How Perugia (Almost) Broke My Heart

perugiaIt started off at the session on education.

Last week, in a corner room just off the Piazza IV Novembre, in the charming medieval town of Perugia, Italy, Alice Ross, a young journalist working for Greenpeace UK’s Unearthed bemoaned the cost of her fancy investigative journalism degree at City, University of London. The total for her year-long course? A whopping 9,000 pounds (more than $11,500). Ross likened it to a pay-to-play scheme that landed her a plum job, but effectively keeps out those who can’t afford to pony up thousands or puts them in a not-so-privileged place on the fringes of the industry.

Granted, it’s not likely Ross is sailing on her yacht with hedge fund managers in her free time. But the fact that she could – and did – pay for a pricey education bothered her enough to say so in front of a whole bunch of journalists at the International Journalism Festival, where she participated in the panel “From Zero to Hero: Can Investigative Journalism Be Taught?”

Her former professor Heather Brooke, whose impressive work was the catalyst of the 2009 British Parliamentary expenses scandal, rung in. Many of the skills she and others are teaching in those top journalism schools used to be learned in the newsroom, she said. Not so much anymore.

I couldn’t decide what was more worrying – that the field has become a pay-to-play scenario, particularly on the elite frontlines of Western journalism, or the gut-wrenching fact that alongside our broken business model that is limping along in a dystopian world of authoritarian governments and unchecked tech behemoths, we have slaughtered the industry vets who might have helped to save us. It’s no wonder we’re bumbling around in the dark with our caps in hand, many tipped toward the very industry which has stripped the cash right out from under us.

As we waited in the line to see some journalism rock stars preaching from their well-endowed ivory towers (Jeff Jarvis and Jay Rosen spoke alongside Stuttgarter Zeitung’s Swantje Dake and Tanit Koch from RTL about the “The Spiegel Scandal and the Seduction of Storytelling”), I told Brooke my worries. She commiserated, admitting that many of her senior journalist friends have taken refuge in academia or are working for nonprofits, while others have taken PR jobs. Those experienced journalists with institutional memory, who have crafted hundreds of stories, developed sources for dozens of years, honed their techniques and helped to shape the field are just not affordable to newsrooms around the world that have been stripped bare.

It didn’t take long for my furrowed brow to find proof right there in Perugia’s big tech-sponsored pudding. While navigating the patchwork red bricked roads the next day with my Google Maps, sipping the free cappuccinos Facebook was handing out, I met an investigative reporter whose byline I recognized from the nineties. He worked at top publications in the United States doing some of the most important stories of his generation. He’s now closing in on 60 and is unemployed, hustling to nail his next gig. I know he won’t easily find a new home.

After all, as Brooke tells her students when they ask her about their job prospects in the precarious muckraking ranks: “You’re fine until you are about 35.”

I sighed as I made my way through a fraction of the 280 or so panels with more than 650 speakers talking metrics, #MeToo, migrancy, media capture, membership, MoJo, AI, VR, OSINT, propaganda, totalitarianism, climate change, whistleblowing, organized crime, deep fakes, fake news, verification, innovation, click bubbles, podcasts, engagement, local journalism, data journalism, solutions journalism, slow journalism, parachute journalism, collaborative journalism, investigative journalism, and the hard truths of business models, fundraising, crowdfunding, donors and sustainability.

At “Fighting for Survival: Media Start-ups in the Global South,” Mada Masr’s Lina Attalah, 7iber.com’s Lina Ejeilat’s, the Outrider Network’s Alicja Peszkowska’s, Finance Uncovered’s Nick Mathiason and The Conversation Australia’s Misha Ketchell joined Columbia University’s Anya Schiffrin to talk about the issues which came out in her latest report that underscored the reality for start-up sustainability, particularly in the South: long-haul donor-funded journalism.

But Ketchell, whose group is backed in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, said that’s not always the loveliest of solutions. He shared an anecdote about Australian media mogul Kerry Packer who had kidney failure, later donating millions to the hospital that saved him.

“Which is terrific, right?” Ketchell said. “But do you really want to have a rich person have kidney failure every time you want to do a particular story?”

Meanwhile, under the grand painted ceilings of the Palazzo dei Priori, journalist Julia Angwin talked on the big screen about her new start-up, the $20 million Craig Newmark-bankrolled Markup. Angwin paid her dues at San Francisco Chronicle, where she was covering the tech industry before Facebook was a glimmer in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye and Google was not yet evil, spending 20 years at The Wall Street Journal before moving over to do gob-smacking investigations at ProPublica. With all that cash coming down the pipeline, she’s certain to continue to do important work, keeping much needed tabs on the tech industry.

But tell that to the dozens of others clamoring for tiny percentages of that kind of cash. They packed into the room at the “Funders Confidential” session on Saturday morning, trying to shove their cards in the direction of representatives from the Gates Foundation, Luminate, Open Society Foundations and the Rudolf Augstein Foundation. 

One journalist friend, who is lucky enough to run one of those generously funded media nonprofits and does some of the most important media work in her region, spends a disproportionate amount of her time working at the business of keeping her team afloat.

“It isn’t that they don’t give us enough money,” she told me as we squatted on the carpeted steps inside the Palazzo Cesaroni, waiting to hear Alan Rusbridger talk about how “Radical Change in the World Calls for Radical Changes in Journalism.” “But they want us to diversify our funding. In my contract it says I have to find money from four other donors. But those other donors probably won’t have the same objective. At the same time, they are telling us we have to show in our reporting that we are having a bigger impact. And we have to crowdfund in between. It is just not sustainable.”

Those sorts of issues were on the minds of the journalists who gathered for the panel on “The Business of Investigative Journalism: Best Practices for Sustainable Newsrooms.” After Hong Kong University’s Ross Settles doled out practical business advice and fundraising consultant Bridget Gallagher talked about how to refine your donor search, GIJN’s fundraiser Caroline Jarboe suggested ways investigative journalism units can tell their own stories and the Membership Puzzle Project’s Emily Goligoski discussed membership models.

When the speakers finished up, Megan Lucero from the United Kingdom’s Bureau Local raised her hand, asking the question that struck to the core of it all: How do we go beyond saving ourselves? she asked. How do we go about saving journalism?

And there it was, the elephant in the newsroom. I needed a nap.

The next morning, as I wallowed in my machine-generated cappuccino, I managed to get some inspiration.

Over breakfast, GIJN’s David Kaplan and co-founder Brant Houston talked me through the early days of the US-based Investigative Reporters and Editors, which was formed in 1975. Days before the first IRE meeting in 1976, Don Bolles, an investigative journalist for The Arizona Republic, was killed by a car bomb. Apparently the mafia didn’t take kindly to his kind of journalism. The United States was just a few years out of Watergate and the country was well aware of the power of investigative journalism to change the course of history. So, what did the ragtag group of 40 or so IRE journalists do? They reported. The result was the Arizona Project, a 23-part series which continued Bolles’s work.

That morning, Kaplan reminded me there was a Renaissance happening in investigative journalism around the world. At GIJN, we see it every day with the small units we work with: groups like Hungary’s Direkt36, Rappler and PCIJ in the Philippines, Arab Reporters for Investigative Journalism in the Middle East, Korea’s Newstapa, and IDL Reporteros in Peru.

Back in Johannesburg, I had a front row seat as amaBhungane’s founders Sam Sole and Stefaans Brümmer doggedly pursued “Zuma Inc” – President Jacob Zuma’s associated business tentacles that had wrapped themselves around government agencies – for years. Their stories reached a crescendo in the massive email leak that Branko Brkic – who had only recently created the investigative journalism unit at South Africa’s Daily Maverick – got a hold of, collaborating with his colleagues at amaBhungane and News24 so they could all dig into the #GuptaLeaks muck together. After years of no-holds-barred corruption, Zuma finally stepped down.

For now, I suppose we have to hold tight and keep talking about how we’re going to get ourselves out of this mess. But there is something important about remembering that we can save ourselves by doing what we do best.

The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project and Forbidden Stories have kept the work of murdered journalists Jan Kuciak and Daphne Caruana Galizia – whose son Matthew spoke in Perugia – very much alive. We owe it to them and reporters like Don Bolles to continue fighting the good fight.

Here’s to journalism.

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