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| Home | Interview: Dan Noyes, Center for Investigative Reporting
September 21, 2014

Dan Noyes, 53, is co-founder and editorial director of the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR), a non-profit group that produces and sells investigative stories to print, broadcast and Internet news outlets. Noyes graduated from Harvard University in 1972, and became interested in investigative journalism after the Watergate hearings. His work has aired or appeared in the New York Times, PBS Frontline, 60 Minutes, the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, and Mother Jones. He developed CIR's first TV story for ABC's 20/20 newsmagazine in 1979 that exposed how the fundraising arm of the United Nations' International Year of the Child was a front for gunrunning and drug smuggling. Since 1997, he helped develop three CIR documentary projects on the illicit gun trade that resulted in two California state laws to stem gun trafficking. His work has been honored with George Polk, DuPont-Columbia, Investigative Reporters and Editors, World Affairs Council, and Society of Professional Journalists awards. He spoke with JournalismJobs.com recently about the role of a non-profit news organization.

Dan Noyes
Noyes receiving an SPJ award in Sept. 2002 for best
national television documentary.
JournalismJobs.com: With so many media outlets, why is there a need for an independent news organization such as the Center for Investigative Reporting?

Dan Noyes: We're non-profit and I think there's a constant need for non-profit news because it has different interests than commercial news. Not that I think commercial news is bad. Commercial news does some great stuff. But go back to A.J. Liebling, who wrote in the New Yorker back in the forties or fifties, that there should be non-profit newspapers just the way universities are non-profit. There's non-profit TV, non-profit radio, non-profit magazines. There are not very many non-profit newspapers. We're a non-profit investigative news organization and that means our interests are to go out to cover stories that aren't being covered elsewhere. For example, during the Iraq war, while the rest of the media are looking for any story connected to terrorism or Iraq, we're trying to cover issues here at home, like gun violence, which some police call local terrorism. We try to go against the grain, not necessary doing the stories that other people are covering. Sometimes we joke morosely that we're doing the stories no one else is doing and sometimes they continue not to do them because they won't buy our stuff. I think investigative reporting is just about always the first thing that gets cut back in tough economic times. It's usually looked at as the most expendable thing in a news organization. We feel that we're upholding investigative reporting whether it's good or bad economic times.

JournalismJobs.com: CIR prides itself in covering underreported stories. Recent pieces highlighted Liberian timber exports, an oil pipeline in West Africa, and alleged bribery of Kazakhstan authorities. How difficult is it to place these stories in major media outlets?

Dan Noyes: It can be very difficult. The Liberian timber story is one example. We started trying to sell that story around the time the Iraq war began heating up. But the media were not interested in that topic. They were interested in Iraq and terrorism. This was not even faintly near the front pages. Plus, foreign coverage was being cut back at papers. It took us six months to place the timber story. Frankly, what saved us was the crisis in Liberia, which became a front-page story. We were able to finally place our piece at three or four different newspapers. Right now, we're working on a story about gangs and gun violence. We think it's an excellent story, but we haven't found a home for it.

JournalismJobs.com: Where are most of CIR's stories placed: print or broadcast media?

Dan Noyes: Right now, we're actually doing more print. A couple of years ago, it was more broadcast. It really ebbs and flows. We're doing two radio documentaries for public radio through American RadioWorks. We're doing a TV broadcast story for FRONTLINE/World that should air sometime this fall. But all of the other things we're working on is for print, including an article for Harper's magazine, another piece for the Nation, and what I hope will be a major piece for a daily newspaper. In the past few years, we've made the transition to do more print than we've been doing in the past. The good thing about print is that you put most of your effort into actual reporting and writing. Television, as someone once said, is a thousand-pound lead pencil, where a huge amount of your time goes into the technique -- scheduling crews, setting up the interviews, getting the lighting right. It takes up an awful lot of time just organizing it. But obviously, it has an immediacy and reach that much of print doesn't.

JournalismJobs.com: Is it especially challenging getting CIR's stories placed on commercial television? It seems that many of your stories end up on PBS.

Dan Noyes: We've been trying to do more with the networks' evening news. Most recently, we've done a number of stories with CBS Evening News. But I would say yes, many of our stories end up on PBS because public television allows us to have more input and even control in the final product. When you work with commercial television, by and large what they want is a reporting memo handed over to their producer who then goes out and does the story. It's potentially less collaborative. That's why we like to work with public television. In a few cases, we developed the project almost to the end before they decided to take it on, so it was very much our product. It just tends to be something we're much more involved with, as opposed to working with commercial television.

JournalismJobs.com: How does CIR go about covering a story?

Dan Noyes: It's a constant checking and re-checking -- the process of an investigation. We're currently producing something for TV. We developed a 20-minute version of the program and we still don't have an outlet for it yet. Sometimes you have to get that far along before you can get an outlet to sign on. Our preference is to get an assignment early on because it adds stability to the project. For example, if we're getting additional funding for the project, the funder knows a media outlet has signed up for it. It also helps you understand how to fashion the story, so you're not rewriting something extensively later because the outlet has a different take on the story than you do.

JournalismJobs.com: What's the average time it takes to finish a project? Do some investigations exceed a year?

Dan Noyes: Some investigations definitely take more than a year. Our investigation of the cheap gun industry that resulted in the Frontline program "Hot Guns" in June 1997 was started in 1995 and encouraged by indictments issued in late 1994 against several employees of one of the companies for stealing and trafficking the company's guns. So it took about 2 years. Some others have gone on even longer. I guess an average time for a project would be 6 months.

JournalismJobs.com: How has investigative reporting changed since 1977 when CIR was founded? Has the center's mission remained the same?

Dan Noyes: I think the essential mission has stayed the same: to make power accountable in our society, to take on people and institutions that wield power and review their activities and bring it to as large an audience as possible. What has changed incredibly is the outlets that we work for. When we started, we were gearing ourselves to print magazine outlets. After all, the journalists who helped start CIR all had print magazine backgrounds. They worked at Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, and New Times Magazine. We started branching out into television and radio broadcasts and obviously now the Internet and daily newspapers. Now, we not only work in all these different outlets, but there's been more of an acceptance throughout the media of doing multimedia projects. It was more of a church and state kind of thing in the old days. People didn't used to cross over. Now you've got New York Times television. You can do versions for each one. And obviously the Internet is a great source of information, offering a lot more information at your fingertips. We won an award this year in online journalism from Investigative Reporters and Editors for an online series we did on international small arms trade.

JournalismJobs.com: If you had to name one, which CIR story had the most impact?

Dan Noyes: I guess I'd have to go back to "Circle of Poison." The phrase became so well-known for a period of time. There was even legislation proposed called "Circle of Poison" legislation. The phrase became a metaphor for globalization and how the United States was willing export goods overseas that it wasn't willing to sell here because they were dangerous. It was a circle because those pesticides came back in the food that was imported back in the U.S. and we ended up eating the pesticides in food, even though we wouldn't let companies use the pesticides on food in this country. That story was one of the earliest stories we worked on. It became a book in 1981 and it was a lead story on the NBC evening news. The book and its basic idea has continued to resonate: the U.S. can have double standards about what it's willing to have in this country versus what it's willing to have exported elsewhere. It was a very early globalization story.

JournalismJobs.com: What makes a story investigative? In what ways do you think the term has been misused?

Dan Noyes: It's certainly been misused. I'm actually judging a journalism competition right now and some of the stories that are termed "investigative" are actually re-telling a police investigation. To me, investigative has a component of originality. The reporter develops information that others don't have. Obviously getting secret information from police can also be new and original. But if you're taking information from an investigation that's public and just re-telling it, that is not investigative. It's originality. It's uncovering something that someone wants to be secret, whether it's been classified or just hidden. It doesn't have to be illegal. In fact, in our story about Liberian timber coming into this country, the timber was not illegal. That was part of the problem we had in selling the story. Even though the United Nations was willing to classify the head of Liberian, Charles Taylor, as a war criminal, his profits from exporting timber to the U.S. was not illegal. Editors would say to us, this is not illegal. But I'd say, well, a war criminal is making money off this. Investigative journalism is also something substantial that gets at a person or institution that wields power. There is a constant argument about why we don't go after welfare cheats. Is that investigative reporting? To me, by and large, it's not. But if you can come up with systemic fraud or organized fraud, that becomes more of a true investigative story. But going after one person or one official who is abusing his parking privileges, is not substantial in terms of what an investigative story is. It's got to be a substantial issue or abuse of power.

JournalismJobs.com: What happens when you're shopping a story and the media outlet you approach tells you they're already doing that story. Do you stop or take it somewhere else?

Dan Noyes: Rarely would we stop totally. It has definitely happened, although I can't think of a time when we had a major run-in like that. It happened, for example, with the gang project we're working on. Someone else had been doing a gang-related project. It was 3,000-miles apart. It just means we go to another outlet. We actually try to present that as a strength of what we do. We are a freelance organization. We are not an outlet by ourselves. We are not bound by the dictates of a particular readership or format. If one place we approach turns out not to be right, we just try other ones until we find something. Worst-case scenario is that we would just end up running it on our website, but that rarely happens.

JournalismJobs.com: What's the future for investigative reporting?

Dan Noyes: It continues to be important. It will be basically strong. The money in commercial television is weakening somewhat because they're losing viewers and the viewership is spreading out. For example, for "60 Minutes," investigative stories are part of its bread and butter. It will continue to be presented there and other news magazines. The major newspapers continue to see this as something that wins awards and gets them the high-end readers they want. The Internet will allow a lot more information to be available. It's just a matter of filtering out the good stuff from the bad stuff. You can do an investigation for TV, then put out a lot more documents related to that for those interested in following up and it can live for years out there. There is a future for it and a future for non-profit investigative reporting from the standpoint that there are foundations and funders who see the value of a strong, independent media. Foundations that saw investigative reporting as the role of the commercial media 25 years ago now understand why there needs to be non-profit sources of information and investigative reporting. It's not going to get done otherwise.

Copyright © 2003 JournalismJobs.com. All rights reserved.


Other JournalismJobs.com interviews:
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  • Matt Labash, senior writer, The Weekly Standard, May 2003
  • Michele Norris, co-host of NPR's "All Things Considered," April 2003
  • Bob Schieffer, anchor and correspondent, CBS News/Face the Nation, March 2003
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  • Deborah Potter, Executive Director, Newslab.org, Nov./Dec. 2002
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  • Tracy Wood, editor, Ms. Magazine, August 2002
  • Mike Hoyt, executive editor, Columbia Journalism Review, July 2002
  • Louis Wiley, executive editor, PBS 'Frontline,' May/June 2002
  • John Sasaki, reporter, KTVU-TV (FOX), March/April 2002
  • Dan Fost, media reporter, San Francisco Chronicle, February 2002
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