Interesting investigation into a new old-media proposal

Filed under: Hazlehurst |

Here’s an excerpt from a recent article in the New York Times.
“As struggling newspapers across the country cut back on investigative reporting, a new kind of journalism venture is hoping to fill the gap.
“Paul E. Steiger, who was the top editor of The Wall Street Journal for 16 years, and a pair of wealthy Californians are assembling a group of investigative journalists who will give away their work to media outlets.
“The nonprofit group, called Pro Publica, will pitch each project to a newspaper or magazine (and occasionally to other media) where the group hopes the work will make the strongest impression. The plan is to do long-term projects, uncovering misdeeds in government, business and organizations.”
Sounds interesting, even laudable, doesn’t it? Take a veteran editor with impeccable credentials (The Journal won 16 Pulitzer prizes during Steiger’s tenure), give him $10 million, let him hire some brilliant reporters, set them loose and watch the Pulitzers roll in.
And, as daily newspapers across America cut their newsroom staffs and increasingly concentrate on the local minutiae that readers (and advertisers) appreciate, Steiger’s venture would seem timely and appropriate.
But is it?
Maybe it’s the last gasp of old media, both irrelevant and stifling. Just as massive African infrastructure projects financed and championed by the World Bank were ultimately destructive to local economies, maybe Pro Publica is misconceived and irrelevant.
Ever spend time with a crusty old reporter? He’ll be glad to tell you all about the past and future of journalism. With local variations, his story will go something like this.
“Oh, for those halcyon days of (fill in the date) when the land rang with the righteous rants of peerless investigative reporters who, treasured by crusading editors and supported by community-minded publishers, exposed crooked politicians, cops on the take, thieving businessmen and all of the assorted malefactors who dared disturb the serenity of (name town).
“But it’s all over. Only the Times, the Journal and the Post have the resources to do real reporting. Independent newspapers all over the country have been swallowed by chains that gut newsrooms, cut corners and jack up advertising rates. And now, with the Internet, newspapers are dying anyway.”
And then, with doleful mien, the crusty old reporter drops the “pity the fool” bomb.
“My career’s over — and I don’t know why any young person would ever want to be a journalist. You can’t make any money, there’s no future in it. There won’t even be newspapers 20 years from now — it’ll all be on the Internet.”
Maybe, maybe not. But one thing is certain. If you believe that investigative journalists should work, directly or indirectly, for daily newspapers, then investigative journalism is dying.
But if you look at weeklies, at blogs, at sites ranging from the Armed Forces Journal to the Huffington Post, you get a very different impression. You see a lively, argumentative, intelligent community of engaged journalists and their readers. You see a fluid, non-hierarchical world. You see — and read — so much of value that traditional journalism could never offer.
For example, go to the AFJ site and read Col. Paul Yngling’s now-famous essay about whether general officers who failed to voice their private doubts about the Iraq war were thereby guilty of dereliction of duty. Then read some of the hundreds of thoughtful, often agonized, posts discussing the article.
Many of those posting are officers on active duty — and what they have written starkly illuminates the war, the military and our country.
There are tens of thousands of full-time journalists working for weekly newspapers, and hundreds of thousands, even millions, doing Web-based journalism. It’s a world that must be strange and uncomfortable to the Steigers of the world, who conceive of journalism as an ordered, hierarchical enterprise.
The Times, the Journal and the Post are the Alpha Dogs, smugly and permanently ascendant. Next, the big regional papers, like the Miami Herald, the Denver Post and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. Then, the middle-market dailies in the hundred biggest metropolitan areas. And finally, hundreds of little newspapers in every town big enough to have a daily paper.
And then? And then nothing. Weeklies? Internet? Blogs? Interesting, but essentially trivial — good for nothing but amusement.
That’s the philosophy, admitted or not, which animates Steiger’s new venture. It’s based on the premise that real investigative reporters live in New York, get paid a lot, cultivate high-level contacts and write big, important stories for big, important people. It’s an exercise in nostalgia, an attempt to return to a simpler, sleepier time, before those feisty weeklies and outlandish bloggers crashed the party.
Investigative journalism isn’t dead — it just moved to a different address. It has become more local, more specific, more prolific and more interesting. Instead of a couple of thousand investigative reporters working for the dailies, there are now hundreds of thousands working in media as different as YouTube and weekly business journals.
It’s an exhilarating, heady time — without rules, without guideposts and full of opportunity.
No, we’ll never get rich, but journalism has never been about getting rich. It’s about having fun, doing good work, making the world a little better and, as the old saw goes, comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.
And by that, or any other measure, our world is just the opposite of that described by the crusty old journalist.
It’s a new golden age — and we’re lucky to be part of it.
John Hazlehurst can be reached at John.Hazlehurst@csbj.com or 227-5861.