2019-08-29

BRUSSELS - Journalismfund.eu’s Ides Debruyne on ‘impactful’ journalism, the inevitability of grassroots and why investigative journalism is booming.

Journalismfund.eu established in 1998 has been stimulating independent, in-depth journalism since 1999, first only in Flanders but increasingly also in Europe and around the globe. Managing director Ides Debruyne has been involved from day one. How has he experienced the changing media landscape and the position of in-depth journalism in it?
 

Ides, first things first: is investigative journalism in Europe under threat?

If you look at the media landscape in North-Western Europe, the countries with an Anglo-Saxon-style tradition of investigative journalism, the straightforward answer would be yes. Traditional business models are under pressure, budgets for thorough, in-depth journalism get cut. But if you look at Europe as a whole, there is no reason for pessimism. On the contrary: investigative journalism is booming! Take countries like Belgium, France, the Southern European countries and especially former Soviet satellite states. These are places where the Anglo-Saxon model of hard-hitting, critical independent journalism against people in power barely existed. But that is changing now, and changing rapidly. Even though journalists in some of those countries still do not work in the most forgiving conditions, outlets tackling corruption and crime have been set up and new journalistic networks are sprouting up regularly. Any instance of investigative journalism taking root where there was none before is a big step forward.

How did that happen?

It is due to several developments. For example, charity has changed. Foundations are increasingly convinced of the notion that information is crucial in generating change. Even the EU is starting to realise that it might want to support investigative journalism. This means that finding additional money for investigative journalism now is comparatively easier than it was before. Add to that the rise of inspiring examples in the past decade — think for example Mediapart, OCCRP or Átlátszó.hu —and you see why investigative journalism is gaining ground.

Publishing, too, has become easier. Online publishing can be cheap and efficient: blogs, a website, social media. Technological progress has given journalists the possibility to reach audiences on their own. And that’s not all technology has changed. A large part of information is now produced digitally. Government reports, companies’ financial statements, archives… Almost everything is digitalised. That has as a consequence that it is massively easier to search and leak the gold mines of information that these files are than it was at the time of, say, the Pentagon Papers. By scraping websites or documents journalists can even generate datasets, or they can compile their own using Excel or other database tools. Digitalisation and technology have changed investigative journalism completely.

“A healthy democracy needs a diverse media landscape, and one of the only ways to make different voices be heard is by supporting individual journalists.”
 

There is a growing movement in investigative journalism towards the international or transnational level. How much of that move is due to technological progress?

Technology has definitely sped up that development. Journalists on opposite sides of the globe can now simultaneously work on the same document, they can talk over the Internet every minute of every day if they want to, they can even meet face-to-face relatively fast if needs be. All thanks to technological progress. But the main reason why investigative journalism is increasingly turning its focus to the transnational level is simply because there is a growing need for transnational stories. The power structures in society have shifted. Power has partly moved down to a local or regional level, but mostly up to an international level. The most important decisions are taken internationally, top-level talks happen across borders. Issues like diplomacy, politics, military strategy, science, the economy, tax evasion, migration and ecological challenges are increasingly looked at and tackled globally.

One of the main tasks of journalism is to look over the shoulders of decision-makers to keep them in check. The traditional media are no longer doing that adequately — if they have ever done it at all. They haven’t been able to follow the power shift because they are confined by the commercial reality they operate in. The bulk of the stories they bring are still mainly focused on the political region their product is sold in, not on the transnational level where the crucial decisions are taken. This sounds bleak, but at the same time, it creates huge opportunities for journalists. It is very promising to see journalists seizing that opportunity and creating collaborations and networks across borders to tell these vital transnational stories. The EIC.network – a group of freelance investigative reporters in collaboration with traditional media outlets, is a good example.

Is that the reason why Journalismfund.eu chooses to support individual journalists or grassroots networks as opposed to media outlets or publication platforms?

It’s one of the reasons. Investigative networks of freelance journalists differ from traditional media in that investigative journalism is their core business. They give themselves the time to flesh out a subject to the bone, often focused on those big, international power structures and stories. But they don’t stop there. They also think about outreach and impact. How do we market this story? How do we get it out to the widest possible audience? They even test business models: sell the story, sell or provide data or services, crowdfunding, foundation-funded investigations… Sometimes such networks grow out to become more than just ad-hoc collaborations. Investigate Europe, for example, a collaborative network that was set up and has matured in Journalismfund.eu’s incubator programme is now set to become a legal entity. A myriad of publication possibilities and collaborative partnerships is coming our way. You ain’t seen nothing yet!

“The day we undermine a journalist’s credibility by giving him a grant is the day we need to seriously question our existence.”
 

And other reasons?

It is my firm belief that when it comes to investigative journalism, change can only happen from the bottom up. First, there is the problem of media ownership that several countries face, where it is not always clear who owns certain media conglomerates or news publications. What you see is that oftentimes these media turn out to be owned by people in power, people who should, in fact, be the subject of investigation. If you want to be sure those people are kept in check, my advice would be to put your money on individual journalists or independent networks rather than on large media corporations. Secondly, even in countries where ownership itself is not a problem, there is still a growing trend towards media concentration and commercialisation. Any healthy democracy needs a diverse media landscape, and one of the only ways to make different voices be heard is by supporting individual journalists. Of course, many countries have public broadcasters that complement the commercial media, but even they aren’t completely free from pressure, especially political pressure. It is not always easy to bite the hand that feeds you… Supporting even just a few independent voices can greatly benefit the diversity of the media landscape in any country.

Isn’t it naive to believe in complete journalistic independence? Surely even foundation-supported journalism has its pressures: it tends to be publication-oriented and is overly focused on generating impact.

It’s true that some foundations that support us ask us for impact reports. But when talking of impact, most people tend to think in terms of publications and how they shaped public opinion or changed legislation. Yes, the grants we give sometimes lead to publications that influence policy, and that’s great, but impact is so much more than that. Our grants, for example, allow journalists to gain valuable experience. They help generate collaborative networks between journalists that subsist beyond the granted projects and that society will continue to benefit from. Those developments might be less visible, but they are at least as important for democratic progress.

As for pressure: I can only speak for Journalismfund.eu, but we have never been pressurised in terms of agenda-setting. The subjects of the investigations for which journalists apply for grants always come from the journalists themselves. In the twenty years that we have been active, no-one has ever come into trouble because of our support. The day we undermine a journalist’s credibility by giving him a grant is the day we need to seriously question our existence.

“We are not an organisation ‘by and for journalists’. We were set up by citizens and we are here for the citizens, to better inform the public, to strengthen democracy.”
 

How closely should journalism and activism be related?

Talking about journalism and activism in the same terms can be risky. Having said that, I do believe that journalism must always take upon itself the defence of democracy. It is the fourth estate, it keeps the legislative, executive and judiciary powers in check by informing the public. I’m not saying that journalists should be the ones to take to the streets, but if they feel that democracy is being threatened, by whatever force, they should act. So there might be a parallel there: both journalism and activism aim for change. Still, we shouldn’t mix the two too much. Journalists should always set out with an open mind, free from any kind of bias. That is where they differ from activists.

Journalismfund.eu increasingly operates transnationally, also in Africa and Asia. How do we in “the West” make sure not to simply transpose European notions of what good journalism should be or what a democracy should look like to those other regions?

First and foremost by stimulating collaborations between European journalists and top-notch colleagues in and from Africa and Asia, instead of sending correspondents like traditional European media do or used to do. There are so many African and Asian journalists now who are tried and tested in the profession. And what is more: they know what it is like to work in an environment that is less journalist-friendly. They have the guts to really challenge regimes. The time when Europe could think that its journalists were by definition more skilled than African or Asian colleagues is definitely over. If you want to stimulate collaborations between journalists from different regions, it is also important to create opportunities for them to find each other and to meet, such as the Global Investigative Journalism Conference or the African Investigative Journalism Conference. We are trying to do our part in that. Our database contains professionals in all those parts of the world, and through our Money Trail programme, we not only offer transnational grants but also opportunities for all the journalists involved to meet and get training.

Where is Journalismfund.eu headed in the next couple of years?

Contrary to what people sometimes think, we are not an organisation ‘by and for journalists’. We were set up by citizens and ultimately, that is what we are here for: for the citizens, to better inform the public, to strengthen democracy. With that in mind, we will continue to stimulate independent journalists and seed-fund collaborative investigative networks. So, first of all, what we will focus on more is the final but crucial step in the journalistic process: bringing stories to the public. We want to better support our grantees when it comes to outreach, actively help them market their stories and find publication platforms. An example of how we are doing that in our Money Trail programme is by involving civil society organisations in collaboration with an NGO — at the moment of publication of course, not before. Secondly, we will continue to invest in our mentoring programme. Young or less experienced journalists should not be intimidated to apply for a grant and take on a transnational investigation. You can count on a mentor to help guide you through. Third, we have always felt very strongly about innovation and that will not change. As said before, investigative journalists can benefit tremendously from data analysis, scraping, visualisations etc.. So we want to keep encouraging journalists to invest in innovative ways to approach their stories. Finally, it is a dream of mine to also let local journalists collaborate on city level. Cities all over Europe struggle with largely the same problems. At the same time, cities are the laboratories where innovative democracy is tested. Wouldn’t it be cool if, say, journalists from Riga, Trikala and Manchester worked together to investigate one of those problems and tell their story translocally?

Author: Raf Njotea

(Photo © Hadeer Mahmoud)

Ides Debruyne, co-founder and Managing Director Journalismfund.eu

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