By ROBERT LIWANAG
Financial constraints mean that cost is increasingly influencing whether journalists working in investigative television take on stories, Gillian Findlay, co-host of CBC’s the fifth estate, said during a recent panel discussion at the Ryerson University School of Journalism.
“I’d be lying if I said (money) wasn’t part of the calculation,” Findlay said during the panel on the future of investigative television reporting. “But it has forced us and encouraged us to go out and find other ways of finding some stories.”
For the fifth estate, this means co-producing certain episodes with other investigative shows. For instance, the 2011 episode “True Confession,” which questioned the unreliability of confessions that led to the triple-murder convictions of Canadian citizens Glen Sebastian Burns and Atif Ahmad Rafay, was co-produced with the CBS show 48 Hours.
To combat the lack of resources, television programs such as Frontline and news organizations such as VICE Canada will also often publish short video pieces on their websites to test audience reaction and see whether the stories should be expanded into longer investigative documentaries.
“It’s interesting about working in the digital arena because you can measure those audiences very accurately, and if you aren’t getting the audience hits, then there’s a tendency to say, ‘Well, maybe this isn’t the story we should do,” said panelist David Fanning, executive producer of PBS’s Frontline. “It may be boring, but it may be important.”
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, Frontline decided to publish what Fanning described as “streams of reporting” on its website instead of immediately creating a lengthy investigative piece. Fanning and his colleagues were later able to decide which of the stories Frontline should turn into a documentary. The result was “Law and Disorder,” which examined New Orleans police shootings in the aftermath of Katrina.
The panel discussion took place against the backdrop of ongoing concerns about the impact on journalism of the news industry’s financial problems. A study conducted last December by the Pew Research Center, in collaboration with Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism, found that “decreasing resources in newsrooms” was the main concern of American journalists. The study, entitled “Investigative Journalists and Digital Security,” surveyed 671 members of Investigative Reporters and Editors, a grassroots non-profit organization, and found that 88 per cent were more worried about cutbacks than electronic surveillance, hacking or legal action against journalists.
Closer to home, the CBC announced last April that it would cut $130 million from its yearly budget, effectively wiping out 657 full-time jobs – English Services and news were the most affected departments. By March, the CBC anticipates that it will cut a further 400 full-time jobs.
While the public broadcaster grapples with its financial woes, VICE Media recently signed a $100 million deal with Rogers Communications to develop brand new Canadian content. The deal includes a production studio and 24-hour television channel primarily aimed at the 18 to 34-year-old demographic. VICE Media and Rogers plan to launch the channel, VICE TV Network, in October, and will distribute it throughout Canada.
“Our whole idea of the way that we move into the future is making great content and figuring out what screen to put it onto,” said panelist Patrick McGuire, head of content at VICE Canada. “A lot of the content we’re making for the web, I think, is TV-quality…so it’s not as if we’re necessarily redefining any type of storytelling formula.”
The Feb. 10 panel – entitled “What’s the future of investigative TV?” – was co-sponsored by Ryerson University and CBC’s the fifth estate. It was the fifth event in the Ryerson Faculty of Communication and Design’s Distinguished Visiting Professor Speaker Series, organized by adjunct journalism professor James Turk. About 90 people attended the panel discussion, moderated by Anna Maria Tremonti, host of The Current on CBC Radio One.
Fanning noted that the business model that VICE is pursuing is admirable because in an age where many investigative television shows are attempting to adapt to the digital landscape by publishing short videos and documentaries online, VICE Media has decided to go the other way.
Frontline, under Fanning’s direction, developed one of the first deep content websites by publishing documentaries, interviews and additional editorial materials on the Internet, and continues to search for new methods of distribution.
While the financial and political side of investigative journalism is trickier than it has ever been before, Fanning noted that reporting has been made easier by technological advances such as the creation of lighter weight digital cameras.
“When people tell you the business model is broken and there’s no future in journalism, then maybe our generation has run out of ideas,” Tremonti said, addressing Ryerson journalism students in the audience. “So, your generation will find a new business model. That’s part of your challenge because the quest for truth, the search for accountability, the telling of stories – that’s age old.”