Stories & Grievances
London-Based Bureau of Investigative Journalism Fills Gaps In Reporting That News Organizations Are Unable or Unwilling To Fill
Investigative reporting is hard to find in British newspapers today as “hollowed out” newsrooms scramble to fill their pages with articles generated by press releases and photos snapped by celebrity-chasers, says Elaine Potter, former Sunday Times of London reporter.
April 4, 2010
Investigative Bureau Tries to Make Up for British News Cutbacks
By ERIC PFANNER, NY TIMES
PARIS — As a reporter with The Sunday Times of London in the 1970s, Elaine Potter worked on a story that showed British journalism at its best: the paper’s exposure of the scandal over thalidomide, which was promoted as a cure for morning sickness but caused birth defects in thousands of children.
Investigative reporting of this kind is hard to find in British newspapers today, Ms. Potter laments, as “hollowed out” newsrooms scramble to fill their pages with articles generated by press releases and photos snapped by celebrity-chasers.
As newspapers suffer from a downturn in advertising and struggle to make the transition to the digital future, Ms. Potter recently made a big commitment to deep reporting. A charitable foundation that she established with her husband, David Potter, founder of the software company Psion, provided £2 million, or $3 million, to set up the London-based Bureau of Investigative Journalism.
The bureau, Ms. Potter said, was inspired by the creation two years ago of ProPublica, a nonprofit organization based in New York that has been providing investigative stories to American newspapers, including The New York Times, which publishes the International Herald Tribune. Much of ProPublica’s financing has come from the foundation of Herbert and Marion Sandler, who made their fortune in the savings and loan business.
The idea of using philanthropic funds to support public-service journalism has been slower to catch on outside the United States; Ms. Potter said the bureau was the first such venture in Britain.
“A great deal hangs on this,” she said. “We really need to be successful.”
Iain Overton, a documentary filmmaker and former BBC journalist who was hired as managing editor of the bureau, has assembled a roster of about 15 journalists who will work with the organization, mostly on a freelance basis.
The bureau plans to delve into domestic British issues like the country’s growing budget deficit, as well as international affairs. One story in the works involves allegations of torture against a government that Mr. Overton declined to identify. The first work from the bureau is set to appear this year, he said.
Mr. Overton said he had already struck agreements with some newspapers to feature his journalists’ stories. The Financial Times, for instance, has agreed to share the costs of an investigation with the bureau and publish the results in its pages.
“Editors are constantly moaning that they have to do more with less,” he said. “Maybe we can be one way to redress that balance.”
While critics say philanthropic financing raises the danger that reporting will be skewed by the biases of the donor, Mr. Overton said the David & Elaine Potter Foundation had promised him full editorial independence. He also vowed to avoid the partisanship that marks some Fleet Street reporting, building on his background in British television, which operates under regulatory requirements for evenhanded news coverage.
In addition to providing newspapers with content, Mr. Overton said, the bureau has a second goal: to help develop more sustainable business models for supporting investigative journalism.
To try to make labor-intensive reporting more cost-effective, Mr. Overton wants the bureau’s work to appear across multiple formats, something that newspapers and other media owners have also tried to do, with mixed results. He said he was speaking with European public broadcasters in the hope of adapting investigative reports for television, radio or other media.
But what about reaching young people who ignore the news on television or in newspapers? Mr. Overton said he was thinking about experimenting with an idea that, he acknowledged, might seem like “heresy” to traditionalist editors: creating interactive, online versions of stories, to give them some of the appeal of video games. A story about government corruption, for instance, could put the reader in the role of the investigative reporter, with clues dropped along the way.
“I don’t think quality journalism can ever be a game,” he said. “It’s too serious a subject matter. But I am aware that the way people consume media has changed, and we can’t ignore that.”
Though the bureau aims to become financially self-sufficient over time, it is seeking additional charitable funds to help it through its first few years.
“The sustainable model may not be able to detach itself entirely from philanthropy, but if it does, then brilliant,” Mr. Overton said.
“It’s an experiment,” he added. “We are not promising to reinvent the wheel. But we might show that there is another way of rolling it.”