Lately a couple of us here at the University of Navarra have been looking for models of high-quality journalism that are sustainable. As it turns out, many of the best news organizations that are thriving are doing investigative journalism.
Readers like this type of journalism, which holds the powerful accountable for their actions and makes them responsible for serving the public rather than themselves.
In a 2016 article, two leading global investigative journalism organizations made the case that investigative journalism actually has a great return on investment (ROI).
"Over the years [the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP)] has accepted US$5 million in funding from the U.S. and other governments. The return on that funding? With US$2.8 billion recovered in fines and seized assets by various governments, the payoff is over 56,000 percent (or a 560-fold return)."
The authors of that article were David E. Kaplan, executive director of the Global Investigative Journalism Network, and Drew Sullivan, one of the founders of OCCRP.
OCCRP epitomizes a new model for quality journalism in the digital age — collaborative investigative journalism that spreads the costs and spreads the risks among many journalists and news organizations.
OCCRP was launched in 2006 by Paul Radu in Romania and Sullivan in Bosnia-Herzegovina with a focus on exposing corruption in Central and Eastern Europe. “Because police do not cross borders, journalism is the only natural global enemy of corruption,” says the group’s website.
The organization’s annual report is filled with examples of impact of specific stories, and it offers this summary information from its members’ work:
- More than 20 major sackings, including a president, a prime minister, and CEOs of major international corporations
- Nearly US$5 billion [with a B] in assets frozen or seized by governments
- 1,400 company closures, indictments, and court decisions
- 100 criminal investigations and government inquiries launched as a result of its investigations
Corporate media cut investigative staff
OCCRP's “Russian Laundromat” investigation exposed “an immense financial fraud scheme” that allowed Russian oligarchs and business people to move US$20 billion in illicit funds out of Russia to European and western banks.
However, investigative journalism takes time and money, and it has often been the first victim of budget cuts by media that have seen their advertising revenues plummet in recent years. In addition to being expensive, investigative reporting is risky. It exposes corruption, which often results in attempts by the powerful to silence the journalists and their organizations, even to the point of violence and murder.
Investigative journalism organizations like OCCRP spread the cost and the risk. An exposé like the Panama Papers — in which OCCRP was a key player — published simultaneously in dozens of different countries and media cannot be suppressed or ignored.
Investigative journalism community grows
Kaplan told me in an email that, in general, media development represents just a tiny fraction of international assistance funding — just 0.3 percent of total official development assistance from 2010-2015 (about US$500 million each year from all donors).
However, support for investigative journalism has grown.
"OCCRP has gone from US$500,000 to US$7 million. ICIJ (the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which organized the Panama Papers investigation), jumped from about US$1.6 million to also around US$7 million. GIJN itself grew from $30,000 in startup funds to US$1.7 million today, and its membership has tripled over the past seven years to 177 member groups in 76 countries," said Kaplan.
Kaplan estimates that investigative journalism aid has at least tripled in the past 5-6 years. "I attribute this to various factors in recent years: the Panama Papers, the Spotlight movie [the Boston Globe's investigation of pederastic priests], Brexit, Trumpism, the onslaught of disinformation online," he said, "as well as the convincing case GIJN and its members have made for funding [investigative journalism] because of the extraordinary ROI it has (through fines, recovered taxes, seizures, etc)."
Relatively speaking, investigative journalism still gets a small share of international aid, but media consumers around the world have been showing a tendency to pay for high-quality accountability journalism. I have mentioned in a previous post examples, like eldiario.es in Spain and Mediapart in France, which show that people will pay for the truth.
James Breiner is a former ICFJ Knight Fellow who launched and directed the Center for Digital Journalism at the University of Guadalajara. Visit his websites News Entrepreneurs and Periodismo Emprendedor en Iberoamérica.