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Features Investigations

With a Thud

What happens when a story you’ve worked on for months doesn’t land with a bang?

Seen from certain angles, it seems like it’s never been easier to catch people’s eyes with non-fiction. The market for big, dense books on politics and society is booming. Streaming has turned serialised documentaries into blockbusters and podcasting has done the same for long-form reporting, on platforms where lurid true crime whodunnits rub shoulders with wonkish exposés on everything from corporate malfeasance to governmental corruption. On the other hand, print newspapers, the traditional home of investigative journalism, have seen their territory shrink faster than the Arctic ice sheet, with vast sections of its once-solid glacier caving into oblivion in the past two decades. At least 270 local newspapers have closed in the uksince 2005. The figure for America in the same period tops 2,500. As organs are bought, sold and minced through ever-finer sieves of productivity, their surviving sleuths are left to compete with ever-decreasing resources, against ever-increasing competitors, for attention spans of ever-reducing width.

Boris Johnson’s premiership was eventually brought down over his handling of the misdeeds of Chris Pincher, having been bloodied by the months-long reveals of Partygate. And yet, equally well-­documented scandals relating to covid policy, VIPlane contracts for Tory donors, extrajudicial overreach and even funnelling cash to his American mistress made little or no impact at all.

Some stories, it seems, have just enough currency to survive the ever-tightening gyre of the 24-hour news cycle, while others barely scratch the sides as they reach escape velocity and pass out the other end, unremarked upon.

We asked three highly esteemed investigative journalists what hope years-long investigations have in a landscape where a single tweet or tv appearance can dominate a weekend’s press, and asked: what happens when their hard-earned scoop lands not with a bang, but with a thud?

John Lanchester

Journalist, author and contributing editor at the London Review of Books

I wrote about Facebook in 2016. Everyone who’s ever had any dealings with Facebook knows how pernicious their mechanisms are; an ad-tech company that didn’t exactly invent surveillance capitalism but perfected it, and that it will do anything to increase its reach and revenue. And nobody gave a shit.

You could write that story, and indeed I did, and it goes viral and becomes a huge hit among people who already know about it and who already agree but it doesn’t get any kind of traction in the wider conversation – or with regulators. Until Carol Cadwalladr tells that story about [the predatory analytics practices of political consulting firm] Cambridge Analytica, and suddenly there’s this completely different level of cut-through. The Trump campaign said Cambridge Analytica was completely irrelevant. Facebook embedded managers at the Republican and Democratic campaigns, and then advised them on how to use our targeting tools. The Trump campaign say ‘we just did what they said’ they were running 100 different versions of the same ad in one day in some markets, seeing which cut through, and using that. And the difference with the Democrats is they had a senior Facebook person embedded, and they didn’t listen.

Ian Urbina

Pulitzer Prize-winning author and founder of journalism non-profit The Outlaw Ocean

Two years ago, we produced a collaboration with a satellite firm which revealed the largest ever illegal fishing fleet ever discovered. It’s a great superlative – you can’t top that! These were Chinese squid vessels in North Korean waters, it was a slam dunk; a black-and-white case of illegality because there were sanctions that said no foreign vessels, five nations on the security council signed those and China was one of them. It was 900-1,000 vessels, almost a third of the entire fishing fleet, so this was not one bad apple, it was a massive thing.

The other aspect that made it a huge story is that there were dead bodies. This wasn’t like ‘fish, sanctions; who cares?’ this was real-world repercussion in the order of hundreds of rickety North Korean boats washing up on Japanese shores with dead bodies. And we were able to connect the Chinese to these victims.

We spent a year on it, went to the edge of North Korean waters and filmed them so we even had visual evidence, not just dots on a map, and they came after us. We released it and… crickets.

It was unbelievable. What happened was that around the same time, two days before or after, a different story got weird, freakish levels of attention. And, to this day, I don’t understand why, aside from crass, speculative reasons. So, at that time, hundreds of Chinese boats were near the Galapagos – not illegal waters, just near what we think of as ‘Darwin’s paradise’ – and we counted that this had spawned, I think, 48 follow-up stories in different places. And a lot of the coverage got basic things wrong like, ‘they’re gonna kill all the sharks’. Well, squid vessels can’t kill sharks. So I’m watching from the sidelines, thinking this is so annoying. Not only is it not as important a story, it also has all sorts of things that are incorrect about it.

But I didn’t say any of that, obviously. I think the reason we didn’t land big, and that other story did, was timing. But my best guess as to why everyone looked over there, is that ‘Darwin’s paradise and the Galapagos’ doesn’t need explanation for people to care, or have it as a reference for a Western audience. China is this big scary, ominous Bigfoot figure so you put them next to each other and people are interested. Whereas dead guys, Japan, North Korea – it needs more explanation.

Oliver Bullough

Journalist and author, most recently of Butler to the World: how Britain Became the Servant of Tycoons, Tax Dodgers, Kleptocrats and Criminals

The story that immediately jumped to mind was one of the first kleptocracy pieces I ever did, about how the former President of Ukraine had hidden his ownership of an appalling vulgar, colossal palace on the outskirts of Kyiv, via a shell company in London, registered at 29 Harley Street.

I couldn’t stop thinking how extraordinary it was. The more I looked at it the more I realised that it wasn’t just him who used this address to hide colossal fraud; it had been going on for more than a decade. Companies formed, and were nominally registered, at 29 Harley Street in a really elaborate Oceans 11-type fraud. I couldn’t believe that this hadn’t been reported before. I wrote the article for the Guardian, fully expecting it to cause a political firestorm and… nothing happened. At all. It didn’t cause any reaction with anyone. People read the article and commented on it, and that was it. And what was almost more amazing was that four or five years later the Timesdid an investigation which did the exact same story, literally, including the same examples I used to demonstrate the frauds at 29 Harley Street, and nothing happened then either. I suppose it would have been worse for me if no one cared about mine and then did about theirs, but no one cared about either.

What was quite entertaining was that one of those leaks from the Times investigation was the emails of this office on Harley Street. So I got to see their response to my article after it came out, which was quite entertaining. They were extremely rude about me, to put it mildly, but not in any way existentially worried about their business. I would have thought that if someone in a major newspaper revealed this series of frauds about the company I work for, I would be thinking ‘Oh my God we’re going be put out of business’ – but they didn’t appear even vaguely bothered. So it turned out that they were far more realistic about the real situation than I was.

TFGiven your experience, have you worked out a blueprint for why some stories land, while others soar off into insignificance – and how can you take steps to ensure the former?

John Lanchester

There is something very mysterious about why some things cut through and others don’t. I think very often it’s about things people can relate to. Clearly people know they’re being targeted, but it was something about filling out a quiz and that, accidentally, being used to manipulate you, that’s what made the Cambridge Analytica story so effective. In fact, we’re all being manipulated non-stop and the algorithm controls information flow.

covid procurement is right there in the top corner of how colossal it is and how underreported it is, and also how under-outraged people are. But with the parties in Downing Street, I mean, you can look up that date and see what you weren’t doing. The people you didn’t see. The losses that we all went through, in lockdown. You track that on to those pictures and it’s personal. It connects personally, and maybe that’s the missing component with the procurement scandal. If you have billions disappearing across a whole system, it’s quite hard to draw a line between that and your local A&E closing, or people sleeping on trolleys somewhere.

Oliver Bullough

I had it put to me two or three years ago, tongue in cheek, that what I do is spinach journalism. Like, eat your spinach, it’s what you’re supposed to read. And that really stayed with me, it was a good point very well expressed. Because you can’t treat readers like they’re five years old.

So what I try and do is to turn spinach into saag aloo, or a spinach quiche. I think, to be honest, one of the issues – and it’s something that I see in myself – is people don’t want to be depressed by stories. I think they like to be delighted by stories, and angered by stories, but not depressed. We saw this with the phone hacking stories. As soon as it was Milly Dowler, that story exploded because people were furious, whereas if it was just another case of another public body behaving crookedly and corruptly, people were just like they’re all at it.

I suppose the difficulty is that when you know the kind of stories that are going to catch fire, like Partygate or the Dowler phone hacking, the temptation then is always to look for those stories, but I don’t think you can shortcut to them, I think they have to be part of a process of reporting. Part of the reason why Partygate worked as a shorthand for so many things that have gone wrong was that it felt like a distillation of everything; the hypocrisy, the double standards, the carelessness, the arrogance, all of that mixed together in one easily understandable package.

The same things, taken in isolation, are less consequential than covid vip lanes and all the other horrible misdeeds of the Johnson government, but you could understand it. It’s a suitcase full of booze, it’s Allegra Stratton laughing.

Ian Urbina

My impression of how regular people, and I include myself among them, react to the world and the information thrown at them is that emotions are more lubricated, they move easier than you think. I think the internet also lowers the bar for emotional reactions to things and the amount of thought that needs to go into whether something is a good emotion or a bad one.

That bar is coming down and down as TikTok and all that stuff emerges. At the core of it, if you can have an emotional reaction that’s quick and makes immediate sense, and you can talk about it with someone in your kitchen or at a dinner party, then that is the story that’s going to fly. Whereas things that take heavier lifting, that stuff is becoming heavier and heavier, relative to people’s processing capacity and interest level, and that’s why you’re seeing a drop-off.

John Lanchester

One of the reasons I got into writing about this stuff is because, almost from a technical point of view, we’re hard-wired to like stories about individuals, and that does seem a deeply baked-in property of stories we like. Individuals have agency and there are outcomes attached to what they do. But a lot of the bigger stories in the modern world aren’t about people, they’re about structures and about systems. Very often, the real stories are about people who don’t have agency. So things like the financial crash, austerity, climate change; we actually don’t have much individual agency and the issues are systemic, they’re structural. That’s much harder to get the reader to engage with and I suppose technically that’s much more interesting to try to get the reader to engage with.

As I said, it’s deeply mysterious why some things have cut-through. It very often seems a matter of timing, and the reasons why things break through have a sort of capriciousness to them. I’m very happy with how my pieces about those things have done – banking, Google, Facebook and all that – but if you put the gold standard of reporting as Watergate, you know, bringing down the government, I’m not sure that anyone’s done that about a systemic failure.

TFA traditional trope in portrayals of your craft on screen is that of the threat of powerful governments, evil corporations and scheming lawyers. Do more shadowy forces ever stymie your work?

Oliver Bullough

I’ve had plenty of stories over the years that have failed because of lawyers, either lawyers from the other side who got involved or lawyers from inside who just said it’s not worth taking the risk: that’s happened to me a lot and it’s very frustrating, but you just get used to after a while. It’s just par for the course. In a way, you censor yourself and try and come up with stories that you think will not get squashed, which is difficult pulling your punches, but if it means you can actually get pieces published – then it’s worthwhile.

It was very strange after the first sanctions were imposed on the top oligarchs this spring, particularly Roman Abramovich, because I probably had half a dozen editors get in touch within the space of a day asking me to write a big article for them about him, just assuming that I would have something ready to go. I’ve never done a stroke of work on him, because it never occurred to me that I’d ever be able to get anything published. He’s wealthy, he’s resourceful, he’s famously litigious, and I’m just one guy – I’m not part of a bigger organisation. Just look what he was able to do to Catherine Belton, and she was backed up by Rupert Murdoch.

Ian Urbina

Noam Chomsky says, and he said this about the New York Times before I went to work there, that the true mechanism of censorship is not the heavy hand of industry coming in and killing a story, it’s normally cultural risk aversion in the ethos of mid-level editors, who would rather find stories that already have headwind. So, everyone hates Russia now because of Ukraine so now let’s do kleptocracy because there’s headwinds and you don’t have to answer too many questions about why the story is important. But when it was virgin snow, that’s when we were supposed to be talking about it.

I think this is upside down; it’s like 15-year-olds playing soccer, everyone chasing the ball at the same time. I think it would be better for the planet if there was an ethos that, beyond the threshold of X number of venues covering a story, we should go in the opposite direction, like let’s cover Somalia now that everyone is running at Ukraine.

I had this epiphany in my career which was: don’t write articles, write stories. A hard news story, like ‘yesterday the fbi raided Trump’s house’, deals entirely in facts, and sometimes you have to do it because it’s hard news and you’ve got to move fast, but that’s going to be an article. But if you can find the time and the intellectual capacity to do a story with a narrative arc and maybe a character, then that’s probably going to stick way better because it’s an organisational structure that people can relate to. So not just a character, but a beginning, middle and end; a sense of motion, drama. I took that with me when I left the Times. But even then, I’m [currently] working on this long, two-year piece about the Chinese global elite for the New Yorker and it keeps drifting into an article: ‘Oh, this is so interesting, let me just explain’, and whole paragraphs will be pure explanation, and then I have to rewrite it so that it isn’t just a data dump.

If I was to do things differently with that illegal fishing story, and I had limitless time and a lot of money, then I would have found a main character. I would have gone to North Korea and found a fisherman who got stuck out there and tell his story. Would it have beaten the thud and risen above the cacophony of the bullshit news cycle that was going on? Honestly, probably not, because there was so much noise around. But it would have had more staying power, and I would have been proud of it because it would have had narrative. People would have gone ‘Oh yeah, that story about that guy’.

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