Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Wither investigative journalism

The steady drumbeat of gloom and doom emanating from the nation's news media is a depressing thing. Folks I went to college with facing layoffs and budgetary cutbacks, shrinking coverage and falling newspaper circulations is unnerving and disheartening to me. Yes, I got out of the newspaper biz at the right time, but that was more dumb luck on my part than any kind of prescience. And the struggles of newspapers--and the growing difficulties of broadcast media--poses its own troubling challenges to media relations folk such as myself.

Back in my newspaper days, I was never much of an investigative journalist. For that kind of reporting, you've got to have tenacity of character, a keen, restless mind and a patient managing editor who's willing to wait weeks or months for a story to pan out, not to mention the backbone to stand up against the inevitable push-back. I had none of that, which explains all the spot news and sports reporting I did. But working on my Chicken Ranch book (and yes, I absolutely had to work a reference in for that project) has given me a newfound respect and somewhat deeper understanding for what investigative reporters go through. I've ferreted out obscure, curious and downright scandalous facts. I've encountered boundless encouragement from some parties, outright hostility and scorn from others. I've even received anonymous emails warning me not to revisit the topic (granted, the grammar left something to be desired, but still)!

Despite all the journalistic tools and experience I'm drawing on, I know what I'm doing isn't the same as what Bob Woodward & Carl Bernstein did. Heck, I'm not even in Roland Kenneth Towery's league. The trouble is, increasingly, nobody else is, either. Television and radio "news" programs are increasingly driven by personalities and opinion, non-stop op-ed soapboxes that are incredibly profitable but short on fact or substance. Traditional dead-tree newspapers are rapidly dying off themselves. When I graduated with my journalism degree from Texas A&M University, the industry was bemoaning the loss of second dailies in metropolitan areas--the Houston Post, Dallas Times Herald and San Antonio Light all bit the dust within 5 years of my graduation. Now, Texas A&M doesn't even offer a journalism degree, and the largest-circulation dailies in the nation are filing for bankruptcy. To stay alive, budgets are being sliced to the bone and beyond. When CNN can't even cough up the resources to fact-check reports of a Coast Guard gun battle on the Potomac River, resource-intense investigative journalism is looked upon as an unaffordable luxury and is taking a huge hit.

Of all the Jeffersonian ideals of a free press, investigative journalism is the foundation of the Fourth Estate and protection against corruption and tyranny. Muck, for want of a better term, does not rake itself. Until somebody figures out how to make real money with online news content, I don't see the trend for shallower, more superficial news reportage reversing any time soon. Yet corruption and abuse aren't likely to abate in the interim.

Is there a solution? I don't know. The talent and knowledge is out there, undoubtedly. There are a shrinking number of investigative journalists still investigating for news organizations, there are former investigative journalists who have moved to other forms of reportage, and there are those who are out of journalism all together. Presumably, given the character of said reporters, the drive to kick over stones and expose the vermin beneath to the light of day still resides within them at some level. So why not harness this latent investigative potential? Could not a freelance bureau, alliance or guild-type infrastructure organize, connecting registered investigators with proven track records in various regions around the country--or indeed, even the world, since there's no need to restrict our vision in this era of online globalization--with media outlets in need of such singular talents? As newspapers and like media outlets reduce and eliminate support for investigative reporters, it is not unreasonable to envision situations--rumor, accusations, etc.--arising which promise significant payoff from an investigative standpoint, but for which the specific media outlet is lacking the skilled personnel and experience necessary to pursue effectively. Instead, said media could directly contract the experienced reporter with preexisting contacts and knowledge of the city/region via the freelance bureau/guild/alliance on a case-by-case basis. Ultimately, the media outlet would pay more on a per-story basis, but save money overall by not having the overhead of full-time investigative reporters on staff. And the investigative reporters, well, they'd have work. As a bonus, they'd still have terrible pay, work awful hours and get no respect from editors or the public, just like they did when they were full-fledged staff.

That's not going to happen, though. I'm not so much a Pollyanna that I actually think, given the choice to spend money for outside reportage on a critical investigative piece or to let said investigative piece die due to lack of personnel to pursue it, most newspapers and TV stations would guard the bottom line and choose the latter. Make no mistake, the news media has always been about profitability, but in the halcyon days of decades past, the smaller ownership groups occasionally allowed the quaint concepts of public good and idealism to take root in the newsroom and editorial offices. I don't see that in the corporate mentality of today's marketplace, with the emphasis on short-term returns and relentless profitability growth. Journalism is passe, and news is just another entertainment commodity, to be gussied up and sent out to cha-cha with Tom DeLay on Dancing with the Stars.

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