Sunday, September 27, 2009

Spot.Us: The future of investigative journalism?

A creative, trendy experiment in citizen journalism called Spot.Us grabbed headlines last week. The latest buzz came from the Knight Foundation's decision to lavish $340,000 on the Bay-area start-up to help it expand to L. A. in partnership with USC-Annenberg's School of Journalism.
The way Spot.Us works is that anyone can pitch an idea for an investigative story on the website and seek donations. When enough pledges come in (the site averages $40 per donation) the project is a go. Stories can be sold to mainstream media or run on the website. has produced some lively coverage of flaws in police oversight, recycling and city budget problems. 
Lord knows we need new ideas in journalism these days. Anything is worth a try, including crowd-funded stories. But the truth is that this model isn't the magic cure for what ails us. The numbers just don't add up. raised just $40,000 from 800 people in its first 10 months of operation, enough money to pay for 30 stories, according to its website.
Thirty stories? That works out to be $1333 per project. And that equals a) slave labor or b) an investigation at warp speed.
When I worked as an investigative reporter at the Seattle P-I, we shelled out $1333-plus just to get key state documents copied. Or to do our own testing of tainted products. Or to hire sign language interpreters to help interview rape victims. Or to pay an attorney to review a story so we didn't get sued.
In the end, my newspaper went under because the advertising (read: money) that subsidized great journalism vanished -- not because we ran out of ideas. Sustainable investigative journalism is expensive.
So the next time an academic or Web guru touts Spot.Us as the future of investigative journalism, I hope someone will remind them: The emperor has no clothes -- and certainly won't be able to afford any in the near future.
(Photo: by stringer_bel/Flickr)

Saturday, September 19, 2009

The Sentence No One Deserves

The women were reluctant to talk when I finally tracked them down. Most just wanted to forget what had happened at SeaTac federal detention center. A few decided that speaking up was worth the risk.
 "I went through so much suffering, so much humiliation," one young woman from a Mexican border town told me in an interview for a Seattle P-I investigative story. She was just 19 when the guard sexually assaulted her.  "They have the power to do anything to us."
The guards who I wrote about preyed on those who were most vulnerable: younger, illegal immigrants and non-U.S. citizens facing deportation. Those who had no hope of fighting back.
They knew what everyone on the inside knows: that when it's prisoner vs. guard, the guard always wins. That less than 10 percent of sexual abuse complaints ever get prosecuted.
Three months ago, a federal panel that spent six years investigating sexual assault in our nation's federal, state and county lock-ups released a report about just how widespread this problem is. They toured the country and listened to story after story. Their report called for better oversight and lots of changes, from more careful screening of guards to reforming the law to give victims more legal options.
I wanted to call up every woman who poured her heart out to me two years ago and tell them the news. I wanted to write about it. But by then my newspaper had been closed and I was too busy looking for work. I promised myself I'd come back to the story when my life settled down.
Attorney General Eric Holder has a year to decide whether to turn the panel's recommendations into regulations that prisons and jails will have to follow -- or risk losing federal funding. Justice demands no less.
(Photo: by erokCom)

Friday, September 4, 2009

Full Moon

There's a lovely spot I like to walk my dog, a strip of green perched on cliffs overlooking the majesty of Puget Sound. Rain or shine, the sprawling vista of light playing on ocean never fails to inspire.
 But this summer, something is missing: I have yet to hear the delightful songs of the seals who used to hang out on rocks offshore and yelp like coyotes at a full moon. Have they moved on? Or is it a temporary hiatus?
As I meandered home tonight in the brilliant moonlight, I couldn't help but think about other voices that have gone silent in recent months. Although it's been almost six months, I still miss the Seattle P-I and the talented bunch of colleagues who made it special. The P-I's globe keeps turning but its heart is gone.
Many of the P-I's best reporters are now working for nothing, launching their own blogs, like Andy Schneider's Cold Truth, and Rebekah Denn's Eat All About It, or collaborating on nonprofit journalism websites like PostGlobe and InvestigateWest. These are noble causes deserving of our support. But they don't put food on the table yet.
I have had to take a different path, sizing up my skills and seeking work outside of journalism for the first time in 20 years. It's been a roller coaster few months. And I am grateful that my search has ended for now.
On Tuesday, I start a full-time job as communications manager for an environmental project protecting the Arctic Ocean in Canada and the U.S. It is very different work. Instead of digging for the truth and putting stories on the front page, I am helping an organization advocate for policies that will ease the toll that climate change and industrialization are taking on the people and whales and walrus who populate the north.
A bittersweet time. Have I moved on? Or is it a temporary hiatus?
(Photo: by Eggybird)