Investigative Journalism's Impact Could Be Worth the Commitment

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Content Standard published a story earlier this month headlined, "Why Investigative Journalism Should Be Part of Your Content Strategy," by Keith MacKenzie. He argues that the impact of investigative journalism, both on the issue and your bottom line, makes it worth putting in the resources.

We're proud to have nine solid SIPAwards entries for the David Swit Award for Best Investigative Reporting this year—continuing a valued SIPA tradition. In 1990, the award went to the Credit Union Information Service Newsletter, published by UCG—"awarded for their story on the hiring of an ex-felon by the National Credit Union Association." Coincidentally, that was the same year David Swit was named Publisher of the Year.

"It's uncovering what we don't yet know about; but once it's brought to the surface, its impact is powerful," MacKenzie writes. "What's more, the journalist—and the group they're working for—makes a name for themselves with impactful original content that delivers the best of both worlds: a moral obligation met and a surge in the bottom line. That sweet spot is a media company's ultimate fantasy."

Two sessions in SIPA's 2016 Annual Conference—exactly six weeks from today!—will deal with aspects of this: Uncharted Territory - Transforming from Editorial Mastermind to Live Event Guru; and Expert-ease: How to Win Customers & Influence Markets Through SMEs. Both will show new ways to monetize your excellent reporting, thought leadership and editorial experts.

For MacKenzie, it's about standing out. He uses The Boston Globe's Spotlight articles as an example. "After all, stop anyone on the street and ask him: 'Which newspaper was the Spotlight thing about?' Chances are most of them—even those in other countries—will know it was The Boston Globe. That's powerful brand recognition right there."

He also quotes Tim Franklin, head of the National Sports Journalism Center at Indiana University: "In this new media environment, those who win are going to be those who produce high quality, unique, original content..." But the examples MacKenzie cites come from larger entities: Yahoo! Sports, Google, Oprah, Craigslist. All have put money towards investigative journalism.

Can smaller publishers do this? Yes.

"Sometimes you think that you have to do a massive, in-depth, year-long investigation that reveals some amazing finding that gets people fired, or gets companies shut down, or gets people thrown in jail," Marshall Allen, an award-winning writer for ProPublica, told a couple years ago. "Those stories are really few and far between. I think developing an investigative mindset from the start is really the key to developing investigative skills."

Using analytics and data—a topic that will also be explored at SIPA 2016—should even further democratize the ability to write these kinds of pieces. In one sense, the digitalizing of publishing has evened the playing field a bit. We're not limited by an eight-page newsletter anymore.

"Both data and interviews are very important," Allen said. "In any story you want to be able to quantify the problem, which does often involve data analysis and statistics and getting very detailed. If there's no data available then you want to find some way to quantify things but that's just the starting point."

Experts do agree that investigative reporting is a team effort, which limits small publishers. But as Allen said, maybe a scaled-down mindset can solve that. Find one thing askew with one small niche in your industry, and you might have an attention-grabbing story—whether it's mine safety (our 2015 winner), healthcare risk management (2014) or nuclear weapons (2013).

"Nothing is stopping a brand from entering into the investigative journalism world—and in fact, there's hardly a downside to it," MacKenzie writes. "But once you're there, you must be absolutely authentic or your program will fail."

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…