Investigative journalists are finding innovative ways to expose secrets and lies

Most of the fourth estate lacks the time and money needed to prise open the secret doors that the powerful keep locked.

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Every journalist I know loves the film Spotlight. It portrays us the way we wish we were – but fewer and fewer of us actually are.

There's a scene near the beginning of the film when Walter "Robby" Robinson, the editor of the Boston Globe's investigative team – called Spotlight, hence the title – sits down with the paper's new editor-in-chief, a blow-in from Miami called Marty Baron.

Baron asks Robinson about Spotlight's strike rate. How many are in the team? What are they working on? When will they publish their next story?

There are four of us, replies Robinson. We're searching for a good topic right now: that might take a month or two. Once we've settled on a story, it will probably take several more months before we're ready to publish.

Baron blinks slowly. Most print journalists around the world would be sucking in their breath. "A team of four?" you can almost hear them muttering in disbelief. "Several months between stories? Gee, I'm expected to produce four stories every single day."

For the next two hours the film shows, in gritty and unglamorous detail, just why it takes months of arduous work for reporters to nail down a big investigation – especially when they're trying to expose secrets and lies that are guarded by an institution as powerful and well-protected as the Catholic Church in Massachusetts.


In more than 600 stories, beginning in January 2002, the Spotlight team revealed the extent of priestly paedophilia in the Boston archdiocese, and the lengths to which the church had gone to cover it up. The stories forced the resignation of America's most senior cardinal, and opened up a taboo subject to examination, first across America, and then across the world. In a very real sense, our own royal commission's origins can be traced back those revelations in the Boston Globe 14 years ago.

As Marty Baron tells his reporters at the end of the film, "This is what I'm in journalism to do". And journalism students across Australia will be breathing, "Me too!"

But how realistic is their hope? Can the fourth estate, battling ever-declining advertising revenue and ever-shrinking newsrooms, still do that kind of painstaking, time-consuming work?

Well, yes, sometimes. Among the immediate triggers for the Australian royal commission into child abuse were the revelations about paedophile priests in the Hunter Valley by Joanne McCarthy of the Newcastle Herald, for which she won the Gold Walkley award in 2013; and in Victoria by (among others) The Age's investigative team.

But since then, the Newcastle Herald's newsroom has been decimated: from more than 100 journalists a few years ago to fewer than 30 now. The ABC's Media Watch reported last August that Herald reporters will be expected to produce six stories a day, plus photographs and headlines. And yet, Fairfax Media told the program, "we expect and are absolutely confident that our staff in Newcastle will continue to produce award-winning journalism".

That sounds to me like pharaoh ordering the Hebrews to make bricks without straw: but the tally of bricks shall be the same as before.

At least, at The Age, Nick McKenzie, Richard Baker and the rest of its investigative team are still churning out stories, and winning Walkleys. It's the closest thing to the Globe's Spotlight team left in the Australian print media.

In television and radio, only the ABC still invests in genuine investigation.

For newspapers, it's not just the cost that poses a problem: it's readers' decreasing willingness to plough through thousands of words of detail. Online attention spans are short; competition for eyeballs intense.

That's perhaps why Fairfax Media, and even, on one occasion, News Corp's The Australian, have taken to sharing their research with the ABC's Four Corners and 7.30. Fairfax business reporter Adele Ferguson had been investigating, and publishing stories about, the greed and negligence of the Commonwealth Bank's financial planners for years before she retold the story on Four Corners. But it was that television program that won her the Gold Walkley award.

Last year, Ferguson brought the 7/11 staffing scandal to Four Corners. Nick McKenzie has reported for ABC programs several times – most recently, with a two-part expose on Four Corners of the Calabrian mafia in Australia.

Television, with its more powerful emotional punch, can achieve a cut-through that newspapers struggle, these days, to achieve. And newspaper reporters can bring to Four Corners stories that, with its eight-week turnaround from idea to transmission, it would struggle to crack open on its own.

When I was the executive producer of Four Corners 30 years ago, such co-operation with rival media outlets would have been unthinkable. Now even the mighty BBC finds itself partnering that upstart Buzzfeed.

For readers and viewers, this new co-operative era surely has its benefits. But it smacks of a certain desperation.

As newsrooms become thinner, the ability of papers like The Age to cover their communities with the depth and thoroughness of former times has gone; and whatever they may publicly avow, they know it.

One tactic to disguise that brutal truth: invest precious dollars to produce the occasional investigative triumph. It may not pull in more readers directly, but in reputational terms it's invaluable. And to ensure that Fairfax's reputation is burnished across the nation, it's worth sharing the glory with the national broadcaster.

But let's be grateful, rather than cynical. The fact is, fewer and fewer investigative teams are given the time, and fewer of their publishers have the courage and the deep pockets, to prise open the secret doors that the powerful keep locked.

If those that remain share their efforts with their rivals, because they cannot any longer shine the spotlight on their own, so be it. Somehow, we need them to keep it shining.

Jonathan Holmes is a Fairfax columnist and a former presenter of the ABC's Media Watch program.