“Investigative reporting became sexy after Watergate,” wrote Alicia Shepard, media consultant for the News Literacy Project, in The New York Times’ Room for Debate forum on the lasting effects of the scandal, published yesterday.
The tenacious pursuit of a story by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein ultimately played an integral part in driving President Richard Nixon out of the White House, and this "sexy" triumph of truth over power, further romanticized in the book and movie that followed (“All the President’s Men”) prompted a “sharp rise in investigative reporting,” wrote Sheperd.
This included the opening of a number of investigative units by newspapers and television stations, and the founding in 1975 – the year after Nixon resigned – of the Investigative Reporters & Editors group (IRE), a nonprofit organization whose mission is “to foster excellence in investigative journalism, which is essential to a free society.”
Still spry at 38, the IRE group is holding its annual conference in Boston this weekend. Now 4,500 members-strong, the organization remains dedicated to providing professional training, support and protection to investigative journalists, with help from donations by individuals and organizations such as the Knight Foundation.
That a nonprofit organization of this nature should have to subsidize the revenue it earns from membership and conference fees is not alarming. That investigative reporting itself is increasingly reliant on the generosity of philanthropists and charitable foundations, however, has provoked some of the industry’s key figures to express deep concern.
While Carl Bernstein has reportedly said that all good reporting is investigative, Shepard’s article offered a more pragmatic characterization of the practice of investigative journalism as “expensive reporting that can take six months to a year before anything is published.” In the current climate of plummeting advertising revenues and mass job cuts in newsrooms in many parts of the world, industry leaders are drawing attention to the fact that this resource-intensive branch of journalism is in jeopardy.
“Now, 40 years after Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein wrote their first stories about the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in Washington’s Watergate office building, the future of investigative reporting is at risk,” warned former Washington Post executive editor Leonard Downie Jr. in a June 7 editorial.
Downie, himself a former investigative journalist and one of the founders of the IRE group, went on: “We continue to live in perilous times, making investigative journalism as essential to our democracy as the Watergate stories were. However, the impact of digital media and dramatic shifts in audience and advertising revenue have undermined the financial model that subsidized so much investigative reporting during the economic golden age of newspapers, the last third of the 20th century. Such reporting remains a high priority at many financially challenged papers, which continue to produce accountability journalism that matters to their communities — but they have far fewer staff members and resources to devote to it.”
This gloomy image fits into the narrative of Fit to Print, a documentary examining the on-going crisis within the U.S. newspaper industry, and how it will affect investigative reporting. The film was directed by Adam Chadwick, a former New York Times copy editor, and produced by Nancy Wolfe. It is currently in post-production, and the filmmakers are relying on charitable donations to see the project through.
Despite the gravity of the storm it is weathering, however, certain recent events remind us that accountability journalism is not yet dead. For example, the work of an investigative reporter helped to bring David Cameron, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, before the Leveson Inquiry today, where he publically answered questions about the nature of the relationship between British politics and the press.
The phone hacking scandal that brought the powerful Murdoch empire to its knees, forced the multibillion-dollar BSkyB merger to a screeching halt, killed off a highly lucrative Sunday tabloid, and is placing the British police department, government and mass media under intensive scrutiny, was exposed by a seasoned investigative hack, who was given the time and resources to do so by a newspaper that takes seriously the watchdog role implied by its name.
“Every so often—perhaps once every 18 months—the veteran Guardian writer Nick Davies comes into my office, shuts the door with a conspiratorial backward glance, and proceeds to tell me something hair-raising,” wrote the Guardian’s Editor-in-Chief Alan Rusbridger in the The Daily Beast last July.
His article explains how, when a veteran journalist like Davies begins to pursue an investigative project like the phone hacking scandal, the granting of an editor like Rusbridger’s blessing is “followed by a small inner gulp at the sheer scale and implications of the stories.”
Davies’ dogged pursuit of truth over several years allowed the Guardian to eventually expose “the Murdoch empire’s web of corruption,” wrote Katrina Vanden Heuvel, Editor and Publisher of the Nation magazine, in a column for the Washington Post in which she acknowledges the danger investigative reporting is facing, but refuses to declare it doomed.
Along with newspapers like the Guardian, web-based nonprofits, many of which are staffed by experienced journalists who have lost or left their jobs at traditional newspapers, are stepping up to fill the investigative reporting void. New York’s ProPublica, the Texas Tribune, California Watch and the Voice of San Diego are four U.S. examples given by Downie in his editorial, and similar organizations are keeping investigative reporting alive throughout the world.
Downie continued by warning that, funded by charitable foundations, individual donors or university journalism schools, the long-term sustainability of this model is tenuous. Foundations are often willing to provide seed money but not life-long support, and competition with other charitable causes is fierce.
Despite their vulnerability, however, some of these organizations have already had a noticeable impact, and the energy with which they carry out their work bodes well for the future of investigative journalism. “Most of them have small staffs and budgets, but their zeal for their mission reminds me of the Washington Post reporters and editors who chased after Watergate four decades ago,” wrote Downie.
Bad news may abound in the industry, but for now at least, investigative journalists - whether at historic newspapers or bright-eyed start-ups - are still making their editors gulp.
Photo from "All the President's Men"