Meet ‘Reveal,’ the show that could be ‘60 Minutes’ for our century
What might “60 Minutes” be like if it were launching in 2015?
It might look—or really sound—a lot like "Reveal." You may have bumped into “Reveal,” a first-of-its-kind regular radio investigative-journalism show, on your local public radio station this weekend. The program launched officially on Friday, and each of the 206 public radio stations running it can slot it into its program schedule, where it sees fit. The stations number among some of the largest in the country, including WNYC, KCRW (Los Angeles), WBEZ (Chicago), KQED (San Francisco), and WAMU (Washington D.C.)
Certainly, “Reveal” is a child of its times. Bolt out of the Internet blue, audio’s unexpected renaissance is one to behold. Podcasts, which seemed a vestige of Web 1.0, have been reborn, and with streaming and on-demand listening as easy as, well, watching digital video, sound is all the rage. WNYC’s Radiolab has gone from odd cousin to mainstream to bigger brother to thousands of audio programs in the space of a decade. Now, as the smartphone becomes the transistor radio of our age, we well recognize it as a remarkable platform for everything: music, comedy, news and conversation.
Audio is the media type; what we now love to call it, again, is simply radio.
Against that backdrop, “Reveal” is the first to seize on the platform to deliver old-fashioned, newly-teched-up investigative reporting. It begins monthly, and then is already funded to go weekly in July.
Nationwide, “Reveal” may seem like a new creature, something akin to the flash appearance of “Serial.” In fact, it’s the intriguing next step of one of the few hard-edged journalism companies or organizations that have wholeheartedly welcomed the multiple promises of the digital journalism age, and turned experimentation into a new, evolving model.
The Center for Investigative Reporting, based in Emeryville, Calif., nestled between Oakland and Berkeley, built “Reveal” to take advantage of both the tech and the trends of the day. Smartly, it is also going where the audience is going, as we all look down at our smartphones more often than we should for things to read and listen to. C.I.R.’s own history is evolutionary (here’s a good summary),building on a well-regarded, three-decade-old investigative foundation.
The last six years in C.I.R.’s life, though, have seen its growth spurt. In 2008, Robert Rosenthal left the world of daily journalism, where he served the San Francisco Chronicle as managing editor after 23 years at The Philadelphia Inquirer, the last four of which he was top editor. With his leadership as executive director, C.I.R. has transformed itself into a collaborative, multimedia, investigative organization, winning numerous awards, including an Emmy and a Peabody (for a “Reveal” pilot, aired last year). C.I.R. is part of what’s become a broader-based, better-funded new foundation of top-of-the-profession skilled investigative work, sharing that new world with ProPublica and the Center for Public Integrity, among others.
Now, as you listen in on the first episode (all are online at RevealNews.org), you start the get the sense of what that string of words—regular radio investigative journalism show—means, and what new worlds of doing and presenting serious, eye-opening journalistic work it begins to open up.
The first show’s first segment, “An Absurd Quest for Records,” brings together gumshoe reporting, confrontational interviewing, humanizing subject detail, data and warm hosting, by playwright Al Letson.
In 20 minutes, lead reporter Katharine Mieszkowski, one of 62 journalists on the C.I.R. staff, takes on an everyday subject any parent knows or will remember well: The challenge of finding good, safe day care for her kids. Herself the mother of two young ones, Mieszkowski reveals the absurdity of California’s child-care center laws. A jungle of closed digital data, uneven regulation and little accountability, it is a system that isn’t a system, leaving mothers and fathers in a caveat parentis situation and putting kids at risk. Worth a listen as a parent, a citizen—and a journalist.
Mieszkowski and Jennifer LaFleur, C.I.R.’s senior data editor, bring the story alive. They do it with C.I.R.’s usual intent: to actually use its spotlight to force those in power to do their jobs. In this case, C.I.R. is able to report some movement, both at the agency and legislative level. That’s been a C.I.R. trademark, from stories like its ongoing earthquake-readiness series, “On Shaky Ground,” to its substantial work on returning veterans. In addition, the child-care story offers readers the best current, accessible data nationwide on its website, part of its effort to engage citizens in the democratic life. That, too, is a fundamental belief of this kind of journalism—the audience should be more than just listeners, readers or spectators.
Its first monthly show is a good start, with four segments detailing various scams; its lead segment is the best. This watchdog journalism requires $6 million for a three-year run. Already $3 million of that has been provided, quite generously, by the Reva & David Logan Foundation, a long-time stalwart supporter of investigative work. Over time, C.I.R. will add about eight to 10 positions, more specific to “Reveal,” as it moves toward weekly editions.
At this point, the programming is free to the carrying stations. Down the line, as it picks up audience, C.I.R. would hope to move to a partly media-paid business model, as it has done with digital work.
In and of itself, “Reveal” is simply a good one-hour work of journalism. When it goes weekly and staffs up, its impact could multiply. As importantly, it serves as a model for many journalism companies and journalists still wandering in the digital wilderness. Let’s quickly touch on five reasons why it could act as a wider model:
Radio is real: I’ve heard of the surprising power of radio as a primary news medium in places as diverse as Russia and sub-Saharan Africa. Even more surprising, we’re seeing some of the same phenomenon here in the U.S., as we plumb the possibilities of our new pocket radio. One clear question, which I wrote about last year: How ready are public radio stations to up their journalism game? Even more intriguing, which newspaper-based companies will see the new potential of local news radio?
Partner with those who know what you don’t: PRX is Reveal’s distributor, but it’s also a co-producer. We hear those PRX initials more often, in streaming, podcasts and on-air. Though they may seem like just another part of the public radio alphabet soup of initials, along with APM, NPR, PBS, PRI and CPB, PRX is distinct. Run out of Cambridge, Mass. by C.E.O. Jake Shapiro and Chief Content Officer John Barth, this nonprofit is a prime accelerator of 40-year-old public radio’s movement into the new world. It’s a unusual mix of marketplace and tech provider; increasingly, it can claim more direct-to-consumer audience. We’ll be hearing lots more from it. When CIR needed help in moving into radio, PRX stepped up as the most logical partner.
Further, Robert Rosenthal credits Joaquin Alvarado, a public radio veteran hired by C.I.R. and promoted to C.E.O. last year, for “Reveal.”
“His role was crucial. He came up with the concept. His relationships with PRX and public radio and his ability to open doors accelerated the entire effort,” Rosenthal told me.
Real collaboration really extends resources: This month’s show displays the diversity of journalistic partners: BayAreaNBC TV, the Center for Public Integrity and Bloomberg Markets. Last year, in its pilots, C.I.R. collaborated with WBEZ; its leadership was out on the road last week in Philly and elsewhere, paving the ground for the next set of public radio connections. As “Reveal” goes weekly, its ability to take the best local stories and make them national is highly dependent upon great collaborations. Those relationships work both ways. Last year, for example, C.I.R. collaborated with Advance Newspapers’ Alabama Media Group to produce a stunning series on the state’s prison woes, in the process providing multimedia and investigative training to the newspaper staff. C.I.R. prides itself on its “teaching hospital model”, says Alvarado.
CIR recently began a new project in Houston, working with Hearst’s Chronicle there, around audio storytelling. Alvarado says he hopes to get six “Reveal Labs” in place in cities around the country this year, to further collaborations.
Phil Bronstein, former top editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, serves as C.I.R.’s board chair. He believes that the collaborative instinct behind “Reveal” is its biggest difference-maker: “When I was at Hearst, my dream was getting people to work together,” he told me, noting the difficulties back then. “Experimentally, we’re learning a lot of things that a lot of people aren’t doing, “ he added, citing tech workshops with Google, for instance.
Multimedia means multimedia: Tour C.I.R.’s website, and you can see its high-quality use of video over the years. That’s because TV is its DNA, having long worked with “Frontline,” “60 Minutes” and Univision over the years. Long-time video plus new-form audio, plus, of course, sturdy old text. In fact, on the “Reveal” website, each of its segments is handily reproduced word for word.
“Reveal” may reveal new sources of accountability journalism funding: Joaquin Alvarado connects a few dots: “There’s a whole network of people who made their money in the last 20 years, and not in the last 100 years. They want to see a networked model. They want to see media be more nimble.” It’s wonderful that a number of foundations have stepped up to fund the C.I.R.s and ProPublicas, but the need for greater investments in watchdog journalism has never been greater, given the cratering of U.S. newsrooms and much wiping out of local investigative resources and work. Alvarado’s recognition of what new funders want—and what today’s technology can now provide—could help unlock one key to the future of American journalism.
Bronstein said he’d had meetings as recently as last week with people at Facebook.
“You have a lot of people in Silicon Valley who are thinking of philanthropy. … They want to talk about public service, about in what way do they want to be philanthropic. They see the value in public service journalism,” he said. “While they may not be able to recite the old Thomas Jefferson quote, they believe in it.”
(That quote: “The only security of all is in a free press. The force of public opinion cannot be resisted, when permitted freely to be expressed. The agitation it produces must be submitted to. It is necessary, to keep the waters pure.”)
As we all look on at the unending struggles of the daily press, that thought is an uplifting one with which to start the year.