To feed or not to feed the digital beast 

How do investigative outlets like ProPublica and the Voice of San Diego keep Web traffic flowing?

click to enlarge Andrew Donahue of the Voice of San Diego. - SAM HODGSON
  • Andrew Donahue of the Voice of San Diego.
  • Sam Hodgson

"This is the core struggle of my human existence right now," Andrew Donohue, editor of the nonprofit website Voice of San Diego, says of journalism's digital age.

He's not alone. Donohue's overwhelming perplexity is familiar to every journalist coming to terms with the 21st century. The dilemma: how to reconcile serious journalism with the voracious appetite of a website (which, like a goat, will eat anything).

Donohue calls it "the topic chewing away at my brain the last nine months." Voice of San Diego pledges "to consistently deliver ground-breaking investigative journalism for the San Diego region." High-minded operations like his promise to transform local journalism in America; as the dailies and TV news shops cut back and lay off, foundations and other benefactors have stepped in to subsidize daring alternatives. Of the various experiments in online media with gravitas, Voice of San Diego is emblematic—one of the first and best. But however high-minded, a website is still a beast that demands to be fed.

"We believe in order to have an engaged internet audience we have to be in front of them every day; the conversation has to come to the site," Donohue says. "But our mission is to do impactful, meaningful reporting that can take months at a time. It's a constant balancing act to find a way to do both. There's no formula whatsoever."

Donohue told me his site had been having a lot of success with quick-hit rolling investigations. "But all of a sudden we realized we're not really having the impact we wanted to be having. So we've really taken the foot off the gas over the last month or so and put out a couple of big-project pieces."

Quick-hit coverage is the stock-in-trade of TV muckrakers on strict quotas to deliver a whiz-bang scandal at least once a week. There's always a garbage truck crew to be tailed whose senior crewman idles while the junior toils—and both stumble blearily out of the bar after a two-hour lunch. These are not the stories the muckrakers signed on for, the ones they'd like mentioned in their obits. But they're easy and fill air space while allowing anchors to shake their fist indignantly.

Now the Web has redefined insatiability. Andy Shaw was a political reporter for WLS TV who covered the mayor and says he liked "feeding the beast"—but wouldn't have minded backing off once in a while to work up a story a little deeper and more thoughtful than the usual. He couldn't. "My beat was like a beating heart every day," he says. "The heartbeat didn't stop." After retiring, Shaw became executive director two years ago of the Better Government Association, which he's done an astonishingly effective job of rejuvenating. But the heartbeat goes on. Like the BGA of 30 years ago, Shaw's organization teams up with local media on investigative stories. But yesterday's BGA was under no imperative to rejustify its existence daily, while Shaw has a website to maintain that he insists stays fresh and lively. "Half the time we're looking for single culprits scamming the system," he says, and half the time they're doing "policy initiative" stories.

The BGA's first truly long-term investigation under Shaw was the analysis by senior investigator John Conroy and the Center on Wrongful Conviction's Rob Warden of the high cost to taxpayers (at least $214 million) of wrongful convictions in Illinois. Months in the making, it was published in June.

"I kept hearing from people that the gotcha stories on misconduct of this type or that type were fun," Shaw says. "But they weren't going to really give us better government. The message I heard from funders and others was that you've got to go deep. You've got to go into systemic problems, and the investigation has to be connected to advocacy."

All journalists with online responsibilities are familiar with the following multiple choice test:

Your news shop offers (A) a website, and (B) "serious journalism." Assuming a staff half the size it should be:

*1
(A) The dog wags the tail.
(B) The tail wags the dog.
(C) Even the dog has no idea which is which.

*2
(A) Any journalist working on the first should be doing the second.
(B) Any journalist working on the second should be doing the first.
(C) Both the above are true.

* 3
(A) Neither pays for itself.
(B) Neither will ever pay for itself.
(C) But you never know.

Publications like the Reader that depend on ad revenues the print edition alone cannot sustain see no choice but to maintain websites that repay repeated visits with fresh material. "Nonprofits don't have the same level of burden or expectation," says Kevin Davis, who's executive director of the Investigative News Network, a consortium of more than 50 "nonprofit newsrooms" focused on investigative and public interest journalism.

But that said, "a lot of our thinking is driven by commercial thinking. Our purpose is to educate the public, but it's also to diversify funding. We're all working substantially on foundation money, and foundations are pushing grantees to think in more commercial terms. Foundations are not in a position to give grants on an ongoing basis. They want these news organizations to be thinking about measuring traffic and about the vibrancy of their sites. They want them to develop revenue streams—advertising, syndication, corporate underwriting, user support."

For instance, Voice of San Diego, a member of Davis's consortium, has five important revenue streams: local and national foundations; a few major donors; memberships; corporate sponsorships; and the syndication of some of its content. Ad revenue is negligible.

"It doesn't hurt for all our members to be thinking of things as a business," says Davis. "I don't know of any business model where you can produce content on an intermittent basis and still have some kind of sustainable revenue. That's why many of our members still grapple with the subject of how to keep their sites vibrant between large projects."

But keeping a site vibrant while doing the Lord's work calls to mind a skeleton staff that simultaneously publishes the Atlantic and runs a UPI bureau. Either assignment is noble; together they're ridiculous. And human nature being what it is, the transient demands of today are always more insistent than the monumental tasks of tomorrow. Today is louder and pushier, and knows how to say thanks.

"It's addictive," says ProPublica's Stephen Engelberg. "You put a story up and thousands of people read it. 'Somebody loves us! Thousands of people love us!'"

A national nonprofit newsroom launched in 2008, ProPublica calls itself the "best-led and best-funded investigative journalism operation in the United States" and has two Pulitzer Prizes over the past two years backing up its claim. Engelberg is the managing editor. If any new media news site has earned the right to think only big thoughts and not get swept up in ephemera, it's ProPublica. But that's not Engelberg's reality.

"If websites have to be updated all the time to drive traffic, how do you get the time to think about in-depth things?" he muses. "There's clearly a conflict between new forms of communication." His reporters are allowed to spend days or weeks on stories, but he feels pressure on him to do a one-month story in three weeks, "maybe two." It's less the pressure of bean counters demanding results than it is a kind of social pressure, the result of hanging around with a website and its predilection for immediate satisfactions.

"When I think about investigations that are successful," Engelberg tells me, "in many if not most of the cases we could plausibly have pulled the plug and not gotten the real fascinating stuff. That decision on how far to keep going is probably the single most important decision reporters and editors can make, and today the pressure is greater than it's ever been to cut things off. The Web gives a sense of urgency."

Publish now and you might miss the good stuff. Hold off, and you might waste a lot more time and money. "The risk-reward basis has shifted decisively in the direction of publication," Engelberg says. "Not all of this is bad. There's a new form of investigation in this era—where you continually update, build a community." He prefers the encompassing story with no loose ends, but concedes that "sometimes you can be more efficient and effective spitting things out."

What about the funders? I asked him. Do they ever suggest he'd better get a move on—that ProPublica hasn't broken a big one in a month? "No one's ever done that," Engelberg said. But if one of them did, "my sense of it is that if we were to come back [at them] and say 'Look at our traffic!' nobody who's a funder at ProPublica would be terribly impressed." 

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