The Observer revives investigative journalism through ‘The Watchdog’

Six years ago, Ugandan journalist Benon Herbert Oluka had a light bulb moment: independent funding of enterprising, in depth, sustained investigative journalism was happening around the world; why couldn’t it happen here? The result was a journey to the birth of The Watchdog, an investigative journalism foundation housed at The Observer newspaper. Through The Watchdog, Oluka intends to contribute to the revival and strengthening of investigative journalism in Uganda. He sat down with ACME’s Harriet Anena to share his plans.

*This interview has been edited for length.

 

About The Watchdog

The Watchdog is a centre for investigative journalism attached to The Observer newspaper. It was born out of concern for the dwindling financial capacity of newspapers to pursue in depth investigations. It intends to enrich news content and meet the demands of audiences yearning for more than updates on current events.

The Watchdog will be financed through non-traditional sources like not-for-profit organizations, private philanthropy or crowd sourcing, rather than depend on newspaper circulation and advertising for crumbs.

How the idea was birthed

The dream was born in 2009 when I worked at Daily Monitor. Due to cost-cutting measures, the Kampala-based staff of more than 30 was denied the opportunity to travel and report on matters all around the country. I felt it was wrong that keen, industrious journalists could not do their work merely because the paper wanted to save money.

Benon Herbert Oluka
Benon Herbert Oluka

When I visited the United States as a World Press Institute fellow in 2011, I realised that Uganda was not the only market suffering low newspaper sales. Journalists in the 12 different states I toured were complaining that the newspaper industry was dying, but what was different was that they were thinking ahead and trying to nip the problem in the bud. I saw a model for sustainable journalism when I visited the Center for Investigative Reporting in San Francisco where for close to 30 years it has funded investigative journalism with support from foundations and not-for-profit organizations. Similar work was also undertaken by organisations like Propublica in New York, giving reporters both money and time to work on agenda-setting investigative stories.

Exposure to these ideas peaked my interest. I studied them and asked widely about how they work. A short while later, during my further studies in South Africa, I encountered similar models, some even in the private sector. For instance, the Mail & Guardian was running a centre for investigative journalism that was doing very solid work.

During my time in South Africa, I shared my proposal for The Watchdog with Richard Kavuma, Sarah Namulondo (RIP) of The Observer, as well as other directors at the paper. They supported and applauded the initiative and challenged me to make it a reality. So on my return to Uganda, I moved to The Observer because it offered me an opportunity to develop my plan.

Making connections, building networks

Over the years I have shared my dream about The Watchdog widely. It is because of this that I was this year invited to the Global Investigative Journalism Conference, with the support of the Norwegian Foundation for Investigative Journalism. The conference drew my attention to new innovations to support investigative newsrooms, strategies for cross-border investigations and fundraising for journalism.

One of the key connections I made there was with members of Africa Investigative Publishing Collective, an organization that brings together investigative journalists from different African countries to try to find alternative sources of funding for their work. The result of our interaction was that The Watchdog is now a part of this growing organisation and we are already engaged in a cross-border investigation with journalists from Ghana, Mozambique and Nigeria.

What lies ahead for The Watchdog

We are working on both lengthy and short-term projects. If there is something in the daily breaking news cycle that needs in depth follow-up, we will certainly investigate it. However we also intend to institute a structured plan that will systematically investigate, through a various special projects, a wide range of public affairs sectors, specifically those in which government has invested considerable resources.

I am also passionate about spreading our wings to the countryside to give a platform to people and issues that do not often make the news. Additionally, with Uganda now deeply connected to other countries in the region like South Sudan and Somalia, we intend to conduct a number of cross-border investigations with other media houses.

Eventually, we will mentor young investigative journalists through a fellowship program which we intend to dedicate to the founder of The Observer. It will be called the Ogen Kevin Aliro Journalism Fellowship.

Building the human resource

Currently The Watchdog does not have a dedicated team. We are putting together proposals that spell out our human resource needs and requirements for equipment and funding. My dream is to have a team that is solely dedicated to investigative journalism and not hindered by the daily demands of newspaper production and deadlines.

The Watchdog model is also intended to insulate journalists from advertising and political influences by sourcing funding from organisations that have no direct relation to a story or other political and commercial interests.

Presentation and format

The beauty of having a team dedicated to a project like The Watchdog is that you have time to think about how to package information such that people can best understand it. We will draw on available expertise in storytelling, graphics, television and multimedia platforms.

I believe that people will read a solid, well packaged story regardless of length. The biggest complaint from many readers is that current newspaper content is not rich enough to sustain their interests in reading it to the end.

When do you expect actual work to start?

It took a bit of time to get The Watchdog off the ground but we officially launched it on 22 September, 2015 after a formal registration process. Prior to registration The Observer received some funding for investigative stories that were channelled through The Watchdog.

Last year I received a reporting grant from the African Centre for Media Excellence (ACME) that I used to produce a series on Uganda’s rural electrification programme. The grant served as a kind or test to see if The Watchdog was a viable model.

In October this year we published the first official investigation under The Watchdog. The story about a battle between government and a Chinese company over a multi-million dollar fish farm done with support from the China-Africa Reporting Project at Wits University.

Also, as part of a training programme conducted by ACME in partnership with the Thomson Reuters Foundation, The Observer was offered a grant of Ushs2 million to fund an investigative project. The paper’s managers have recommended that the money should be channelled though The Watchdog.

All in all, we are trying to prop up this baby so it can grow.

***

About The Watchdog The Watchdog is a centre for investigative journalism attached to The Observer. It sources its own funding and produces investigative stories that can then feed into The Observer. It is a separate legal entity from The Observer, has its own board and management. The Observer is signatory to the foundation and houses it.

The Watchdog founders are Benon Herbert Oluka, Special Projects Editor; Jeff Mbanga, Business Editor; James Tumusiime, Managing Director; Pius Mutekaani Katunzi, Business Development Director; and The Observer newspaper.

About Harriet Anena

Harriet Anena is ACME’s Special Projects Officer hanena@acme-ug.org @ahpetite

View all posts by Harriet Anena →

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