The Intercept – a rallying call for journalists

In Blog, Journalism, Technology by jennisheppard0 Comments

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When journalist Glenn Greenwald’s first story based on Edward Snowden’s leaked NSA files was published in the Guardian last June, revealing the daily collection of millions of Verizon customers’ phone records without their knowledge, I was quick to point out in my newsroom that this could be a pretty huge story.

The networks failed to pick up on the gravity of the situation immediately, but as the Guardian continued to publish more and more of Snowden’s documents, the daily bombardment hitting the U.S. and its national security agency could no longer be ignored by mainstream media or governments around the world.

Now Greenwald, together with documentary filmmaker Laura Poitras and fellow investigative reporter Jeremy Scahill, has launched The Intercept – a news website dedicated to providing “a platform to report on the documents previously provided by Snowden” and producing “fearless, adversarial journalism across a wide range of issues.”

The Intercept is being backed by First Look Media, a brand new news organization created by Pierre Omidyar, founder and chairman of eBay. “How does a company support itself given such ambition?” he asks in the launch video featured on the company site. “We’re figuring that out. We’ll experiment with new and old revenue sources and create entirely new ones.” For the moment, he has reportedly provided $250 million of his own money to the project.

Clearly Omidyar is a fan of “fearless, adversarial journalism” – and that is what really strikes me too. According to First Look Media, journalists will be encouraged to “publish stories without regard to whom they might anger or alienate. We believe the prime value of journalism is its power to impose transparency, and thus accountability, on the most powerful governmental and corporate bodies, and our journalists will be provided the full resources and support required to do this.”

How many organizations can say that? Even the BBC, renowned for its unbiased approach, struggles to provide journalists with the resources they need in the face of a Conservative government pulling the purse strings tighter and tighter.

And as for the rest of mainstream media – on TV, radio or online – the large majority are beholden to advertisers, most of whom aren’t interested in investigative journalism, which is not viewed as profitable and often criticizes them or the governments to which they incessantly lobby.

TV news reports must fit into programming schedules broken up constantly by adverts. News packages are usually no more than three minutes long and are often produced in less than a day, limiting the detail that can be provided and making thorough research almost an impossibility.

The_Intercept

The creators and editors of The Intercept © 2014 First Look Productions, Inc.

Online outlets are largely no better and are increasingly forced to focus on “clickbait” stories about cats and Miley Cyrus, rather than long, investigative pieces, which keep readers on one specific page instead of flicking through a myriad of stories – and adverts. In teams that are often understaffed, such stories are quick to produce but offer the reader no real information on the news affecting them.

Radio, or more specifically podcasts, do offer some hope. I listen addictively to Democracy Now!, This American Life, Planet Money and Common Sense, all of which offer detailed, properly researched and completely independent coverage of global issues and political news stories.

(While all four podcasts are funded by listener donations, This American Life and Common Sense also accept sponsorship from corporate entities. However, sponsor mentions are short, never interrupt the podcast itself and sponsor companies do not escape criticism if a news story calls for it. I never, ever feel that these podcasts are beholden to them.)

Nevertheless, everywhere investigative units are underfunded and understaffed, if they even exist. The Guardian seems like a huge exception, until you learn it is wholly owned by a limited company, the Scott Trust Limited, formerly a charitable foundation, specifically created to safeguard the newspaper’s investigative independence.

It often appears to be the sole harbinger of investigative journalism amongst the British press, but it has been making a loss for years and can only afford to avoid pressure from advertisers through subsidies from other publications in the Guardian Media Group.

I could go on, but former director of BBC News, Richard Sambrook, and its ex-head of strategy, Sean McGuire, do a far better job of discussing the problems facing traditional forms of journalism here: Have 24-hour TV news channels had their day?

What I can say is this: I’ve watched the wish fulfilment of Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, which gave us journalists the chance to see how we should have, could have, reported the important stories of recent years, if only we’d had the benefit of hindsight, a boss with no other agenda than the truth and seemingly unlimited resources.

And more recently, I’ve been inspired by Kate Mara’s fantastic performance in House of Cards, as fledging journalist Zoe Barnes, a flawed idealist seeking the truth and abandoning traditional forms of journalism in favour of Slugline, a fictional, stripped down website aiming to offer big, breaking news fast – that mainstream media is too slow or blinkered to see.

Now The Intercept is finally here for real, perhaps life really will imitate art – and give us the investigative, thorough, unbiased journalism we need. I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Make up your own mind about The Intercept at theintercept.org, and get the latest updates on Twitter @the_intercept.

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