Monday, November 30, 2009

A FIRST STEP IN THE REMODELING OF INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALISM

Tim Luckhurst, in a Guardian-UK article, Why Journalism Needs Paywalls, argues that “It's time to admit that giving away value undermines democracy.”

I’m not sure he makes the case that democracy is any real trouble, but newspapers surely are. They’re losing tons of money and, in an effort to staunch the blood-flow, are tossing everything toss-able overboard. The fact seems to remain that, in a world of instant on-line technology, pulling a daily print edition together, rolling the presses and sending countless trucks off to thump the bales of paper at news-stands and front porches is unprofitable—in the extreme.

Johnny Carson used to say, “If you buy the premise, you buy the bit.” My premise is that print editions of The New York Times (insert your personal favorite here) will not survive. If you buy that premise, the bit has to do with how to rescue investigative journalism from the life-boats.

One major paper after another has closed down foreign bureaus and heaved their best investigative staff into the choppy waters of early retirement. These are not lightweights and many, if not dead and buried,  are still working at their place of choice:
  •         Christiane Amanpour
  •         James Baldwin
  •         Carl Bernstein
  •         Ed Bradley
  •         Jimmy Breslin
  •         Joel Brinkley
  •         Walter Cronkite
  •         Thomas Friedman
  •         Amy Goodman
  •         Adam Gopnik
  •         David Halberstam
  •         Seymour Hersh
  •         Peter Jennings
  •         Pauline Kael
  •         Ted Koppel
  •         Norman Mailer
  •        Bill Moyers
  •         Edward R. Murrow
  •         Morley Safer
  •         Diane Sawyer
  •         Nina Totenberg
  •         Bob Woodward
But the writing is on their wall and ours. Those who glibly pass off print media as not as New Age as blogging and the Internet, would do well to pause and reflect on where the content comes from that is so cheaply and irreverently commented upon in cyberspace. Consider the Washington Post expose, “Soldiers Face Neglect, Frustration At Army’s Top Medical Facility,” by investigative reporters Dana Priest and Anne Hull.

The blogosphere, the Congress and the American public went ballistic at this travesty of care, particularly as it occurred in the midst of a bloody and miserable war in Iraq and Afghanistan. No Dana Priest and Anne Hull . . . no story, no exposure, no cleanup of the medical care at Reed.

The Post, of course, cut its teeth on the Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein Watergate break-in story that brought down Richard Nixon. That was a piece of investigative reporting that, if it didn’t define the term, certainly popularized it. Yet that kind of digging is expensive. A major piece may last for three or four updated editions and take months to prepare and source accurately. The reporters entrusted with that job are the cream of the crop . . . and expensive, when it comes to word-for-word costs. I have a suggestion or, perhaps, more of a template than an actual solution.

The newspaper industry has long supported the Associated Press for breaking news. The organization is a cooperative, owned by newspapers, which both contribute to and use AP material written by its staff journalists. Non-members outside the United States pay a fee. Likewise, the British-Canadian Reuters and American Bloomberg make a profit from the hustling of financial news. The need seems to be there for a similar organization in the field of investigative journalism.

Consider the advantages:
  • Major newspapers, as they struggle to slide out from under a cost-structure that no longer works, would be relieved of the direct overhead attributable to investigative journalists with star-power.
  • Journalists would be relieved of the drudgery that comes of meeting the individual editorial policies of their parent publication.
  • Major stories would savor the breaking-news élan of stories they bid to carry, which would then enter the public domain (after perhaps 24 hours) and require a by-line from both the source and the reporter.
  • Lesser events (of state or local interest) would bring lower prices or syndication. Syndication made guys like Mike Royko very wealthy (writing over 7,500 columns, ultimately syndicated in over 600 newspapers).
Considering disadvantages, I can really think of none.

Such an organization would depend upon the reputation and integrity of its contributors. But they are out there now, on smaller and smaller ice-flows; thousands of highly regarded professionals who could bring up a next generation of young reporters by the oldest method in history . . . apprenticeship.

Someone is going to do it, perhaps a Mike Bloomberg type, with lots of know-how, experience and a regard for the public sphere.

Let’s hope so, before they are lost and the print world becomes one tedious and uninformed blog, with nothing upon which to feed. Giving away value does not spell the end of democracy, but it goes a long way towards frittering away the investigative report.