Investing in a Reporter’s Most Valuable Skill — Fact-Finding: Q&A with Sam Whitmore

With nearly 35 years of combined experience in media — 14 years as a journalist for PC Week and two decades running Media Survey — few individuals have a better understanding of the media than Sam Whitmore.

To commemorate the 20th year of his firm, Sam decided to pay it forward by sponsoring the Sam Whitmore Media Survey Fellowship in partnership with MuckRock. The fellowship will give young reporters a chance to master the government transparency beat, working directly with some of the most experienced fact-finders in the business to track public records laws across the country.

I had the privilege of speaking with Sam to learn more about the fellowship, the evolution of media and more. Read on for highlights from our conversation.

BATEMAN GROUP: Can you tell us a little more about the fellowship and what inspired you to create it?

SAM WHITMORE: It’s an opportunity for Media Survey to contribute to the process of fact-finding, which is probably the single most important part of journalism — maybe more so than writing. The fellow will work closely with the full-time MuckRock staff, who understand the nuances of petitioning local, state and federal agencies. There is an art to writing an FOIA inquiry and the staff at MuckRock are experts at this. Once a fellow has graduated from the program, they will be highly employable by great news organizations like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

BG: Government transparency is a major topic of conversation these days. Can you speak more about the importance of gathering information at the local and state level?

SW: Government agencies across federal, state and local governments produce all kinds of records that show government’s ability to carry out election mandates and ensure that the people’s business is being carried out properly. In theory, because these organizations are funded by taxpayers, they have the basic responsibility to make the data they collect publicly available.

MuckRock is a specialist in figuring out what information these organizations will give up and how to request it, which is incredibly valuable material for journalists.

BG: This fellowship seems especially important in the context of today’s media landscape. What do you think is most surprising about the state of the media today?

SW: I’ve been most surprised in the last five to ten years by the collapse of advertising as a business model in media. At one point, I thought native advertising would be the savior, but I’ve been surprised. Ultimately, I thought advertising would pull more weight in the 21st century than it has.

Another thing that has surprised me is the intensification of entertainment values in media, which is something I realized television was driving, given its visual nature — but I didn’t see the entertainment values and the audience development models coming to online media as quickly as they did.

BG: Do you have any hope for other media business models?

SW: I think you’re going to start to see more affiliate models. For example, in the future, The New York Times could become a hub for five or six different brands that appeal to different segments of the Times’ audience. In a digital world, I think media companies, particularly large ones, will be able to find complementary partnerships by leveraging the data available. I think in the 2020s that will be pretty common.

BG: What about social media? What do you think has been the overall impact of social on government transparency?

SW: I thought there would be lots of civic-minded people organizing on platforms like Facebook. We’ve seen some organization around social, but it’s been at the national level, with an “us versus them” mentality, instead of people organizing for less-politicized issues like infrastructure or schools. I think the best way that social can be used is to amplify journalism and bring broader audiences to the fact-finding process.

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A big thank you to Sam for taking the time speak with us. If you’re interested in the tech media landscape, I highly recommend following Sam on Twitter @samwhitmore and checking out the Media Survey website for smart analysis and updates.