Investigative journalism is not gone. It has simply moved. “Public service journalism has never not mattered. It’s never not going to matter,” said Ron Aiken, founder of Quorum Columbia. “The number of people doing it has significantly dwindled because of the fall of newspapers, and so it has to be done from these sort of alternative outlets and supported in a different way.”
Without investigative journalists, Richard Nixon might not have had to resign his office. Investigative journalism drastically changed the treatment of mental illness, and brought to light countless stories of discrimination, corruption and other injustices. Today, however, budget cuts at many newspapers and television stations has left a hole, one Aiken hopes to fill in the Midlands.
“This is home, so that’s what I care about,” said the veteran investigator, who left The Nerve to launch his new site. “”At The Nerve they wanted a very specific State House/legislative focus…I wanted more Midlands focus and local government.”
Aiken will still cover State House stories, but only those which directly affect the people of the Midlands. He will also branch out, covering higher education and local government in depth. His first story for Quorum, which launched July 12, was the revelation of a secret recording related to the ongoing controversy involving Richland County Recreation Commission Executive Director James Brown. Aiken cited the Brown story as one which needs more investigation than an average television news story of two minutes or less can provide.
“The Recreation Commission impacts a lot of lives in a lot of ways, and it’s so insulated people don’t really even understand how it works,” he said. “All these weird things combine to allow the situation where you’ve got allegedly a sexual predator in charge of it with all his family members. It’s protected by a board that he’s alleged to have bribed. How does that happen over a period of years? That’s how it happens. People want to know this stuff, and if you don’t tell them in a longer format, they just don’t know, and that’s how it continues.”
Much has been made in recent years of shortened attention spans and the tendency of people to read only a headline, but Aiken believes all that can be overcome. “If you’re a good writer, a reader will stay with you if they’re engaged in the subject matter,” he said. “People will read a longer story if they’re interested.”
Social media is also a key to Aiken’s new venture. He tried launching his own business once before, a high school sports publication, but the overhead costs of publication and delivery proved prohibitive. Quorum is online only, and as Aiken put it, “The great leveler of quality in media is Twitter and Facebook…I’ve got the same amount of space as the New York Times.”
Aiken is a one-man investigative team for now, and has funded the site’s startup with donations, mostly from friends and family but with some coming from readers he does not know. “It’s my passion. I love doing it. I would do it if nobody paid me, and right now nobody’s paying me,” he said with a laugh. “It’s so cool because when you see people donating $25, $50 out of their pockets, it’s very meaningful because that’s a lot of money for a lot of people. It really kind of makes you connection with your audience that much closer, and makes me much more appreciative of it, and I want to do a good job to service it.”
The long-range plan is to build a readership and eventually bring in advertisers, though Aiken said he will never use a paywall on the site. He said he was pleased with the number of people who viewed the site on launch day, and thinks he can build and maintain an audience. “If the quality is there, they’ll come,” he said. “At the end of the day, you still have to write a good story, because if it’s no good, nobody’s going to read it.”