New journalism: The odd or the offbeat is often where the important news is buried these days.

As it happens, I’m on my way to the Reuters Institute at Oxford to join a small round table workshop on the Future of Journalistic Work, with the general idea of helping the Institute to “scope issues related to the shifts emerging in journalistic work and employment”.

And as it also happens, Lyra McKee has blogged this morning on her own crowdsourced attempt to do some depth journalism on the story of the Reverend Robert Bradford in the last few days of his life before he was killed back in 1981.

So far she’s had 68 of the 200 backers she needs to complete the project (there’s no trigger if she cannot reach that magic figure) which comes to a total of $2800.

More interestingly for me she describes why this and other similar projects are important in a journalistic world in which investigative arcs are now more often hours or days rather than weeks old, and where investment and risk have been almost completely ironed out of the system:

One established journalist was concerned that by launching the campaign and going direct to my readers, I was failing to “pay my dues”, skipping the induction process whereby young journalists learn the craft: starting on a weekly newspaper, covering the courts and working their way up the ladder.

It was an interesting point (though not quite accurate; I spent five years learning the trade through prolonged work experience placements and eventually freelance assignments). Still, it intrigued me because the ladder she speaks of is broken.

The belief that you’ll find a job by “paying your dues” is a myth which originated in a pre-Internet world – when it was true. It was a lie I and other young journalists were told as we trundled through months-long work placements without pay, racking up debts we couldn’t afford because we believed a job and stable pay awaited us at the end.

Journalism – or rather, the news organisations that produce it – is in turmoil. Reporters are being laid off every day, budgets are being cut and investigative journalism has all but been driven from the newsroom. The weekly newspapers today’s veteran journalists cut their teeth at are closing down and job opportunities have dried up.

A friend remarked recently how the local crop of adversarial, hungry young journalists are struggling to find work. Every time a job comes up, they’re competing with older, more experienced journalists who are also out of work, meaning they don’t stand a chance. And without budgets to fund investigations, newsrooms are loathe to hire them anyways. ‘Rocking the boat’ costs too much money.

“Rocking the boat”, I suspect, was never that big on the journalist’s agenda, particularly if not exactly to the proprietor’s taste. In any case, rocking it has more often been a case of cumulative work rather than going for it in one steady hit.

Too many journalists still hunt in packs and so end up producing what Hugo Dixon calls ‘Me Too’ journalism. In the close confines of Northern Ireland this can lead to political pressures to conform (by not asking stupid questions) for the sake of our increasingly geriatric Peace Process™.

But the not asking of stupid questions can lead to a collusive stupidity taking hold. We can see this in corporate governance failures the world over. Whistleblowers are hunted to within an inch of their lives (often consuming large amounts of legal resources) for disturbing the comfort of the way things are done.

In the Republic Garda Sergeant Maurice McCabe has just had the first of several whistleblowing reports vindicated by a Garda Inspectorate’s report [kudos to Mick Clifford btw] which suggests there is virtually no policy framework regulating the award of penalty points to drivers. The odd or the offbeat is often where the important news is buried these days.

Scott Page argues that if you curate for differences in how people think within any given group you can consistently outperform homogeneous expertise (f/e see how our understanding of ‘impregnation’ has evolved once women biologists got involved with developing the science).

I don’t know what Lyra’s project will change. But in a world of official process, and bumptious complains about ‘jumping queues’, she’s ‘man’ enough to chart her own course and ask her own set of stupid (ie, unauthorised) questions. And we may be the beneficiaries.

You can pledge your support for Lyra’s project here (and spread the word)! Or if you want to meet for a few early St Paddy’s day pints in Oxford, you can join a few of us at the Eagle and Child this afternoon.

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