Noted: NPR’s Vivian Schiller at the IRE conference

The speech by NPR CEO Vivian Schiller at the recent Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in Las Vegas indicates that the wise teachings of the small, independent news nonprofit are going mainstream:

Partnerships=good. Competition’s in the blood, but teaming up multiplies impacts and extends limited resources.

Innovation=decentralized. Schiller doesn’t actually up and say this, but the revelation is there, waiting for its moment:

“[I]nvestigative reporting, often the most painstaking, labor intensive and sometimes solo form of journalism, has also been at the very forefront of experimentation and innovation.”

It makes sense that this “painstaking … and sometimes solo form of journalism” should spur innovation: Working on one’s own, or with a small team of collaborators, relieves, albeit temporarily, the news producer of the heavy hand of the vertical/institutional power structure.

Innovation happens in practice, in action, among the multitudes, in a massively parallel process of individual and small-group effort. A topheavy power structure just gums that process up.

Indeed, she notes the experience of NPR Executive Editor Dick Meyer’s “very first contact” with “the weird new thing called the Internet” at a similar IRE conference in the early 1990’s:

“At that early conference, he says he learned about ‘user groups’ to find sources and witnesses in disaster areas where phone and cell service might be out — what we now call crowdsourcing. IRE invented computer-assisted reporting and database reporting. You’ve been using social networks before they were called social networks — there were ‘gophers’, list serves, more user groups. Technology allowed reporters to use objective methods to develop and analyze empirical data — of campaign contributions and spending, of budgets, of pollution. Reporting about institutions could in this way move beyond the anecdotal, beyond personalities and even beyond conventional scandal. You — the people in this room — invented much of that.”

Precisely. Absolutely. Innovations in the use of technology do not happen in the board room. They happen in the lab, and in the field, where people are actively putting the tech to expedient usage.

Now perhaps I can shoehorn in a corollary to all this: The sooner that journalists can shake off centralized production and management models, the sooner the Fourth Estate will be able to live up to its idealized role in our democracy.

Investigations=fundability. About this, we shall see. While it is true that there’s a renewed interest among funders in supporting investigative work — a tacit recognition of the threat to democracy presented by what Tom Stites calls our “wildly corrupt” business/political milieu — the larger issue of philanthropic support for vital news and public-information projects and processes remains knotty. The need greatly outstrips the resource, at this time, for reasons that are far too complex for this brief discussion.

That stated, the renaissance that Schiller notes is indeed gathering steam.

However, it’s been a long time coming, and the work is hardly done. Indeed, it’s hardly begun. Much more infrastructure needs building, and much more systemic reform and reinvention awaits the courage and opportunity of those who care about the future of journalism and democracy.

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