Investigating the Future of Investigative Journalism. Part I: ‘It’s a Very Scary Time’

Categories: Business, Media

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Will the lifeblood of quality journalism flow away like so much ink? Today: A glance at the present and future of this fine mess we’re in. Tuesday: Know your ‘enemy’: The Internet. Wednesday: So, who’s going to pay for all this?

By Joe Eskenazi

In order to investigate the present and future of investigative journalism, you needn’t sift through buckets of shredded documents. You don’t have to fill out a Freedom of Information Act request or pore through court records. And you certainly shouldn’t waste your time meeting with shadowy sources in poorly lit parking garages.

Just talk to an investigative reporter. They’ll readily ‘fess up – things are bad.

“I think the state of the business is actually worse than most people are willing to admit or can really grasp,” says A.C. Thompson, former investigative ace for both SF Weekly and the Guardian.

“There is the possibility … what we do becomes not irrelevant but nonexistent. There’s always a relevance for someone doing this kind of work and exposing crooked politicians and cult leaders and nefarious, predatory corporations – but it just ceases to exist because we haven’t found a [business] model for it.”

Newspapers these days, meanwhile, are constantly straining to keep up with the latest trends: Blogs, slideshows – and liquidating 20 to 50 percent of their newsroom employees to stave off losses or even just increase profit margins. Investigative articles often require weeks or even months of intensive labor; it’s difficult to imagine a style of journalism less well-suited to the 24/7 news cycle bequeathed upon the world by the rise of the Internet. As a result ...

investigative reporters are often the first tossed overboard on the sinking ships of the newspaper world.

“If the reporter covering the local pro football team or city hall quits or dies or retires, you gotta replace that person … but if three project guys or gals leave, you may say, ‘Well, Jeez, the publisher is saying we’ve got to cough up half a million for the next budget cycle, this is one job I’ll postpone filling.’ And you postpone and postpone and it never gets filled,” said Paul Steiger, the former managing editor of the Wall Street Journal.

In an analysis of the state of print journalism in last month’s Journal, Steiger dove-tailed neatly – exceedingly neatly – into a heads-up for his new employer, the philanthropically funded investigative outfit Pro Publica, where he aims to “in some modest way make up for some of the loss in investigative-reporting resources that results from the collapse of metro newspapers’ business model.”

It was a piece Thompson (and, likely, a number of small- and mid-market investigative reporters) read with some frustration. In it, Steiger focused on the plights of the Journal, New York Times, Washington Post and Hearst corporation, among other media titans. Aside from the fact that Hearst’s San Francisco Chronicle is hemorrhaging millions of dollars a week (“If that’s the future, I’m scared of it,” notes Thompson), what about the real losers in investigative journalism – the writers who don’t work for marquee papers (and their readers)?

“To me, if you work the regional papers, what you see is important stories trickle upwards,” Thompson says. “On national security and other issues, the big papers lead the way. But corporate accountability, workplace safety the general bread-and-butter, follow-the-money stories, those used to come out of mid-sized daily papers all the time.”

Notice the term “used to.” Steiger, long a top staffer at the Journal and L.A. Times may well have a top-down view of journalism as Thompson alleges (and, indeed, when I asked Steiger who would be good to talk to for this story he quickly suggested Bob Woodward – the ultimate big-time player and an industry unto himself). And yet, Steiger certainly understands the pressures smaller papers face. Editors of mid-sized operations have told him esoteric investigative stories that won awards five years ago would never run today.

“In the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s, a lot of papers made a strong effort to take a topic that was close to readers, if not right in their kitchens, and make it interesting for them. It’s happening less. It’s a lot of work,” says Steiger.

“If the Chronicle had another Barry Bonds story, they’d do it. It’s right in their kitchen,” he surmised. A story that was less of a slam dunk, that required more explanation to readers as to why it’s worthwhile – that probably won’t get written.

(Incidentally, former Chron managing editor Robert Rosenthal, now executive director of Berkeley’s Center for Investigative Reporting, told us that he thinks the paper did “other good investigative journalism” during the Barry Bonds-BALCO stories’ recent run – “but now it would be a lot harder to do that. They don’t have as many people.”).

While “getting more from less” is a favorite refrain in newsrooms -- especially amidst cutbacks -- it’s a patently ridiculous notion. You don’t get more from less. You get less from less. And that, in a nutshell is the future of investigative journalism: Less. We’ll have fewer reporters writing fewer stories on fewer subjects while authorized to spend less time and less money.

“I’m hoping there’s this great new paradigm shift that works in everyone’s favor and it’ll be just lovely and wholesome,” says Thompson with a nervous chuckle. “But I can say, at this point, it’s a pretty grim future for most of us. This is a very scary time.”

Coming tomorrow: Why the blogger and the journo should be friends.
Coming Wednesday: If there’s a future for investigative journalism, who’s going to fund it?

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