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Citizen based investigative journalism

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HelpMeInvestigate.com was setup as a platform to enable anyone to start investigations, or help out with ones that are already running. It’s aim is to allow people to ask civic questions, and work together to find the answers. This can be through Freedom of Information requests, questioning elected officials, investigating raw data or many other means.

By joining the site, users can pose questions they want to find the answers to, or suggest topics that need investigating. They can also look at the investigations that are already running and either suggest ways of solving them, or help out themselves.

The site has been in experimental phase, but recently saw the results of its investigations taken up by the mainstream press.

Investigations published

The Birmingham Post published a story based on an investigation instigated through the site. This investigation began with Heather Brooke posing a question:

Help me investigate on which Birmingham Streets are the most parking tickets issued?

Through a Freedom of Information request she then obtained 3 separate excel files from Birmingham City Council detailing the 135,656 parking tickets the Council issued from April 2008 – March 2009. This data was then analysed by visualised by another user of the site, Neil Houston.

(Image taken from http://bevocal.org.uk)

Details of the Investigation were then published on HelpMeInvestigate, and as a consequence the story was picked up by the Birmingham Post.

Nick Booth highlights the story as an example of how citizens can collaborate with journalists to investigate local issues affecting local people. The data uncovered as a result of the investigation has also triggered new questions about Council activity in this area, and could have a ripple effect throughout other local councils. It might cause others to request more openness and transparency of this data from their local government institutions. In the future, perhaps this data could be freely available from all Councils, and accessed through sites such as OpenlyLocal for comparative analysis.

This new model for investigating local issues, utilities the power of the Internet as a mechanism for group formation and collaboration on civic issues. It’s not a replacement for the investigative journalism practiced by local newspapers; rather it provides a platform upon which interested parties can work together on stories for the public good.

Changing models for investigative journalism

The kind of investigative journalism that HelpMeInvestigate is seeking to faciliate is at risk, because today’s investigative reporters lack resources. Arianna Huffington said on launching the Huffington Post’s Investigative fund:

Time and budget constraints are curbing the ability of journalists not specifically designated “investigative” to do this kind of reporting in addition to their regular beats. This is therefore a moment when new models are necessary to carry forward some of the great work of journalism in the public interest that is such an integral part of self-government, and thus an important bulwark of our democracy.

…the creation of original journalism in the public interest, and particularly the form that has come to be known as “investigative reporting,” is being squeezed down, and in some cases out.

The Huffington Post’s fund (starting with a budget of $1.75 million) will range from long-form investigations to short breaking news stores. All the content the fund produces will be free, and open anyone to publish. She noted the structure of the Fund as:

Picture a large pool of reporters — some on staff, and many freelancers — proposing stories and also receiving assignments from Investigative Fund editors.

This is somewhat similar to the structure of HelpMeInvestigate, but with Journalists rather than citizens proposing the stories. As news still requires a business model (see Jeff Jarvis’s comment below) these Journalists then receive assignments and funding from editors to begin these investigations.

A similar UK initiative – The Bureau of Investigative Journalism – has recently received £2 million of funding towards investigative, not-for-profit journalism, in the public interest. This will also experiment with crowdsourcing as a means of providing content across the media spectrum.

It’s not just local newspapers, and blogs such as the Huffington Post, however, that are experimenting with new models for Investigative journalism. The Associated Press announced earlier in June that it would be providing its 1,500 member papers with ready-to-run stories produced by independent reporters and editors.

AP announced it would distribute “watchdog and investigative journalism” penned not by its own staff or that of member papers, but by four outside groups:

The goal is to provide these nonprofit journalism organizations with an additional distribution channel for their work, while making it easy for newspapers to find and use the content they produce. AP’s rational for embracing nonprofit journalism is that newspapers are struggling and shedding staff. They no longer have the manpower or resources to root out corruption by digging into complex areas of government or corporate life.

One of the non-profit organisations partnering with AP is ProPublica. It is is one of the largest American non-profit news ventures and recently announced it would be recruiting citizen journalists for investigative reporting. These stories are then given, not sold, to news outlets with the story then appearing on ProPublica.com after an appropriate period of exclusivity.

Anyone—including practicing and retired journalists, students, policy experts, construction workers, accountants—can join the ProPublica Reporting Network. Their first assignment will be to “Adopt a Stimulus Project”, where people will dedicate themselves to following a local project funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Their task will be to monitor it through its completion reporting on the companies involved, the value of the project to the local community, how many people are employed by the project, and so on. Interesting project details are already appearing on the site as a result of the efforts of citizen journalists.

Nonprofit and citizen journalism certainly can serve the public interest. It often, however, requires the assistance and professionalism of trained journalists in order write or improve the story for publication. The distribution network and reach provided by established newspapers, blogs or news wires provides stories with the oxygen of publicity required for change to occur. As such, the future appears to be a symbiotic relationship, between citizen journalists and the established media. Jeff Jarvis notes how we cannot simply rely on citizens or charity as the future of news, but rather should see them as contributors and partners:

Charity is likely to be a contributor to the future of news. So will volunteer labour in the form of bloggers and crowdsourcing. But we still need a business model for news. News still needs to be profitable to survive. It’s not a church.

{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Nick BoothNo Gravatar 10/08/2009, 6:45 am

    Wonderful piece, many thanks for highlighting help me Investigate. This quote:

    “It’s not a replacement for the investigative journalism practiced by local newspapers; rather it provides a platform upon which interested parties can work together on stories for the public good.”

    Sums up exactly what we’re about.

  • Richard FaheyNo Gravatar 10/08/2009, 9:51 am

    Thanks for that Nick. It’s a really interesting project and a credit to you and the team behind the site.

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