Monday, December 14, 2009

Investigative Journalism Version 2.0

Peter Orszag, director of the Office of Management and Budget, did his part for the future of journalism last week. Is this an unlikely advocate for the free press? You bet. But many reporters are too busy being their own writers, copyeditors and photographers to do much investigative journalism anymore. Last week, Orszag made this kind of reporting possible again.

Orszag’s “Open Government Directive” will create a host of new tools that make government the public’s business and give time-strapped reporters fewer excuses for not having the facts at their fingertips. The recondite ways of “computer assisted reporting” are going away. Reporting on government activities, even those some agencies would rather avoid seeing covered, will become easier than ever.

Orszag issued a directive to federal agencies that is designed to add teeth to the Presidential “transparency memo” issued on President Obama’s first day in office. The OMB’s directive provides guidance to all federal agencies on how to become more open, participatory and collaborative. It itemizes tasks and deadlines. More significantly, it requires that information be distributed in downloadable files that can be retrieved, indexed and searched by web search applications like the one you’re using to read this post.

Public records have long been tools of the journalism trade. Soon, news organizations will have much easier access – as will their readers – and we’ll come to expect new, more detailed reporting and coverage. Consider how corruption was routed out of mayor’s office in Detroit by the Detroit Free Press. The newspaper’s investigations of public records disgraced former mayor Kwame Kilpatrick for his deception and led to jail terms for two officials. The paper’s dogged reporting won a Pulitzer Prize. It also required a vast amount of paperwork, lawyers, court appeals and a whole lot of waiting that could be eliminated with the OMB’s new directive.

The Open Government Directive may reinvigorate news organizations’ commitment to their 4th estate responsibilities. Maybe that will help keep journalism, as we have known it, alive.

– Potomac Communications Group

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