry about themselves too much. They worry about the sources too much. And they don't worry about the reader enough.
A reporter must have courage - the ability to stand up and challenge powerful people who are uttering nonsense.
Because that's what separates the journos from the stenographers.
Seymour Hersh knew this when he wrote about My Lai in 1969.
It wasn't that he was the only journalist who knew there were atrocities being committed by American troops in Vietnam. Hersh was just the first guy with the guts to write about it.
Today, Rolling Stone Journalist Michael Hastings is doing the same type of thing. You might remember Hastings, He's the guy who got drunk with General Stanley McChrystal, and then had the guts to write about it. In doing so, he killed the guy's career. He also divided the journos. Plenty thought he had done something terrible.
They are wrong.
"The role of the journalist is to do journalism, not advertising," he said. "I'm just not a stenographer. That's what reporters are supposed to do, report the story."
"The unwritten rule I'd broken was a simple one. You really weren't supposed to write honesty about people in power. Especially those the media deemed untouchable."
Hastings put the reader ahead of himself, McChrystal and the rest of the news corps. He did his job.
The question you all must ask yourselves is whether you are there as an outsider, reporting on power, or an insider there to serve power?Do you serve your subjects, or your readers?
Or the publisher and the owners of the business? Don't underestimate this - the corporations you are likely to work for can make your life particularly difficult.These massive entities have so many diverse interests you will no doubt run afoul of them sooner or later. Heck, it can happen in a small shop.
But, as a reporter, you shouldn't worry about that. You can't worry about that.
Your role is simple: speak documented truth to lying power. You have to counter ideological bombast with undisclosed fact. And you should believe that your readers, if they have accurate information, can change the world. That's how journalist and author Bruce Shapiro puts it.
Killing investigative journalism
Which brings us back to the elephant in the room.
Shapiro calls this investigative journalism. I just call it simple journalism.Call it what you will, The approach has been around, in some form or other, for 200 years.
Or perhaps longer. Pete Hamill considers the first journalist to be the caveman who wandered to the very darkest reaches of the first cave with a flaming twig, looking to see what's there.
Whether it was the caveman, or something a little more modern, I'm not calling for an end to journalism. Just to the moniker "investigative."
Let me expand on this a bit.
The modern era of such reporting happened in 1964, when the Philadelphia Bulletin won a Pulitzer for exposing a gambling scheme being run out of a police station house. It marked the first time the investigative journalism label had been slapped on the award.
Investigative replaced another category.
You know what it was called? Anyone?
Local Reporting. So what happened to good, solid local reporting?
In 1972, in the wake of Watergate, The New York Times set up a team of investigative reporters to combat the Washington Post. Sixty Minutes hit the airwaves. Smaller outfits set up their own investigative teams.
It was all very exciting and important. And it made news organizations a lot of money. So they all hopped on board.
But it also established a tiered news environment. There was the important work done by the investigative teams, and there was the rest of the stuff done by the drones - school board and council meetings, court, chamber of commerce meetings and all the others.
And therein lies the problem - looked at another way, there shouldn't really be any such thing as investigative reporting.
But it gets worse. The investigations fragmented and grew less and less meaningful. This hurts us more than you might think.
The media must be a watchdog. And, to do so, it has to have credibility.
It should be covering Justice, government, telecommunications, energy, mining, social justice, banks and finance, housing ... the list is endless.
But it often doesn't.
It gets distracted by celebrities and online dating scams, food allergies, house fires, car wrecks and a host of other things that are trivial, salacious or just plain weird.
And while some of this stuff is compelling, we journos should be asking does it add to the conversation? Because that's what we're having, a conversation with the readers, adding to the public good.And when we start to rely on simple rubbernecking, nobody benefits.
Because it diminishes the media in the public's eye. They may read it, they may even gasp and wince, but they know it isn't all that important.
They know the difference between good reporting and bad reporting.
The good reporting adds to the discussion. The bad simply fills space.
Take the crash story, a perfect example of rubbernecking. "Two people injured in a crash on Main Street today, police investigating, charges pending ..." drone reporting.
Why? It doesn't have to be.
Recently, my colleague Genesee Keevil did a story about 18-year-old Cody Kelpin, who died on a dirt bike in a residential subdivision. He was popping wheelies and lost control, flying off his bike and crumpling his young body into concrete pillars surrounding a fire hydrant.
What distinguished the story was that Keevil didn't simply regurgitate the cop release. Instead, she interviewed the bystanders who treated the dying boy. They told how this type of recklessness was common on the stretch of road, noting car and truck traffic are also frequently breaking the law.
Before we go complaining about the kids, the adults have to set a better example, noted one.
Keevil also tied the story to the city's effort to better control dirt bikes on city trails. Several months earlier, a kid on a speeding motorbike had hit barriers installed to prevent bikes and snowmobiles from using the city trail.
The kid was Kelpin. He had emerged from that accident unscathed.
The detail and legwork resulted in one of the most talked about stories in the paper that year. It wasn't all pretty, but it did what it was supposed to do -- provoked a discussion about reckless drivers, speed, helmet use and how newspapers should cover the death of youth. I urge you to read about it.
Brennan Richard McCarthy Paquet
I offer you another example. Done by our summer intern in 2010. Again, it could have been a simple story.
Seventeen-month-old Brennan Richard McCarthy-Paquet choked to death on a piece of macaroni. Terrible, right? It is something the paper could have simply reported. And people would have cried, and forgotten all about it.
In fact, most of our competitors ignored this awful death altogether.
We didn't. Instead, Larissa Robyn Johnson tied the death to a bigger issue. A month earlier, the subdivision where the child lived fought tooth and nail to prevent an ambulance station from being built in the community. They didn't want the sirens in the middle of the night.
Had a station been in the area, the child might still be alive - the response time would have been greatly reduced.. This, according to the parents, whom Johnson had the guts to interview.
Even more poignant, the parents led the charge against the ambulance base.
"We were thinking about our little boy and the noise waking him up,” said the mother. “But I would have much sooner put up with that and I would much rather have him here with me today and put up with a little bit of noise.”
They mobilized the community to reconsider its decision. And today there is an ambulance base in the area.
That was simply good local journalism. And it earned Johnson a nomination for a national news writing award.
It wasn't particularly easy for Johnson. Nobody wants to cold call the parents of a dead child. But she had the guts to do it anyway, and it landed a phenomenal story.
If you're in this biz, that's what you want to do.
And I'm telling you right now, you don't want to do the bad.
It simply isn't all that fun. Or rewarding.
And if you aren't trying to change the established order for the better, you might as well sell shoes because, at the wages this industry pays, it just isn't worth the hassle.And, if you are doing it right, there are significant hassles.
People want to sue you. And sometimes they will. They will say to your wife, "You are married to that asshole!" They will fire your wife. Or transfer her to the boonies, effectively firing her. They will charge up the stairs and threaten to punch your lights out. They will complain to your boss. They will cancel advertising.
Sometimes, especially in a small town, your job will affect your children. And your friends.
And, in some ways, that's the easy stuff.I'm betting the internal angst will be worse.
You'll stay up nights wondering if you got it all right. Or if you want to call those parents. Or if it was right to write the story about the dead dirt biker at all.
Are you getting the picture?
This job isn't easy. It doesn't pay well. It can be a pain in the ass.But, when you are riding the dragon, and that effort lands on the front page, and it is accurate and people are discussing it and the surrounding issues, there is nothing like it.
The trick is finding the dragon.
They are all around us. Potentially in every story. You just have to look at it the right way. You have to be curious, tenacious, bold, courageous, open minded, fair and accurate. You have to pick away at the loose threads. You have to challenge the BS.
Some people might call that an investigative reporter.
I just call it being a reporter.
I just call it journalism, local reporting.
And when done right, there is nothing like it.
These speaking notes were originally published on Mostyn's blog, which can be found here.