Google and the News, Part 2,389: The Company Is Co-Hosting a Conference on Investigative Reporting and Tech


An investigative reporter might spend weeks (or months, or years) working on a single story, guided by her sense that the facts she's uncovering will expose injustice and illuminate wrongs and otherwise make the world a better place. Whether her work has impact, though -- whether it actually, finally succeeds in its goal of world-bettering  -- is a question that's to some extent out of her control. The work of investigative journalists, the contemporary counterparts of Woodward and Bernstein, struggles for attention -- against slideshows, against infographics, against Kim Kardashian -- in a Web-ified marketplace that teems with with competition. When you're a lengthy story about systemic corruption, you may well be incredibly important; you may not, however, be incredibly interesting.

Enter the Center for Investigative Reporting. And then: Enter Google. The two -- the former, the U.S.'s oldest investigative reporting nonprofit, and the latter, well, Google -- are teaming up with the Public Insight Network to host a new conference: TechRaking 2012, a summit that will be held at Google's Mountain View campus on April 12.

"This one-day gathering will bring together technologists and muckrakers to form a more perfect union," the summit's invitation declares.

Tackling topics of storytelling, engagement and sustainability, a diverse group of individuals and organizations from the Bay Area and across the country will share their collective knowledge, skills, and insights to invigorate a clearer vision of the intersections around journalism and technology.

What that translates to, says Robert Rosenthal, CIR's executive director, is an event that will explore the question of impact -- a paramount concern in a field that relies on public buy-in to achieve its ends -- within the context of technology. How, basically, can technology aid the cause of investigative reporting? And what might technology, on the other hand, learn from the principles and practices of public-interest journalism? CIR has been asking these questions on its own -- the California-based outlet just won a $1 million grant from the MacArthur Foundation for being a "creative and effective institution," the organizational equivalent of a genius -- and Rosenthal is hoping that, by way of a conference, CIR can both explore new strategies and share the wisdom it's already gleaned with fellow modern-day muckrakers.

Google, from its apart-from-and-yet-pervasive-in perspective on journalism, is hoping for a similar outcome. As James Fallows has reported, the company's relationship with the news industry has been by turns fraught and friendly, and, either way, about much more than Google News. The ire that many news executives have directed at the company ("digital vampire," "newspaper murderer," etc.) has been fading, of late, into something that more closely resembles grudging (and occasionally enthusiastic) acceptance. We're in this together, regardless. And Google -- though it will insist that it is, itself, not a media company -- has been building opportunities for more direct collaboration with journalists. Though the firm's infrastructure-and-narrative-oriented experiments like Fast Flip and Living Stories have ended, they live on in the broad form of ongoing strategic relationships between Google and individual newsrooms.

They also live on in the form of conferences like TechRaking. The April event won't be Google's first foray into the world of the journalism confab: For the past two years, the company has co-sponsored News Foo, the journalism-focused incarnation of the "Friends of O'Reilly" conference, along with O'Reilly Media and the Knight Foundation. News Foo, like an increasing number of ideas-based gatherings, takes the "unconference" approach to conferencing: It's premised on the idea that simply putting the right mix of people in a room together, with very little structure but a lot of opportunity for organic interaction, can be an effective way to share, and grow, knowledge. (The past year's News Foo included an impromptu session concerning "reporting the end of the world," a surprisingly revealing discussion about disaster coverage led by Twitter's Andrew Fitzgerald.)

TechRaking isn't just a niche-ier incarnation of News Foo; it's also a direct descendant of the conference. The idea for a tech-meets-investigative-journalism summit first took shape, CIR's Rosenthal told me, with a short presentation he gave to the News Foo crowd in December of 2010 (here's a version of it), which explored the life that public-interest investigations take in the world beyond the newsroom. How do you ensure that important stories a). get heard, and b). make change? In the audience for that talk was Sean Carlson, currently Google's manager of global communications and public affairs, and its ideas resonated -- to the extent that, during last year's News Foo, Carlson and Rosenthal followed up on them in a lunch conversation. The idea for another conference -- one dedicated to exploring tech as a function of public-interest reporting, and vice versa -- sprang, quickly, from that conversation, and grew to include American Public Media's Public Insight Network, which works closely with CIR and which has a special expertise in database reporting.

Though TechRaking's programming has yet to be determined -- and it might well be unconference-like, with ad-hoc events that are decided only during the conference itself -- it will likely focus, says APM's David Cohn, on the narrative possibilities of investigative reporting. This won't, in other words, be yet another conference about journalism's business models. What it will be, its planners say, is an exercise in collaboration, across fields that have traditionally been kept separate. TechRaking's guiding idea, says Google's Carlson, will be reciprocity -- of knowledge, of strategies, and of a recognition that the future, whatever it brings, will be shared.

Image: Scott Beale / Laughing Squid.

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic.

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