Whither Investigative Journalism?

The “Special Sauce” for news media has always been investigative journalism, ala Woodward and Bernstein.  It’s what made myself and an entire generation of young writers want to get into journalism back in the 1970’s, each of us aching to bring the mighty low, to shine lights into dark places and in the process, make our names, too, household words.

Today, investigative journalism is a dying craft.  Dying not because there aren’t reporters willing to ask the tough questions, but because media itself has rolled over and become passive.  Somewhere in the 80’s and 90’s news switched from investigating controversy to reporting on press releases. 

Why is it dying?  

  • Mega-corporate ownership – Many of the owners of major media now are not primarily media companies per se (think of NBC as owned by GE), hence their primary goal isn’t news, it’s now earning profit for the corporation.  Is it possible the GE has muzzled the news? 
  • The economy – when things are down, it’s hard to justify putting a reporter on a special assignment for a day if it isn’t going to lead to a story right away.  The best investigative journalism often takes weeks or months.

I’m sure if I thought about it, I could come up with many other reasons.  One thing I can state with certainty is this: not only has the way we get our news changed, the very fabric of what our news is has changed.  And I am not at all convinced its a good thing.

In the vacuum that has been created, we’re now getting much more news “analysis” which is very easy to produce, very cost effective, and really comes down to us listening to someone else’s opinion.  Often those opinions come with agendas, be they right or left wing.  The funny thing is that if we really want analysis, we can get if via podcasts, vidcasts, blogs, etc. There is little that big media brings to the table here that can’t be found elsewhere.

At the end off the day, we all lose without investigative journalism.

PEJ Report – The Changing Newspaper Newsroom

The Project for Excellence in Journalism (funded by the PEW Charitable Trust) has an excellent report out on the Changing Newspaper Newsroom – with some very interesting statistics that seem to imply the newspapers still haven’t got the message about their value proposition.

It has fewer pages than three years ago, the paper stock is thinner, and the stories are shorter. There is less foreign and national news, less space devoted to science, the arts, features and a range of specialized subjects. Business coverage is either packaged in an increasingly thin stand-alone section or collapsed into another part of the paper. The crossword puzzle has shrunk, the TV listings and stock tables may have disappeared, but coverage of some local issues has strengthened and investigative reporting remains highly valued.

Graphic from PEJ Report

Well, that sounds good, but in looking at the graphics we see that the biggest area of cuts is what many point to as one of the two biggest differentiators with online journalism, the Copy Editor (the other is local coverage, which we’ll get to in a minute.

The thing in my mind is that you can’t hold the lack of editing up as the big problem with blogs, citizen journalism, or whatever you want to call it, then club your own copy editors like so many seals.  They’re either important or they’re not.

As an experienced writer and blogger I can tell you that I am much better when I’ve got a competent copy editor to work with.  Not only do they catch the typos, they’re the folks that ask “What are you, writing in esperanto?  Say what you mean.” or “This section needs to be rewritten, it doesn’t say what you think it does.”  It’s the reason I so often post here and am corrected in the comments section by my astute readers.  The truth is, on a blog, you’re my copy editors.

As far as local reporting, the papers report devoting much more space to it, but in actuality, they are using less bodies to do it.  While 62 papers reported devoting more space to local, only 8 said they used less space.  However, half of the papers reported they had less “resources” assigned to local reporting.  Again, it flies in the face of the protestations.

The real answer is that they’re devoting *proportionally* more space to local news, and have contracted both the overall number of “resources” they have available (magic decoder ring: resources were formerly known as “people” or “journalists” prior to the ascent of the accountants) as well as decreased the number of pages they’re publishing overall.  There’s no mystery here, and the big news will be how this all works for them.  Personally, I think the newspapers missed their opportunity in 2000, and they probably won’t be getting another one.

Robb Montgomery posted on the same issue:

If reporters are laid off and the paper doesn’t report their actions – did it really happen?
It is, perhaps, an unforgivable journalism sin that this story is not being told fully by some closely-watched U.S. newspapers. Reports from The New York Times and Editor And Publisher indicate that editors-in-chief of Tribune newspapers in Florida are neither announcing nor publishing the newsroom layoffs they are making at this very moment.

From the E&P item: “Of concern to several staffers, however, has been the Sun-Sentinel’s lack of reporting on the cutbacks, with no stories appearing in the newspaper or on its Web site about the cuts. In most cases, newspapers have reported on their own cutbacks prior to the final reductions.”

Right on Robb – newspaper, cover thyself…to paraphrase the old saw about physicians.  The wholesale carnage in the industry, while getting mention in blogs such as this, is generally going under or even un-reported.  As I noted before, we’re talking about people, even if we cloak the humanity in terms like “resources”.  And these actions while they may impact newspaper readers a little, are both “life and career altering events” for the people experiencing them.  I know, I’ve been there, and over a year later, even though I’m well employed, I am still dealing with the vast ramifications, both personally and financially of that layoff.

Media Deathwatch: Tampa Tribune

Jessica DaSilva posted last week right after the Tampa Tribune Editor in Chief Janet Coats announced a major round of layoffs, and their embarkation for a trip in an entirely new direction:

Then she dropped the reality bomb:

“People need to stop looking at TBO.com as an add on to The Tampa Tribune,” she said. “The truth is that The Tampa Tribune is an add on to TBO.”

(Bold added for effect)

The questions from much of the newsroom apparently were the same old saws: “how will this affect profits” and “How will we compete with the other local paper” (quotes not verbatim, I wasn’t there, but are true to what Jessica posts).

I’m glad to hear they got it. Stop chasing a model that obviously isn’t working anymore. Instead of trying to support print as the end all and be all, with it’s incredibly costly delivery mechanism, start thinking about yourselves as content development. Find *all the delivery streams* that can make you money and optimize them. Forget about the ones that don’t make you money.

More from DaSilva’s post:

Janet believes in the news industry. She believes in holding government, media and the public accountable. And she knows there is not another job that makes such a huge difference and weilds such power. News organizations offer society so much, and that is why she cannot take another job – because journalism is her calling, and she knows there is nothing else she could ever imagine herself doing.

“It’s worth fighting for,” Janet said.

Out of all her quoteable moments, those were the words that stuck with me. It was that powerful statement that conveyed the hope, faith and prayers of all journalists worldwide. That maybe this industry can’t be demolished because of its importance and that maybe our love and passion for it could be enough to keep it running.

It’s going to be tough, and no, passion is not enough to keep things running in a broken model. If you combine passion with a willingness to change, to innovate and revolutionize (is that even a word?), you’ve got a much better chance.

To keep on doing what they were doing would be insane. To quote the Duke of Wellington at Waterloo:

They came on in the same old way, and we sent them back in the same old way

My best wishes to the Tampa Tribune staff, DaSilva and Coats that they can weather the storm.