Excellent piece by LA Times media columnist James Rainey about how investigative reporting has morphed. It remains alive and, for the moment, well.
PR pros whose responsibilities include media relations, protecting reputations of agencies or individuals, etc. - you should take notice of this shift. There are new considerations to evaluate in how you do your jobs. (see below).
As a former journalist who did his share of investigative reporting, it's been sad to watch newsrooms thin and newspapers become a shell of their former selves. Newspapers play an important role in this country. For example, if it wasn't for two very good reporters, a gusty team of editors and a supporting publisher, the Washington Post would never had published a series of stories that led to the resignation of a president. For example, a city manager, staff and council members in the Southern California city of Bell would still be reaping outlandish salaries and benefits had it not been for the persistence of the LA Times to seek public documents.
Good journalism is good for the country.
As Rainey highlights, it takes money to run a newspaper. When newspapers lost revenue to other "news" sources like Google, staffs were cut sending some great investigative journalists scrambling for work. Some in the PR world breathed a little easier - because the odds of getting a dreaded phone call for comment on a controversial story were starting to go down.
Yet, veteran journalists don't leave this planet too easily.
Sure, a few were picked up by PR firms. Thankfully, many have joined forces in the non-profit arena, collaborate with mainstream newspapers and universities and, it seems, remain the same, if not better, force they once were.
What can we, as PR professionals, learn from the "new" landscape?
- Facts, figures and analysts. The new era of journalism has created an additional class of journalist - the analyst. No fact or detail is too small or mundane to analyze. Wikileaks get the attention, but the non-profit news orgs are working harder with the information they uncover by analyzing trends that otherwise wouldn't have been noticed. While you are working with clients to figure out if you have a "Wikileaks" situation on your hands, keep the broader landscape in mind. Are interactions with others, such as customers and subcontractors, searchable?
- How easy is it to misinterpret the information that is publicly available? Although this scenario has kept crisis communication experts in business and we PR pros have had to issue plenty of responses to offer clarity and balance to a published story, the new era of investigative journalism - perhaps pushed along by citizen journalism - is prompting a new wave of crusades. This new rush into scouring records has already led to some stories being published with fanfare that, frankly, did not deserve the front-page treatment. (I know my journalist friends will disagree. But consider that even the Wikileaks founder is starting to back away from his earlier "blockbuster" statements about what the yet-undisclosed Bank of America records will reveal). So, at the first hint of an investigation, don't relax. Assume it's a five-alarm fire and pull out the stops to develop a strategy and assemble the troops. The odds are greater now that a "Pro-Publica"-styled investigation will see ink - and a lot of it.
- It's no longer regional. With greater collaboration among news organizations (Is the word "scoop" gone forever?), an investigative piece won't just be published by the lead newspaper and stay in one town. As Rainey's piece highlights, one news organization will take the lead and the others will add their local angle to it. Be prepared for calls from multiple news organizations about the same topic. Be prepared to launch community relations/government relations action plans in multiple locations. Be prepared to post responses and conduct social media campaigns across multiple geographies.