It’s no secret that while the economics of journalism have been rough over the last decade, investigative journalism has especially struggled. Rounds of layoffs at traditional newsrooms have left stretched staffs with fewer resources for special watchdog projects. Digital media startups and nonprofits are now doing more investigations, but many are still small and finding their way.
Greenpeace activists see this as a chance to boost the group’s watchdog power. The group’s U.K. chapter has recently taken the unusual step of starting its own investigative journalism bureau, hiring several veterans to do in-house reporting on topics ranging from illegal logging to climate change.
“It was very clear to us that the traditional houses for investigative journalism were coming under increasing pressure and hemorrhaging a lot of their talent,” says the environmental group’s investigations director, Jim Footner. “We felt there is an opportunity for Greenpeace to step in on some of that space.”
Investigations aren’t new to the NGO or activism world. Greenpeace has been doing them for decades. But up until now, its researchers would mostly focus on digging up documents and information that would inform existing Greenpeace U.K. campaigns against, say, illegal logging by palm oil companies in Southeast Asia. The outside audience was secondary.
The new team, which includes former reporters for the BBC and New York Times, will apply editorial judgment, evaluating what stories to tell and building storytelling that would meet standards of major media outlets. The unit also look to use technology, such as drones or satellite images, and rely on Greenpeace’s network of expertise on the ground in 40 countries around the world in its reporting.
“We used to look at establishing the facts about a particular issue and then only looking at whether anyone will be interested in it,” says Footner. “With this, it’s our aim to create investigations that are newsworthy.” He says sometimes the team might publish independently, and in other cases, it might look to partner with media outlets.
The team represents a relatively new model for watchdog and activist groups. For Greenpeace U.K., it will be a significant investment and experiment. Footner, who previously led campaigns at the chapter, is the only non-journalist on the staff. He says the group’s track record of confrontational campaigning matches particularly well with the courage required of of investigative journalists. He’ll act a bit like a publisher.
“I suspect others will watch and see what we do,” he says. “It might take awhile for news to flow. [With investigative work], you never know what you’re going to get.”