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April 19 2012

13:17

The newsonomics of risking it all

Alfredo Corchado was used to getting mortal threats.

He received three in Mexico, but now he was in a Laredo bar, north of the border.

You better stop what you’re doing, or you’ll end with a bullet in your head and your body in a vat of acid, he was told. And then we’ll deliver the bones to your family in El Paso.

It was a chilling warning, or at least we’d expect it to put a chill into Corchado. An investigative reporter for the Dallas Morning News (and a former Nieman Fellow), he’s been covering the ravages of drug trafficking for years, much to the concern of his parents living, as the traffickers plainly know, in El Paso. Yet Corchado goes on with his work — as do Adela Navarro Bello of Tijuana’s Zeta news magazine, Jerry Mitchell of the Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Miss., and Ramita Navai of the U.K.’s Channel 4. As Navarro Bello explained of her paper’s coverage of the drug trafficking that has consumed at 50,000 Mexican lives, “If we don’t publish this information, we are part of the problem.” (Filmmaker Bernardo Ruiz has captured Zeta’s struggle — including the murder of two of its journalists — with a new movie.)

Each is an investigative reporter who put their lives on the line to reveal stories they think readers must know about. They spoke on the “When the Story Bites Back” panel this weekend, at UC Berkeley, part of the sixth annual Reva and David Logan Investigative Reporting Symposium (live blogging of the conference, here, with a #Logan12 Twitter feed).

That panel and the entire spirited weekend, organized and led by esteemed investigative producer Lowell Bergman, tells us a fair amount about the business of journalism. Though it is not — like most of my work — concerned with the dollars and cents of the business, in its very essence, it describes why the current crazy-quilt economics of the business matters. Funding the journalism business isn’t like funding Sears and Kodak (“The newsonomics of the long good-bye”) or other fading institutions. It’s not even about saving a perhaps-vital American industry, like the auto industry.

It’s about keeping a lifeline of funding open so that our best reporters can do their jobs.

I’ll call it the newsonomics of risking it all because that’s what these reporters do. Many of the other Logan participants and attendees, thankfully, do less life-threatening work. Yet those represented at the conference — from ProPublica, the Washington Post, and New York Times to ABC, NBC, and NPR — are among the cream of the crop of investigative work and produce work with real public interest impact.

As we endlessly debate pay models, whether or not to work with Facebook, how to deal with Apple and Amazon and multi-platform journalism, the Logan Symposium is good tonic — certainly for those of us who attended, but really for all of us who know why this business matters to democracy. Whether and how the economics of the new news business work out isn’t an arcane question; it’s central to our collective future. The value of good, deep reporting is truly priceless.

So what about the state of investigative reporting? Look at the glass as half full and half cloudy.

What emerged from the conference, surprising to some, is that national investigative reporting is keeping its head above water. Both NBC and ABC talked about their expansions in the investigative area, while companies like NPR and Bloomberg have put new resources in as well. Units at the Post, L.A. Times, and New York Times may not be growing much, but seem to be sustaining themselves, for now.

“For now” is an important qualifier, and New York Times managing editor Dean Baquet’s opening interview at Logan, in its over-the-top self-assurance, bothered many of the conference participants with whom I talked.

Washington Post investigative editor Jeff Leen suggested that there were 200 investigative reporters paid by news media in the U.S., which I calculate as one for every 1.5 million Americans. That’s not a ratio that’s going to hold many big institutions — government, business, labor — to account. Maybe that’s why as Logan participant and new-media vet Neil Budde tweeted, “How many times will ‘existential’ be used this weekend? I think count is six so far.”

Importantly, it is largely the largest news media — mainly national and global ones — that continue to put money into investigative work; these are the Digital Dozen companies I identified in my Newsonomics book. For them, as NBC senior executive producer David Corvo put it, investigative work is a “differentiator,” important to distinguishing big news brands from one another in the digital age.

What’s going on regionally is more of a patchwork.

Dozens of people like the Logan family are using their wealth to fund investigative enterprises from coast to coast, most with little fanfare. The Knight Foundation, represented at the conference by its senior advisor and grant-giver extraordinaire Eric Newton, has put $20 million into investigative journalism. With the decline in newspaper budgets, and thus in funding of investigative teams at many regional papers, such private funding has been a lifeline, though there’s a profound sense that significantly less in-depth work is being done at former powerhouse regional papers.

This Logan conference lacked the always-odd spontaneity of a Julian Assange appearance, but it offered intriguing emphases:

  • Front and center, though not appearing in person was Rupert Murdoch. After screening “Murdoch’s Scandal,” Bergman’s Frontline documentary that aired March 27, “The Murdoch Effect: News At Any Price,” made for a raucous panel. Milly Dowler attorney Mark Lewis told how the phone hacking scandal had consumed his life and spoke of the “commercial despotism of Murdochracy” in the U.K., given the News Corp. CEO’s multi-party, decades-long influence. Big questions: What next, and if and how this tale plays out in the U.S.
  • “If it’s not on TV, the American public doesn’t know it,” observed Diana Henriques, the New York Times financial investigative reporter. Yes, we may be on the brink of this multi-platform age, where old newspapers like the Times and the Journal do video alongside print, but still — in terms of notice and public action — there’s nothing like the impact of TV documentary.
  • This is a generational challenge. Journalism has always had its challenges, but never has there been more uncertainty about how one generation can pass along its best practices to the next. Through that foundation funding, a couple of dozen younger journalists and students had their way paid into the conference. Surveying the group on the last day, Robert Rosenthal, executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting and California Watch, summed his baby-boomer generation’s role: “I’m a bridge — we’re all bridges to the future.”

Bridging is, in part, what Lowell Bergman’s program does. UC Berkeley’s Investigative Reporting Program is a partner in the new Collaboration Central project, along with PBS MediaShift. With new funding, IRP will soon move into a new permanent office. It provides lots of training and fellowships, bringing along new generations to work alongside people like the Pulitzer Prize-winning Bergman, whose career has spanned from early Ramparts through CBS, The New York Times, and Frontline, and who was played by Al Pacino in the tobacco industry exposé The Insider.

Bergman paid tribute to his one-time CBS colleague Mike Wallace, underscoring Wallace’s storied tenacity. That tenacity, based on Wallace’s fierce journalistic power (highlighted at CBS, in story and video), is what it took a non-journalist to highlight in Berkeley.

Jules Kroll, who led the invention of the modern intelligence and security industry, gave the trade good, pointed advice. Saying he had heard a lot of journalists talking about how beleaguered they are, he noted, “You have a big impact.” His shared his inside view of the power of a good investigation. Colloquial translation: Stop whining and get on with it.

And that’s always good advice. As ProPublica managing editor Steve Engelberg aptly said, “They were whining in 1989, when times were good.” That’s true. There may be more to whine about these days than in 1989, but the power of great public service work, sometimes when lives are on the line, is one of the things that must propel the trade forward.

Photo of Alfredo Corchado by the U.S. embassy in Paraguay used under a Creative Commons license.

April 14 2012

18:46

Live Coverage of the 6th Annual Logan Investigative Reporting Symposium

BERKELEY, CALIF. -- Once again, I am covering the Logan Symposium on the UC Berkeley campus, a gathering of some of the top investigative journalists in the country. I'll be covering the day's panels and talks via ScribbleLive. I can add in your coverage or tweets, just let me know if you're at Logan via the comments below.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

18:46

Live Coverage of the 6th Annual Logan Investigative Reporting Symposium

BERKELEY, CALIF. -- Once again, I am covering the Logan Symposium on the UC Berkeley campus, a gathering of some of the top investigative journalists in the country. I'll be covering the day's panels and talks via ScribbleLive. I can add in your coverage or tweets, just let me know if you're at Logan via the comments below.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

April 13 2012

14:00

Collab/Space 2012: Building Trust, Tools and Relationships for Collaborating

As the recent Collab/Space 2012 event made clear, the longevity of individual news outlets increasingly relies on a willingness and ability to collaborate.

Journalists, technologists and other media makers from a range of news, public media and non-profit organizations came together from across the country for the daylong event, which was hosted by the University of California at Berkeley's Investigative Reporting Program (IRP) and PBS MediaShift.

Going from "Me" to "We"

"It's not about us," PBS MediaShift Executive Editor Mark Glaser said. "It's about the people. It should be about how we can do it together to serve people in a better way."

Glaser described a culture of "I" in journalism: I want to get the story. I want the award. Collab/Space 2012, he said, was designed to help shift the journalism community's thinking beyond "I" and back toward what brought people into this profession to begin with.

Before the age of the Internet, collaboration was a terminable offense, observed the IRP's Lowell Bergman. But the benefits of collaboration -- from gaining additional resources to cover a story, to reaching a wider audience -- have come to outweigh individual egos, something that was evident as attendees openly discussed challenges and solutions over the course of the day.

bavc-tweet.jpg

Speaker after speaker reiterated that as financial resources continue to evaporate and social media enables more and more people to be content producers, the industry is going to have to adapt or die.

"If journalism institutions are shrinking and anyone with a smartphone is a journalist and deep investigative stories are being replaced by web hits, maybe it's time to start thinking outside the organization," Investigative News Network Executive Editor Evelyn Larubia said.

"When change comes, who survives?" asked Ulrich Nettesheim, an organizational psychologist at Berkeley's Haas School of Business, who ran an interactive exercise with the group. "The ones ready, willing and able to adapt."

Tools for Collaboration

The first half of the day was dedicated to introducing companies that can help facilitate the collaboration process.

Wendy Levy grabbed the crowd's attention when she introduced Sparkwise, a cloud-based platform that transforms raw metrics into easily digested and compelling stories using video, audio and text. Although Sparkwise wasn't explicitly created for journalists, Levy argued that in order to collaborate it will be necessary for the industry to find expedient and intelligent ways to publish data in a place where it can be aggregated with information from similar organizations. The largest obstacle, she said, is getting reporters to be willing to share their data.

civic-commons-tweet.jpg

Storify co-founder Burt Herman described how Storify allows journalists to curate social media, thus collaborating with users to tell a story. "Everybody is a reporter. Not everybody is a journalist," he said, emphasizing the value of the journalist's curatorial role. Read Herman's Storify coverage of Collab/Space here.

Another platform that enables real-time collaborative storytelling is ScribbleLive, which MediaShift used to provide live coverage of the day's events, including tweets, photos and videos. GitHub, which creates tools for open-source code development, was also present. GitHub has grown into the largest code host in the world and makes it easier to collaborate and share code.

It's the People, Stupid.

While attendees spent a good amount of time talking tools and strategies for managing collaboration, the overarching theme of the conference was relationships, which are at the core of any team effort. A few truths emerged: All players in a collaboration must trust each other, be willing to show their hand, and have faith in the common goal.

Some even wondered if relationship management should become part of journalists' core training. "Should a class on managing relationships be taught at journalism schools?" asked Meghann Farnsworth, distribution and online community manager at the Center for Investigative Reporting and California Watch, via Twitter -- to which Andrew Haeg, Public Insight Network co-founder, responded, "Yes":

relationship-tweet.jpg

Do you agree? And if you were at Collab/Space, what did you think of the event? Any highlights I missed? If you weren't there, are there any questions about the day's discussion that I or one of the other attendees or speakers can answer for you?

Keep up with all the new content on Collaboration Central by following our Twitter feed @CollabCentral or subscribing to our RSS feed or email newsletter:







Get Collaboration Central via Email

Meghan Walsh considers herself a print journalist but is always looking for creative ways to tell a story. She covered sports and breaking news for the Arizona Republic and then government and crime for The World newspaper before becoming associate editor of InWithSkin, a lifestyle and beauty magazine. As a graduate journalism student at UC Berkeley, she has learned to incorporate photography, video and multimedia into her storytelling. Meghan also works for the Investigate Reporting Program.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

13:15

Collab/Space 2012: Building Trust, Tools and Relationships for Collaborating

As the recent Collab/Space 2012 event made clear, the longevity of individual news outlets increasingly relies on a willingness and ability to collaborate.

Journalists, technologists and other media makers from a range of news, public media and non-profit organizations came together from across the country for the daylong event, which was hosted by the University of California at Berkeley's Investigative Reporting Program (IRP) and PBS MediaShift.

Going from "Me" to "We"

"It's not about us," PBS MediaShift Executive Editor Mark Glaser said. "It's about the people. It should be about how we can do it together to serve people in a better way."

Glaser described a culture of "I" in journalism: I want to get the story. I want the award. Collab/Space 2012, he said, was designed to help shift the journalism community's thinking beyond "I" and back toward what brought people into this profession to begin with.

Before the age of the Internet, collaboration was a terminable offense, observed the IRP's Lowell Bergman. But the benefits of collaboration -- from gaining additional resources to cover a story, to reaching a wider audience -- have come to outweigh individual egos, something that was evident as attendees openly discussed challenges and solutions over the course of the day.

bavc-tweet.jpg

Speaker after speaker reiterated that as financial resources continue to evaporate and social media enables more and more people to be content producers, the industry is going to have to adapt or die.

"If journalism institutions are shrinking and anyone with a smartphone is a journalist and deep investigative stories are being replaced by web hits, maybe it's time to start thinking outside the organization," Investigative News Network Executive Editor Evelyn Larubia said.

"When change comes, who survives?" asked Ulrich Nettesheim, an organizational psychologist at Berkeley's Haas School of Business, who ran an interactive exercise with the group. "The ones ready, willing and able to adapt."

Tools for Collaboration

The first half of the day was dedicated to introducing companies that can help facilitate the collaboration process.

Wendy Levy grabbed the crowd's attention when she introduced Sparkwise, a cloud-based platform that transforms raw metrics into easily digested and compelling stories using video, audio and text. Although Sparkwise wasn't explicitly created for journalists, Levy argued that in order to collaborate it will be necessary for the industry to find expedient and intelligent ways to publish data in a place where it can be aggregated with information from similar organizations. The largest obstacle, she said, is getting reporters to be willing to share their data.

civic-commons-tweet.jpg

Storify co-founder Burt Herman described how Storify allows journalists to curate social media, thus collaborating with users to tell a story. "Everybody is a reporter. Not everybody is a journalist," he said, emphasizing the value of the journalist's curatorial role. Read Herman's Storify coverage of Collab/Space here.

Another platform that enables real-time collaborative storytelling is ScribbleLive, which MediaShift used to provide live coverage of the day's events, including tweets, photos and videos. GitHub, which creates tools for open-source code development, was also present. GitHub has grown into the largest code host in the world and makes it easier to collaborate and share code.

It's the People, Stupid.

While attendees spent a good amount of time talking tools and strategies for managing collaboration, the overarching theme of the conference was relationships, which are at the core of any team effort. A few truths emerged: All players in a collaboration must trust each other, be willing to show their hand, and have faith in the common goal.

Some even wondered if relationship management should become part of journalists' core training. "Should a class on managing relationships be taught at journalism schools?" asked Meghann Farnsworth, distribution and online community manager at the Center for Investigative Reporting and California Watch, via Twitter -- to which Andrew Haeg, Public Insight Network co-founder, responded, "Yes":

relationship-tweet.jpg

Do you agree? And if you were at Collab/Space, what did you think of the event? Any highlights I missed? If you weren't there, are there any questions about the day's discussion that I or one of the other attendees or speakers can answer for you?

Meghan Walsh considers herself a print journalist but is always looking for creative ways to tell a story. She covered sports and breaking news for the Arizona Republic and then government and crime for The World newspaper before becoming associate editor of InWithSkin, a lifestyle and beauty magazine. As a graduate journalism student at UC Berkeley, she has learned to incorporate photography, video and multimedia into her storytelling. Meghan also works for the Investigate Reporting Program.

This is a summary. Visit our site for the full post ».

April 09 2011

23:35

WikiLeaks' Julian Assange, NY Times Feud at Logan Symposium

logantitle.jpg

BERKELEY, CALIF. -- I am at the 5th Annual Reva and David Logan Investigative Reporting Symposium, a gathering of the top investigative journalists that happens each year at University of California at Berkeley. Lowell Bergman, a professor at the school and former "60 Minutes" producer and longtime investigative journalist, brings together an invite-only crowd of journalists, technologists, academics and more. The title of the conference is "Leaks, Laws & Lies" and will include a live Skype call with WikiLeaks' Julian Assange.

(You can see previous coverage of post Logan Symposiums by PBS MediaShift here.)

My goal was to live-blog the Symposium, but due to issues with Internet access, I was only able to take quick live notes, which I'm now posting on MediaShift. The highlight of the first day of the conference was the appearance via Skype of WikiLeaks' Julian Assange, who is under house arrest in the U.K. A panel called "The War on WikiLeaks included representatives from the New York Times, Guardian and Der Spiegel, all news outlets that worked with and published the leaks from WikiLeaks, including the Afghan War Logs, Iraq War Logs and international cables from the U.S. State Department.

New York Times executive editor Bill Keller at one point was asked why he had described Julian Assange in such a critical way in a story after posting the leaked material. Keller said he had never met Assange and that his description of Assange came from what reporters told him. Later, Assange joined the panel via Skype, and the warmth quickly left the room. None of the panelists wanted to ask Assange a question, until Keller attacked Assange for saying that the U.S. media didn't care about what happened in the rest of the world. Meanwhile, Assange looked over the panel from a large projection screen, almost like a world leader via satellite.

Below are my detailed notes of what people said on that panel, and the intro before the panel. These are not exact quotes but are paraphrases of what the principals said. I also took some videos of some of Assange's answers, and will posting the best of those as well.

Intro from Lowell Bergman

Lowell Bergman, UC Berkeley: Our investigative reporting program is totally privately funded, so Jerry Brown can't slash our budget.

People in our audience are from Latvia, Japan, Germany, the widest group we've had, with people who've won Oscars, Pulitzer Prizes. Not just journalists but also financiers, law enforcement, faculty, students, and even PR flacks.

David Logan passed away but his sons are here...I learned that David Logan was a man of many interests, from a jazz afficianado, he had Picasso drawings and he eventually funded the chair at Berkeley for me to teach here. We also have investigative journalism fellowships here.

lowellbergman11.jpg

Six months ago I got a grant from Knight for a study about collective work in investigations that's being done by a former fellow. For the next year and a half, we're going to do a study on collective investigative reporting, create a guide and set up standards and procedures for how to work together. We'll talk more about collaboration on the WikiLeaks panel.

Non-profits can't afford legal counsel so we have an active group helping them. Hewlett Packard found information about journalists including John Markoff of the New York Times. He sued and won a quarter million dollars, and he gave us $100,000 to give out a Markoff Award, with a drawing of John on it. We give it out to our low maintenance supporters. This year the winners are Bob Bishop, and Herb and Marion Sandler.

Something new for us: We'll have a series of talks about WikiLeaks, along with a videotape we produced with Julian Assange. He was here last year, and can't be here this year, obviously. We did send an invitation to Bradley Manning but he can't make it. We'll have two brief talks, Julian's tape and then the panel, and if we can pull it off, Julian will be on his way back to his residence, he will try to get there in time by the end of the panel, and will join us by Skype. And will be on during lunch to answer questions.

Julian is not really a source. He's a new kind of person, with a new kind of vocation. We all need to do a lot of thinking about it. He's not a source, and he's not a legacy journalist. He's an advocate and that's not rare among journalists these days.

Bradley Manning is being held without charges and is in solitary confinement in conditions that are close to torture. Daniel Ellsberg, who's in Hawaii and can't be here, was indicted under the Espionage Act, but was only saved because they broke into his office. Today a liberal administration is holding him under bad conditions and no one is protesting it. Those are my blunt observations of what is going on. And the leaks continued.

Mark Feldstein, author: This is a Cliff's Notes of the history of leaks. Thomas Jefferson even leaked information himself. President Buchanan leaked information about President Polk. The only time it related to national security was in World War II when the Chicago Tribune wrote that the U.S. broke a secret code, but it wasn't really a threat to national security. In the atomic era the government started using the Espionage Act from World War I to prosecute leakers. Newspapers self-censored themselves at the request of the government.

markfeldstein.jpg

Jack Anderson, a syndicated columnist, was the WikiLeaks of the '40s and '50s, and his column went out to 1,000 newspapers, so it was hard to censor it everywhere. Anderson would have news conferences and hand out documents to make sure newspapers didn't miss it. He was a seasoned journalist and could handle himself better than Julian Assange. The White House plotted to kill him by poison. He blackmailed the White House, to make them back off. Assange is not quite that sophisticated.

Then came the Pentagon Papers in the '70s and Nixon and his administration tried to stop them, and turned it into a cause celebre. Now we have WikiLeaks, with national security documents able to be disseminated in a click of a mouse.

Larger lessons? All administrators want to control the agenda, exaggerate harm, want to stop the leaks. None have come to grips with the fact that the biggest threat to national security is not the press, not leaks, but mistakes by government policy. Leaks are as old as apple pie and that's why they'll continue.

Julian Assange Video

Julian Assange: The U.S. government is saying that any form of collaboration between a source and investigative journalists is espionage. That's why the New York Times is saying they were not collaborating, but that we're just a source. But the truth is that it was a collaboration. The grand jury is investigating espionage and the White House is pushing an angle that collaboration between journalists and sources is illegal. We all know how investigative journalism works. You call up a source, meet them at a cocktail party and get information.

That interpretation will result in making government completely unaccountable to investigations. You'll hear Bill Keller of the New York Times say they work hand in glove with the government. I do say that news organizations and journalists must understand their role to hold government and other powerful people to account. It's not to be popular or be a propagandist for organizations.

People say to me, "I could never do what you do." I have fears just like all of you do. The key to courage is simply understanding what the risks are and taking actions accordingly. And not being scared to challenge and see whether the risk is correct.

Panel: The War on WikiLeaks

Moderator: Jack Shafer, Slate

Panel: David McCraw of the New York Times, Holger Stark of Der Spiegel, Bill Keller of the New York Times, Gabriel Schoenfeld, Hudson Institute, Nick Davies, Guardian.

Shafer: WikiLeaks has served as a valuable archive for documents and insight into many secretive groups like Scientology, Rand Corp. and others. I'm hoping to run the most incendiary panel and discussion of the symposium.

Nick Davies of the Guardian: I heard about Bradley Manning being arrested. The most interesting story was all the documents. I found these chat logs on Wired, with someone purporting to be Bradley Manning says he finds near-criminal back deals all over the world. That it should be seen all over the world. It's breathtaking and horrifying. As a reporter, it sends shivers down your spine.

nickdavies.jpg

I set out to find someone at WikiLeaks to tell their story. I made contact with people all over the world, and wanted to get in touch with Julian Assange. I found out he was flying into Brussels to make a speech, but was afraid of arrest. He figured it was a high profile place where he wouldn't be grabbed. I talked to him in the European Parliament building. So how could I convince him to give me the story, someone in the mainstream media? There was a physical threat to him.

This is a very political landscape, but we can reduce that if we create an alliance to give Julian power he didn't have. The New York Times came up as part of that alliance because it would help to have the most powerful newspaper on our side. I hooked up with Julian, and he is wonderful and strange. He was crashed out at 3 pm after a flight from Australia, I woke him up and talked to him for 6 hours. Julian could see the value and wanted to talk about the possibilities.

He agreed to give information to the Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel in four packets. The Afghan War Logs, the Iraqi War Logs, the diplomatic cables and something that hasn't been published yet. How to get it? I left with nothing, Julian created a website and gave me a password made by the logos on napkins. That was the crown jewels in the journalism world.

Bill Keller, NY Times: Julian Assange has had his revenge, because we have to show up for an unlimited number of panel discussions. I'm going to skip my time and believe that the most interesting part will be the Q&A.

Holger Stark, Der Spiegel: We're actually still in touch with Julian Assange, unlike the other news organizations. We published in September 2010 an interview with him, and he was very angry because people said he was acting like a dictator. I spent a weekend with him discussing many things, and we are still going through another project with WikiLeaks. I've been asked how much WikiLeaks changed journalism. It has changed journalism and brought a revolutionary thing to journalism with an anonymous dump of documents and something no one has done before. But journalism has changed WikiLeaks more than WikiLeaks has changed journalism.

holgerstark.jpg

They used to post everything they found on the Internet. Last summer he planned to dump the entire Afghan War Logs with all sources online. We all told him it was irresponsible, you can't do that, and he agreed to change that. When we published the Irag War Logs, we realized they had to be redacted. When we published the cables, he let the publishers decide what to publish. It was handed over to the media.

WikiLeaks is much more a journalism organization than it was before.

David McCraw, NY Times: There are circumstances when the press can break the Espionage Act. It's a complicated topic. If the government was secretly monitoring every mosque in the U.S., it might help national security but it also might not be legal and should be exposed. There's a very high standard that needs to be met with the First Amendment and Espionage Act before we can show that the press has broken that act. The system does in fact work.

We understand there's a responsibility and there's a way we should do this. The prosecution understands they shouldn't prosecute newspapers that are publishing this. There hasn't been a single prosecution of a news organization under that act.

Q&A with Panel

Shafer: Julian was listening in on his cell phone. I'll ask a softball question to Bill Keller. We all know that publications will work with the government before publishing sensitive information.

Keller: With the Afghan War Logs, the government didn't want to work with us at all because they didn't want to legitimize what we were doing. We allowed them to argue why we shouldn't publish them and wanted to get their reaction before publishing. They did, with caveats, make a statement about their relationship with Pakistan. When it got to the cables and the State Dept., they were prepared to be more engaged. We offered them the opportunity to make the case that we shouldn't publish them at all, or question the theme of the documents. The scale of the document is without precedent, but the process was typical. We offered the State Dept. the chance to comment before publication.

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It was a series of stories that ran over two weeks. They knew which documents we had, we told them the subject and allegations we were making. There were three categories of documents, and types of discussions: the easy calls to redact names of dissidents and sources; on the other end, stories that would be embarrassing but we didn't think that would prevent us from publishing; and then things in between where we had lively discussions. We went along with the administration's argument sometimes but not always.

We made editorial judgments on all the stories, and if Julian Assange says it's a collaboration with government, he can say that. He gave us a large amount of information, we agreed to an embargo date and that was it. He didn't see the articles, he had no input into the journalism we did. So in my view it's not a collaboration with him or with the government. We gave the government a chance to have their say.

Shafer: Gabriel, can you make the argument that the public doesn't have the right to know?

Schoenfeld: Yes, in some cases, journalists should not publish how to create an anthrax bomb. In one case someone published how to create an atomic bomb, but most of that information was in the public domain. My argument with Bill Keller is that I think the government does have a case against the leakers causing issues with national security.

An argument broke out between Nick Davies and Gabriel Schoenfeld. Here's a video of that exchange:

Shafer: Holger, play press critic for me. How did Der Spiegel cover this? What was the focus?

Stark: Sure, I will. We were interested to see how the U.S. government would respond. The U.S. government didn't want to put pressure on the press but all on WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. We'll see that in the next weeks and months, they'll try to show that WikiLeaks is not a journalistic enterprise. How did we look at the documents? Not much differently than the other news organizations did. Maybe we published a bit more that would be a scandal in the U.S., about a task force that was set up to capture and kill leaders in Afghanistan. That's something we don't have in the German army, so we investigated those things more. We invested a lot of research into what Hillary Clinton was doing to collect intelligence at the UN.

Shafer: Bill, you describe Assange as smelling like he hadn't bathed in days. Do you have anything to add to that? Is that any way to talk about sources? That won't encourage more people to be sources, will it?

Keller: The fourth packet of information won't come to us, we know that. By the time I wrote that piece about Assange, it was an attempt to describe what we did and why we did in narrative form. It could have been written like a master's thesis, but it had some snippets of color. I never met Julian Assange, we only had phone conversations. I reported from what our reporters told me in their reporting. That was only one small part of the article I wrote.

He was also the story and was a public figure, and is a complicated public figure. I don't presume to make any bumper sticker statements about him.

Q: How do you think you would handle new leaks, and what effect will new copycat WikiLeaks-type groups have?

Keller: We could set up drop boxes of information. There's now OpenLeaks, and Al Jazeera has set up a dropbox but nothing has come along. We had a lot of time with introspection and second guessing, and we think we handled it right.

McCraw: There are always concerns about authenticity. The security firm from Bank of America wanted to dump fake documents to WikiLeaks, so we have the same concerns we had before with info from a plain brown envelope. Every time we had a discussion about this.

Keller: There has been a big effect of WikiLeaks documents in North Africa. There was an effect in Tunisia, which sparked other protests. We can argue whether that has been good or bad, but it has had an impact on the street.

Stark: We have a duty to publish these things, the U.S. is the most powerful country in the world and it's the role of democracy to publish them.

Q&A with Julian Assange

Here are videos I shot of some of the Q&A that happened between the audience and WikiLeaks' Julian Assange.

Q: What was in the fourth packet?

Q: How well did the media cover the leaks?

Julian Assange on how the U.S. media doesn't care about the world.

What will happen for future sources of leaks?

True Grit Panel Intro

Michael Isikoff: I've gone from an old print guy to network broadcast correspondent, and have had culture shock. I'm on NBC News and pitch stories to various shows, sometimes with success. I sold "The Today Show" on a story about a possible presidential candidate, and they bought it and were going to do it, and we had a back and forth about the script. A producer wanted some changes, and was ready to run it, and then I got a message. "I haven't been able to get to it because Lindsey Lohan fell down." I thought it was a joke but it wasn't, and "The Today Show" went to DefCon 3!

I was an ink-strained wretch with Newsweek for years. Newsweek was sold and I was looking for a job and took a job with NBC News, and they put out a release saying Isikoff will be a multi-platform journalist. I had no idea what it meant or how to do it. The best explanation I heard was from a cameraman, who said, "You want to get on 'The Nightly News' you might at best get about 2 minutes, that's like being above the fold on a front page. And then everything else is where you put out the information. You write a text piece, you put documents online and web extras, and put them all online. It's the multiplier effect.

Does it work? I have no idea. On a couple occasions it seemed to work. We did a piece on the 10th anniversary of the U.S.S. Cole. It worked fine, we had a piece on broadcast, and on the web I got some newly declassified documents about the bombing. I did a story recently on Anonymous, the group of computer hackers, who shut down MasterCard and Visa in defense of WikiLeaks last year. I had someone on Anonymous willing to come on camera to explain how they work, describing how they got onto a secure service. I had a web piece that was supposed to go with it, it was all teed up. The web extra was ready to go live, and I emailed the source and told him to watch 'Nightly News' and he emailed back and said, 'I know, I've already read it online.'

It appeared that Anonymous had penetrated the NBC web system to read the post before it had been gone live! But it wasn't really the case, because someone had actually posted it early online. It's all interesting, and fun, but whether it works are not is another question. Today we Twitter, we blog, we gab on TV, but in the end it comes down to producing valuable and important content. In our brave new world, it's about content, content, content -- that's the only thing people will remember.

*****

I'll be back at the Logan Symposium tomorrow to cover a panel on collective work and another on non-profit investigative journalism.

Mark Glaser is executive editor of MediaShift and Idea Lab. He also writes the bi-weekly OPA Intelligence Report email newsletter for the Online Publishers Association. He lives in San Francisco with his son Julian. You can follow him on Twitter @mediatwit.

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March 11 2011

16:15

David Barstow on being fair, bearing witness and “doing something bigger with the story”

We spoke this week with The New York Times’ David Barstow, who wrote and helped report our latest Notable Narrative, “Deepwater Horizon’s Final Hours.” The project, a fine-grained look at the crew’s last moments aboard the doomed oil rig, ran at the end of December, and we learned through Barstow that Summit Entertainment has recently picked up film rights to the story. Barstow’s prior work has twice been awarded a Pulitzer Prize (one in partnership with Times reporter Lowell Bergman), and he has a long history with investigative reporting and narrative. In these excerpts from our conversation, he talks about applying narrative techniques in an investigative framework and the importance of bearing witness.

When did the Times commit to doing the Deepwater Horizon project?

I had written, with some other reporters, a very long piece that ran in June of last year that really zeroed in on the blowout preventer. After that piece, I think a number of us felt like there was still more to be done, but we weren’t really sure what that was.

So it wasn’t until probably August when the big conceptual breakthrough occurred, which was that we thought that there was a really great story if we focused very narrowly on the crew and the last hours of Deepwater Horizon. We wanted to focus not on what everyone else was focusing on, at least in those summer months, which was “What caused the blowout?” – which inevitably took you into a very dense thicket of questions about well design and about cementing and all the things that happened below the rig, all the way down to where they were tapping into the oil two miles beneath the surface of the ocean bead. Instead, we focused on the rig itself and understanding the crew that worked on this rig, and understanding the systems that were engineered and were incorporated into the rig to protect these people from the very thing that occurred: the blowout.

There were three bylines on the piece, and a note about contributing material from another reporter. What were the mechanics of the story? Who actually wrote it?

I wrote every word of it. I think the byline in the paper was clear on that point. It was written by me, with reporting by myself and David [Rohde] and Stephanie [Saul]. The reason I make that point is that this is a narrative, in a way. And I think that we all realized and could see the importance of having a coherent and single voice carrying this story. It’s been all of our experience that at the end of the day, you can’t write narrative by committee. So I took on that task of being the writer, and then of course, we all divvied up various aspects of the reporting.

I noticed that in the actual structure of it, loosely speaking, a third of it leads up to the blowout, and then a third is that nine minutes between the blowout and the explosions, and the last third is wrapping up. Did you divide it that cleanly on purpose? How did you decide on the structure?

I think the biggest thing that drove the framing of the story was actually that “nine minutes” idea. There was this period of time when a whole bunch of things could have occurred or maybe should have occurred that might have saved lives or prevented explosions or minimized explosions. That was the absolute crucial period of time: the time between when the crew had the absolute first obvious evidence that they were experiencing a blowout – which was actual mud and oil coming up on the rig itself – and when the big cataclysmic explosion occurred that basically eliminated any chance of the rig coming out of this OK.

And yet, what made this particular narrative extremely challenging is No. 1, you’re dealing with an awful lot of technology, a very complex system. The fire and gas alarm system alone has a phone book-size instruction manual. That’s just one. There’s the ventilation system, and the systems that allowed the crew to communicate, and the warning system, and the gas sensor – all of that stuff was really important to the story.

Handling the complexity of the technology, along with the number of different characters on this rig that in and of itself is a foreign place for most readers, this was the narrative challenge. How do you structure the piece so that you create a sense of pace and narrative and keep people going through this experience and put them as much as possible in the shoes of some of the people on this rig during this couple-hour period of time?

The way I tried to deal with that was keeping the focus relentlessly on the one day and on this one 9-minute period of time. That was the frame that helped anchor the piece.

You have this chunk of technical material you’re trying to get across, and then you have all these narrative details. Inside that larger frame, how did you approach bringing the technical material and specifics available in hindsight into the story about the people?

It’s not like there was some master narrative out there somewhere that said when one event happened compared to some other event. So in fact, part of the challenge was constructing that narrative and knowing what went on in that nine-minute period of time with over 100 people on the rig reacting and doing different things. One of the most important challenges for us was, through the reporting and interviews we did with more than 20 of these crew members and a really careful sifting through of all the public testimony, putting together an incredibly extensive narrative that zeroed in on this very compressed period of time.

Once you have that, of course, it makes it a lot easier to zero in on the moments that seem most critical. The trickier part was how to hit the right tone, where you’re looking at the actions of members of this crew who in some cases froze in the moment or were overwhelmed with the complexity of the systems they were trying to operate.

You could make them look like idiots. There are a lot of ways you could slam people with 20/20 hindsight. For me, it felt more important to try as best I could to put myself in their shoes and take into consideration and into account the chaos and the horrific circumstances under which they were asked to make rapid decisions – sometimes with incomplete information. And all the while worried that everything around them was going to blow up. On the one hand, it was about being fair to them and trying to bear witness, but also doing something bigger with the story.

In terms of which narrative details you chose to use, did you have any concerns about what is sometimes called disaster porn?

I didn’t worry about that because I felt like there was an enormously consequential story at the heart of this. That story is one that I think ought to really inform our discussion and debate going forward about deepwater drilling.

In this particular case, if there was one overarching narrative that emerged in the first month, it was this idea that BP as a corporation was cutting corners and sacrificing safety, and that was the root cause of what happened there. To an extent, people would look at the Texas City explosion in Alaska and say, “Here’s this rogue corporation cutting costs, and then there’s this disaster.”

What was interesting in terms of what emerged from our reporting is that it’s a more difficult problem than that. If you have one rogue company, you can force change on the part of that corporation, but in this case the Deepwater Horizon rig was a Transocean workplace. Transocean owned the rig. There were only a couple of BP employees on the rig. It was a culture shaped by Transocean.

What was significant to us was that when it comes to deepwater drilling in the Gulf, this is the best of the best, the A team, in theory. It was a sophisticated rig with an experienced crew on board. Despite that and despite having a potent safety culture and having the best technology that exists to prevent a blowout and an explosion that could kill people, there were failures. And that raises questions about our ability to do deepwater drilling in a safe manner. That issue was at the heart of the story, because it raises an important question as we go forward with deepwater drilling.

You’ve done a lot of narratives, as well as large investigations, at the St. Petersburg Times and The New York Times. Did reporting or telling this story present any particular problems that you hadn’t faced before?

Coming out of the St. Pete Times, I sort of grew up journalistically around people like Tom French, Anne Hull and David Finkel. What I’ve spent the bulk of my career trying to do is to take as much narrative storytelling as I can into the traditional investigative reporting mindset. You’ll see a similar kind of thing in a lot of my stories.

This one actually felt like a really comfortable fit with that approach: going in a tough-minded and investigative way to understand what went wrong and hold accountable the various actors in this story and the forces that contributed to this disaster. And trying to do it through a narrative that can help people not just absorb the information at an intellectual level but feel it at a gut level, in a way that hopefully a reader comes away from the piece with a much clearer detailed, vivid sense not just of the kind of people who worked on this rig and the culture of this rig but the very complex sequence of events and technical failures that fed into the tragedy.

Do you have any suggestions for reporters tasked with telling a story that has already been covered by so many outlets?

Yes, a couple. There’s one easily overlooked point about this story: the point about space. This story really couldn’t be told if the newspaper weren’t willing to open up, in this case, four full pages. We had these amazing photographs, but the story needed space, too.

The thing I would tell younger reporters is that if this were a 2,000-word story as opposed to an 8,500-word story, you couldn’t even think about it. The most important point, the most obvious point, is that in this case, we were able to persuade our editors here to give us the space. We don’t run many double trucks, and this was actually a quadruple truck. You have to get that kind of space, and to understand how space does or doesn’t limit what you do as a storyteller.

The other thing I would say is that sometimes even when stories are covered quite intensively for a couple months or similar period of time, if you’re paying close attention and looking at the way the story is being covered, sometimes you’ll see things that weren’t doable in the first months become doable over time.

In this case, the flow of coverage organically shifted to things like the cleanup, the extent of the pollution, the effects of the pollution, and then to BP and BP’s safety record – and to what caused the blowout, the well design, and the cementing job. I remember thinking at one point, “It’s weird after all this that I don’t think I’ve read or seen something that put me on the rig in the lives of the people there on that last day.”

You set out, and maybe the people who didn’t want to talk in the first week – maybe they were traumatized, hunkering down or finding lawyers – some of those people with time, you can get them to open up. It’s good to look and be thinking about any new layers that can be peeled back once you’re past the immediate aftermath.

April 17 2010

20:20

Live Blog: Logan Symposium on Investigative Reporting at Berkeley

BERKELEY -- I'm settling into a large auditorium at the University of California-Berkeley for the 4th Annual Reva and David Logan Investigative Reporting Symposium . Not to sound too snooty, but it's an exclusive event that's run by Lowell Bergman, professor of investigative reporting at Berkeley's Graduate School of Journalism. Of course, Bergman is most famous for his work at "60 Minutes." Plus, he was played by Al Pacino in "The Insider." Each year, the symposium picks a theme, and brings you panels on that theme. This year's theme: "The State of Play: Collaboration, Consequences, and Cash."

Right now, Neil Henry, the dean at UC Berkeley, is getting things started by talking about how admissions to the J-school are up, despite the overall challenges facing the news business. He's pointing out that there's still a passion among these students to do journalism, albeit in new forms and in new venues.

Lowell Bergman: He's explaining the theme this year is a nod to the Russell Crowe flick of the same name. The investigative reporting at Berkeley has been expanding, thanks to some solid funding. That's allowed the program to bring students back for fellowships to work on interesting stories. From the beginning, the fellowships have been about collaborative reporting. They focus on stories that can run on the Web, on TV and in print.

Through the program, they realized that many organizations, like public media and traditional media, were not really prepared to collaborate. So they recruited some attorneys to work pro bono to help deal with some of the legal complications.

Bergman was also discussing the history of the Markoff Award, funded through a donation by NY Times reporter John Markoff. The money came from a settlement the Times reached after Hewlett Packard was caught spying on some reporters, including Markoff.

A New Era Of Collaboration?

David Boardman, of the Seattle Times, introduces the panel. As you know, the world of journalism is changing, more profoundly than at any time in my career. When ASNE canceled its annual meeting last year, it reflected the feeling that a bomb had dropped on our industry. Tens of thousands of journalism jobs were lost. Fear and trepidation prevailed.

Today, people have stopped wringing their hands. And now are forging new partnerships that would have been unthinkable even just a few years ago. The emergence of new non-profits investigative centers have fueled excitement. But there are still concerns over resources and funding. There are big questions about sustainability. Many still have small audiences and rely on Big Media for distribution. And details of collaborations are still being worked out.

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