Thoughts

Investigating Gothenburg

Staring at a blank canvas can be an unnerving experience. Like muted white noise emanating forth from a carte blanche opportunity, seemingly devoid of an immediately obvious pathway or purpose, fresh starts often feel simultaneously daunting and exhilarating. Yet this unexpected invitation of a fleeting glimpse of adventure, security, and comfort, leaked through the cracks of an otherwise formidably opaque vista of incertitude and strangeness as I landed in Gothenburg this week. Such were the sensations I felt as I set foot in a land that feels replete with mystique and allure, doubtless stimulated by my growing fascination with modern Scandinavian society, and old Norse legends. My initial impressions of Sweden made me feel as though I had suddenly been transported into my own private Scandi-noir drama. Subtle shades of grey harmonised the imposing skyline with a groundswell of withered, crimson leaves, and eclectic industrial architecture merging seamlessly with vintage buildings reminiscent of a dystopian detective novel. Facets of Gothenburg felt oddly familiar despite their inherent otherness. Foreign yet familiar.

Lost yet found

I embarked on this trip for the sole purpose of sampling the Master’s course in investigative journalism at the University of Gothenburg. With no idea what to expect, I booked myself haphazardly into a hostel that transpired to be within walking distance of the university journalism department. My dastardly plan was unfolding with gusto until I managed to take my first misstep in investigating my whereabouts. After a pointless tram trip across the city and back, I finally realised that the building I needed to be in was, in fact, not the main university building. It turns out that a modern over-reliance on Google Maps is doomed to dampen the much coveted journalistic ability to follow one’s nose.

Far from picking up the scent, I ended up chasing my tail and basking in the fetid aroma of momentary confusion. Imagine the potential memoirs in years to come, as the legendary Anglo-Irish/Peruvian investigator recounts taking his first tentative steps on a thrilling new journey, by wandering aimlessly like a bewildered buffoon around the tram stop nearest to his final destination. Instead of “rat-like cunning” (ala Nick Tomlin), this aspiring journalist exhibited an almost farcical, comedic ignorance as to where he was actually supposed to be going, a good hour before discerning the truth of the matter. In hindsight, at least I now have a broader perspective on what it means to “stumble” into a new career, as my latest mentor put it when describing his own humble beginnings.

A wise man once told me that there are no such things as “failures”, just new learning opportunities. Unsurprisingly, this is a perennial lesson I keep having to relearn. Much like I gradually came to understand when completing my first Master’s degree in Theology, serious, rigorous research of any kind must at least attempt to leave no stone unturned when navigating around a topic. Perhaps library research skills can translate into real life after all. New learning opportunity digested: figure out where on earth you are actually supposed to be going before starting out on an assignment. Moreover, put the wretched smartphone aside when staggering around the streets in a dazed state of befuddlement, whilst struggling to form new neural pathways to adapt quickly and safely to the fact that everyone in Sweden drives on the right (or wrong) side of the road. Point taken, I hope.

Breaking in on the News

I eventually sauntered hamfistedly (read: kindly escorted, despite my tardiness, by the puzzled looking course administrator) into the all day journalism seminar to which I had been graciously invited by the course leader, a distinguished British journalist called David Crouch. The university department was relatively modern, well equipped, and resonated with both industrial minimalism and architectural nostalgia in its overarching design. As I entered the fray, group upon group of highly engaged students were presenting on what I presume must have been an assignment to critically evaluate new forms of investigative journalism, with a particular focus on business models. A substantial proportion of this year’s course intake had prior experience of modern journalism, which added to the credibility of the Master’s degree in my naive, yet rapidly widening eyes. Once I had smeared some of the exploding ink from my shocked fingers, as my fountain pen reminded me that it has serious issues with flying, I scribbled notes as fast as my handwriting would allow me to. Note to self: learn shorthand, fast. Dated it may be, but it remains faster than alternative methods for the informed communication connoisseur.

All in all, I watched nine contrasting talks led by teams of two to three speakers a piece. Pros and cons of each startup were discussed and critiqued, numbers crunched, gaps filled, and cross border journalism featured heavily in several presentations. The atmosphere was relaxed yet serious, as significant amounts of information, and attempts to answer searching questions, were delivered with a marked tone of professionalism and zeal. One student even presented remotely (in a manner of speaking) by pre-recording her power point presentation as a YouTube video, with accompanying audio. Apparently she’s already published a book, so at least the bar hasn’t been set agonisingly high (!?).

I was treated to a dizzying array of stories touching on a variety of issues involving undercover prison guards, niche “Long Play” journalism chiming in with monthly 50000 character articles for highly educated Finnish “elites”, collaborative European journalism funded by controversial donors such as the Open Society (founded by George Soros), an Italian team squaring up to the mafia, local journalism from Gothenburg uncovering toxic spiritual abuse which ostensibly contributed to a spate of child suicides in a purportedly cult-like religious school, awkward questions around how impartial Chinese investigative journalists can be in the face of state sponsored oppression and censorship, and plenty more besides.

A taste of the future?

For a fledgling pre-trainee journalist like me, imbibing a thimble of the heady complexity which characterises the modern investigative journalism sector proved to be an intoxicating cocktail of diverse angles on the same emerging story. Enlightening, eye-opening insights showed how the industry is adapting to overcome a relative paucity of funding in the post-social media digital era. Reassuring flashes of a glimmer of hope that journalism remains a viable career path ricocheted across my field of vision. Whilst considerable challenges and risks remain, there is clearly a market for independent, investigative journalism which could, potentially, become sustainable. Whether such new journalism (investigative journalism 2.0?) survives remains to be seen. If it does, it will surely require sustained engagement with an incessant shape-shifting process in order to cope with the onslaught of sociopolitical and technological flux, shimmering apparitions in the form of latest zeitgeist, forced and/or self-imposed reinvention, market forces, and the prophesied singularity of A.I, to name but a few salient factors. Idealism notwithstanding, reports of the death of investigative journalism are apparently greatly exaggerated, at least for the time being.

An entrepreneurial spirit coupled with boldness, an acute awareness of the ethical dimension robust investigative journalism provides to buttress its role within the 4th/5th estate, and a willingness to experiment shone through as prerequisites for anyone wanting to plunge themselves headfirst into this compelling critical industry. I found myself relishing a brief foretaste of not just what life as a journalism student on the MIJ course at Gothenburg might look like, but what it might feel like to actually work as an investigative journalist in the modern world. My palate remains piqued with more than a soupçon of intrigued fascination, especially by the revelation that long form, slow-news journalism has a place in this new digital sphere. What is more, people can be persuaded to pay for it, which drives a coach and horses through the notion that #TLDR advocates rule the roost in a world suffering from increasingly decreased attention spans.

Singing before supper

A highlight of my trip was the opportunity to pick the course leader, David Crouch’s brains (albeit briefly), and hear a little about his life and work thus far as a journalist. Alongside extraordinary mental images of his time writing news stories in the former Soviet Union, his penetrating insights and questions were perhaps best summed up by a sudden chorus of a cappella singing, which erupted forth on the table next to us as we ate lunch together. It is fair to say that this left both of us staring at the songsters with gleeful puzzlement. I interpreted the event as being at least partially prophetic, in the sense that you never know where an adventure might take you. Taking risks might just lead to unexpected melodies that catch you off guard by their sheer spontaneous beauty. If life as a journalist could look anything like the picture such an occurrence might tempt one to paint, surely it is worth pursuing?

My closing conversations with David, and a subsequent cadre of eager and inspiring students, certainly pushed me closer to wanting to seriously consider taking the leap of faith such an endeavour would undoubtedly require. This is particularly true for me since moving to Sweden to become an investigative journalist would have to be a family affair driven by faith and grit; one which works for both me and my loved ones, some of whom remain very small indeed. Counting the cost, further research, and considering an application will be the next step in the process.

Parting gestures

I have never explored a new city overseas on my own, which makes this short Swedish sojourn all the more extraordinary. After wandering around the historic Haga district, taking innumerable pictures of the locality, and posing for more than one pretentious selfie along the way, I ended my trip with a fascinating two hour conversation. Being of a robustly religious persuasion (though not in a ritualistic manner per se), it felt fitting to attempt to coordinate a meeting with a local church leader who might be willing to give me some idea of how people of faith coexist alongside the general populace within an infamously secular culture.

God willing, I was blessed with just such an opportunity, and enjoyed another fabulously fishy and fascinating lunch with a friendly Swede called Fredrik. I left encouraged that despite the ubiquitous challenges of blending life and faith in the 21st century post-Christian West, authentic spirituality need not be deterred from thriving in what might otherwise seem like as chilly a cultural environment as any typical Nordic Winter. The Spirit, as some say, continues to hover over the waters of Gothenburg, and fishermen like myself willing to take the risk of casting their nets overboard may yet discover that such simple acts of faith can yield all manner of pleasant surprises.

Make of that what you will. Until such time as I may, or may not find myself setting sail with family in tow towards the imposing shores of Scandinavia again, all I have left to say is Tack så mycket (thanks so much, in Swedish).

Miguel Roca