Journalism, Civil Society and 21st Century Reportage

As the failure of many newspapers looms and public radio cuts its journalistic offerings, the complaint against new media by established journalists gets sharper and sharper. The key rallying cry is that new media can’t provide investigative reporting, that it can only piggyback on the work of the mainstream print and radio media, and that when the newspapers go, there goes investigative work and all the civic value it provided.

As a starting point in a conversation about the future, this complaint is much more promising that complaining about how people on the Internet are really mean or stupid. It narrows the discussion down to a central function of journalism, the independent investigation of government, industry and society and the delivery of information from such investigation.

I know that many of the journalists talking along these lines don’t really mean to throw overboard all the other writing (and jobs supported by that writing) that appears within most major newspapers. But I’m going to take it that way: as a concession that much of the rest of the content of 20th Century newspapers is served either equivalently or better by online media. We don’t need newspapers to have film criticism or editorial commentary or consumer analysis of automobiles or comic strips or want ads or public records. It might be that existing online provision of those kinds of information could use serious improvement or has issues of its own. It might be that older audiences don’t know where to find some of that information, or have trouble consuming it in its online form. But there’s nothing that makes published newspapers or radio programming inherently superior at providing any of those functions, and arguably many things that make them quite inferior to the potential usefulness of online media. So throw the columnists and the reviewers and the lifestyle reporters off the newspaper liferaft.

So it comes down to independent, sustained investigation of public affairs. The argument that online media cannot provide this function comes down to money, in two respects. First, that doing this kind of work requires an organization that will support the travel and costs necessary to doing this work, that if you want reports from Darfur or Afghanistan or the U.S. Presidential campaign, you’ve got to pay for reporters to travel and live and acquire information, and you’ve got to pay to have an organization that legitimates those reporters so that informational sources will recognize and trust and accredit those reporters. Second, that you’ve got to pay people a living wage for reporters and writers to do this kind of work in a dedicated fashion, that while people might produce short-form criticism of current films or games or TV shows purely out of voluntary interest while making a living at some other job, they are not going to engage in sustained investigatory work for serial or short-form publication without being paid to do so.

I agree, but let me first pick a few nits before moving to a possible answer to the problem of financial support for reportage.

1) The key distinction here is “short-form publication”. Longer reportage, at book length, is at least arguably still supported financially by other publishing economies besides newspapers, that consumers will still pay for serious nonfiction and investigative reportage. Arguably a lot of the work appearing at that length is more satisfying and substantial than newspaper journalism, in fact: it doesn’t require savage editing or oversimplification in order to fit within the format of a daily paper. If you were trying to understand the Iraq War as it unfolded, where would you rather turn? The ten to twenty excellent books produced by reporters or the fairly shabby and inconsistent record of daily reportage in mainstream newspapers? It’s true that newspaper jobs underwrote some of the production of those books, but transferring that support onto the book publishing industry doesn’t strike me as impossible.

Moreover, if we lost at least some short-form reporting, that might be a blessing in disguise. Daily newspapers (and yes, daily blogs) are forced to make many mountains out of molehills precisely because they need to report every day on stories whose development is not necessarily a day-to-day affair. So we get microreadings of tracking polls, parsings of speeches, small leaks blown into gigantic kabuki theater for the amusement of Inside-the-Beltway types, none of which really tells us much about how a story is actually developing. Online media, print media, and television all suffer from this, but maybe if we gave way to longer press cycles and more substantive publication forms, we’d be very well-served.

Still, some stories do need daily coverage in a short-form manner. Sometimes we can’t wait six months for a book or three months for an article in the Atlantic.

2) If print journalists want to claim that their saving grace is independent, investigative journalism, they might want to clean house a bit first, because a substantial amount of print journalism doesn’t really live up to that ideal. Getting fed information by a confidential source inside an Administration or inside a business who is using the reporter either to kick a rival in the teeth or as part of a coordinated scheme to float a trial balloon about a hypothetical decision is not independent investigative reporting. It’s a collusive agreement to serve as an unpaid assistant to the public-relations staff of a government or business. Calling a few experts on your Rolodex and plugging them into static paragraphs in an article that otherwise just processes the conventional wisdom of punditry is not independent investigative reporting.

If what we want to support is sustained, independent investigation of issues of public concern, we need some new models about how to do that kind of work. A lot of what passes for investigation now isn’t ultimately that different from what online media can provide, and much of that alleged reporting will be reinvented if newspapers pass from the scene. Government officials are still going to try and manipulate information to their advantage even if they don’t do it by leaking to a major urban daily. Industries are going to try to get favorable coverage from seemingly independent sources even if they don’t have a Washington Post or Los Angeles Times to do it through.

Investigative reporting, wherever it ends up appearing, needs to tighten up its ethics and to systematize and broaden its methodology. And that effort needs to go in tandem with legislative and governmental reforms: better sunshine laws, more requirements for disclosure and transparency from private businesses and institutions, and so on. Investigative reporting should involve a sustained, deep reading and use of publically available materials, the acquisition of independent technical or expert knowledge about the issues in an investigation, and sustained pressure on publically available sources to speak to the investigation. Ethically it requires a lot of attention to remaining independent. This does not mean balanced in that tedious one-hand other-hand way: a good investigative reporter can have a strong view or sensibility about the subject of their investigation. But they can’t be a shill or mouthpiece for some off-stage interest.


This, I agree, can’t be done for free, or in the spare hours after work. Bloggers mostly are not going to do this kind of work. Short-form investigative reporting appearing in a daily or weekly publication requires a full-time job.

If newspapers contract their publication to this alone, can they remain economically viable with more or less the same business model as they have now?

Probably not. I suspect that after you throw overboard the columnists, reviewers etc. and their editors, you haven’t shed that much of your payroll. You can cut your overhead some, too: get out of that prestige building, concentrate your desks. Maybe create more pooled positions for expensive reportage (foreign, for example) or buy more from stringers and wire services.

Now you’ve probably lost at least some of your advertisers, who were there for the cultural coverage or the comics pages or something besides the reportage. Probably some of your older customer base is also gone, because that’s all they read too, along with a few of the bleeder-leads in the local news. Maybe you can make some of the lost print advertising revenue back with more extensive online advertising. That works for the top upper wedge of online content providers, so why not daily reportage providers? (The quality of product has to be high, though.)

Let’s suppose you up your subscriber fees considerably, figuring that your remaining audience of educated readers is willing to pay for high-quality information. Can you make up the difference in lost revenues to make your slimmer, leaner payroll and overhead?

Probably not, but I’ll bet the difference is in sight at this point. So how to cross the gap? I think with some kind of philanthropic or foundation funding–what we maybe need is an umbrella organization that produces pool reportage with heavy foundation support, an independent endowment, etc., from which daily news outlets buy their content, which provides a revenue stream back to the organization that produces the reportage. Rather than an editorial staff who prunes the reportage produced to a single voice or standard, the goal would be to support multiple reporters working on the same issues whose filed stories could be mixed-and-matched by a news portal or end publication–so we might get a front page of a daily newspaper that would have three bylines on the Obama stimulus package, each the product of a different reporter’s investigative work, if the stories were interesting or well-developed enough.

The end of the newspaper model of the last century doesn’t have to be the end of independent investigative reporting. Arguably it might be the beginning of a much better form for it. But I agree that online media as they stand can’t substitute for that vital practice, can’t make up the difference spontaneously, can’t automatically fill in the gap that newspapers will leave as they sink beneath the waves.

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18 Responses to Journalism, Civil Society and 21st Century Reportage

  1. north says:

    This might be a quibble, or maybe not. I don’t find reviewers superfluous. As a non-specialist who doesn’t read arts or theater publications, I find the NY Times arts section moderately interesting; same with the NYT science section. Natalie Angier is kind of a national treasure. I love the NYT film reviewers, most of the time, and I don’t find reliable film reviews online easily – except, of course, at newspaper websites. I’m perfectly comfortable having that be mainly provided online, but the infrastructure that supports it does produce real value that new media (especially voluntary new media) doesn’t produce. There are really two questions here: is the printed newspaper important? I’d say probably not. Is comprehensive reporting – investigative reporting on politics or specialty-beat reporting on arts/sciences for non-experts – important, whether published in print or online? Yes.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    Natalie Angier is wonderful. I like many film reviewers in mainstream papers. I would like to see a revenue model worked out where people who write well about culture are rewarded for that, supported financially. But the point is that what they do is arguably duplicated in online writing. Perhaps not as well, perhaps not as consistently. The argument about investigation is that it not only is not duplicated but that it can’t be. I buy that, up to a point.

  3. north says:

    I think what is not duplicated is the centralization of quality, reasonably reliable information in one place. I can go to the NYT website and find information about most mainstream political issues, major movies, especially publicly relevant scientific information, business news (including people like Gretchen Morgenson), etc. For me personally, some of those are duplicated by free online content (political and economic analysis especially, since I read lots of blogs on those subjects). But for people who are not quite as interested in policy or economics, it’s helpful to have both paid reporting with standards for accuracy and writing quality on many subjects, and a vendor who centralizes that reporting into one place. Something other than a newspaper could definitely do that. But current online media can’t.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    I agree that there is not a good centralized portal, that you have to find the good stuff in pockets online, that it’s very fragmented. *That*’s a problem for online media. So far most efforts to centralize content delivery have been amateurish or bizarre.

  5. jen says:

    Steve Coll at the New Yorker has also been arguing for a nonprofit model for newspapers, on his blog, although I think he’s more committed to the big newspaper model, just substituting foundations for old Sulzberger/Graham-type money and management.

  6. dmerkow says:

    I don’t actually worry much about coverage at the national level. Between tv news and their websites and the national newspapers and their websites (which I’m pretty confident can make their way to stability in some way or another), the coverage of national and federal issues will happen. I’m really worried about the loss of the newspaper at the local level. The sense of a local community created by that regularly published piece of paper is something American cities would miss and are already missing at the local newspaper becomes a shell of its former self. As an historian, I also worry about how we will write the history of the present – if the whole world is written in bytes and civilization passes away, we have no chance to recover that history in a hard copy at least gives us a fighting chance.

  7. Timothy Burke says:

    I think you’re right that local news is more immediately threatened, but I don’t know that newspapers right now do a great job of it.

    At the level of total disaster, I’m not sure that archives full of newspapers are much more durable than stored digital data. Newspapers are among the quickest print materials to decay, I think. Plus I’m not real sure how safe libraries and archives will be as storage if something happens that wipes out all digital data everywhere–that’s a pretty big disaster! But digital preservation and archiving is legitimately a very big issue–I don’t think we need to think apocalyptically to be concerned about it.

  8. jim says:

    But most short form “independent, sustained investigation of public affairs” doesn’t appear in daily newspapers. Seymour Hersh is in weeklies and monthlies. Patrick Cockburn’s reporting from Iraq (without which I’d be totally ignorant of day-to-day life in Iraq) has mostly been in the London Review, a biweekly. There are two good short form pieces out right now on the collapse of the Icelandic economy, by Michael Lewis and Ian Parker. One’s in Vanity Fair, a monthly; the other’s in the New Yorker, a weekly.

    Weekly, biweekly and monthly magazines’ business models aren’t currently failing. Individual magazines may be in trouble, but the sector as a whole isn’t. It’s daily newspapers, with mass circulation to sustain and monetize, whose business models are failing, both in sustaining circulation and in monetizing it. But daily newspapers engage with ephemera, not with sustained investigation.

  9. Timothy Burke says:

    Yeah. That’s one reason I question the proposition that without newspapers, there is no investigative reporting, as I noted above. That said, I think there is a kind of daily tracking of a story that is genuinely fast developing that requires some investigative skill, not quite the Hersh kind, but something of the sort, and that comes from newspapers primarily.

  10. Chris Goedde says:

    Speaking as someone who recently gave up his daily newspaper subscription (to the Chicago Tribune, after subscribing for about 15 years), I can’t say I’m too upse about the possible decline of newspapers. I also recently came across the Chi Town Daily News, which is a local non-profit newspaper that (as far as I can tell) does at least a good a job of covering local news as the Trib ever did. I don’t know if they produce a print edition; I just read it online.

  11. Timothy Burke says:

    We just gave up our subscription to the Philadelphia Inquirer, although their online offerings are just horrifically bad in design terms, largely because I don’t feel like I get anything from it in terms of the local coverage I’d like to read. The local coverage it provides is every once in a great while investigatory in the best sense, but most of the time it’s just passing along something that was said in public by a government official, some crime reports, and some frippery. There’s a few isolated other things they offer that I like (a nice attention to gardening on Fridays, for example) but it’s just not enough to justify the subscription.

  12. moldbug says:

    I love how everyone on this thread assumes that “new media” will be, by definition, just like the existing official press – only moreprogressive. I mean, haven’t you guys heard of Joe the Plumber?

    But seriously, in the era of Boxee, anyone can be a network. In fact, I’m actually thinking of starting my own RSS channel. It’ll be called CRTV – Confederate Racist Television.

    My goal is to start CRTV off as something like the Al Gore Channel, except from the opposite perspective of course. At first, we’ll just be crowdsourcing user-submitted clips. But eventually, I’d like to evolve into a mainstream reactionary network, with similar programming to one of the present majors. So in the morning we’ll show racist cartoons; in the afternoon, maybe some “Dynasty” reruns; in prime time, reactionary news; and at night, “Africa Addio,” “Das Boot,” old RBC newsreels, etc, etc.

    Ah, new media! I can’t wait for tomorrow to arrive.

  13. andrew says:

    I thought newsweeklies were struggling (aside from the New Yorker and Time, maybe). U.S. News is no longer weekly and the New York Times had a story about Newsweek heading in a similar direction.

    I think some of the day-to-day – ephemeral, even – reporting in newspapers gets undervalued in these kinds of discussions. There’s value to having someone follow legislation through Congress or a state legislature, as long as they do more than simply provide a bill-tracking service. But that kind of reporting isn’t really investigative in the sense usually meant by “investigative reporting”, and there are fewer reasons it can’t be done well online (especially through the combination the phone, online video of legislative sessions, and bill-tracking web services). It’s true that fewer people are doing it, and only a few places will be able to keep a correspondent in the relevant capitol, but I don’t think it’s in as much danger as investigative reporting.

    Foreign reporting is a more difficult question. When there are crises, it’s valuable to have someone already there – I’ve been impressed with the New York Times’ Russia reportage, but can’t remember any particular investigative stories – but most of the time there aren’t crises or ongoing situations to monitor closely. So there’s a question of whether it’s more cost-effective to have someone go out on assignment – which is how the New Yorker seems to do it – rather than pay to cover reporters during the stretches where there isn’t much (profitable) news.

  14. sibyl says:

    Local papers and lesser newsweeklies (US News, for instance) are suffering because their model depends on attracting readers for advertisers using the handle of local concerns and/or low cost. But the online world allows readers to overcome the barriers preventing them from buying better reporting. It doesn’t make sense for me to read the bad movie reviewer in the local newspaper when I can read David Denby online for free. It doesn’t make sense for me to read the AP story about the stimulus bill when I can read the Post or Times story online for free.

    Newspaper revenues are built on advertising and subscription. If I were building a metropolitan newspaper today in cyberspace, I would try to build a platform that fed this reality, so that the platform became a workable home page. I would have a small group of local reporters that would cover truly local news — the city’s transit fare hike, heroic local grandmothers, high school sports. I would then include links to the best reporting on the web — most likely I would arrange to buy, say, the Times’ foreign reporting and the Post’s national reporting and the New Yorker’s arts criticism and four or five of the six major comics and cartoon syndicates. I’d have a link to a movie showtime database and a TV listing database. And I might even try to include some kind of blog on the page that points to other interesting stuff that might be available. In other words, I’d try to create a platform where I could sell advertising on the front page and on locally produced content — and occasionally, if there were a local story of sufficient interest, I’d resell my stories to other “papers.” If advertisers knew that I was the biggest site in Denver, they’d be willing to advertise with me.

    If I’m the Post or the Times, I stop giving away my whole newspaper for free. I create a single front page that anyone can read for free, but if you want to read the whole story you have to pay (either a micropayment or a subscription fee to allow unfettered access). And then I draw more revenue by selling the reporting to local “newspapers” and selling those eyeballs to advertisers on the page.

  15. Timothy Burke says:

    Except those things are in tension with one another. If your main revenue stream online comes from advertising, you don’t want anything that keeps the eyeballs off your pages, most especially a micropayment or subscription fee. If your main revenue stream online comes from subscription, you have to break the normal functionality of the web entirely and prevent any links, reuses, citations, references except those that draw potential subscribers because the content is just too highly desired.

    Has anyone at all made a micropayment or subscription basis work in a sustained way for online content except for porn? There are sites like Salon that limp along, but I wouldn’t call them a healthy alternative to the economies of offline publishing.

  16. andrew says:

    I’ve always wondered about sites like ESPN. In the beginning, pretty much their entire website was free, but now a substantial portion of it is pay only. I rarely visit since most of what I’d be interested in is paywalled, but they must think they’re doing something right; I wonder what the actual numbers are. ESPN is also a bit unusual in having created a print outlet after being all tv/online, but they did that a few years ago when maybe it didn’t look so much like going against prevailing trends.

    Sports journalism seems to have become pretty much detached from other types of journalism online – there are bloggers/reporters who comment on sports, but usually it’s at the level of highly-informed fan (or not) – and perhaps as a result doesn’t come up that much in these discussions.

  17. sibyl says:

    Newspapers have depended on a combination of advertising revenue and subscription revenue for generations. They ought to be able to develop a similar combination online if they take account of how the web works. In my model the front page, which is free to everyone, has one banner ad for which I charge a certain price; the drill-down stories also have ads, but because you have to pay for them I can pitch these ads as reaching a more affluent audience (the way that broadcasters do). I think the model is instructive, although I don’t know whether they are making it pay; there are some people who are willing to pay for the subscriber functionality while others are willing to live without it.

    The first business that comes to my mind for successful micropayments is E-Z Pass. What makes it work is that there are incentives to join: increased speed, increased ease, and in some areas a lower price. If you have similar incentives — and, above all else of course, a desirable product — then you can get subscribers — maybe enough.

  18. dave.s says:

    I’m going to assert that some stuff does get investigated and forced into public consciousness by non-paid, non-journalist reportage. The examples I am putting out are the Dan Rather use of fraudulent documents about George Bush national guard service, with the Word document superscripts proving that they were counterfeits (heavily exposed by rightleaning blogs), the Durham-in-Wonderland/Liestoppers coverage of Duke lacrosse, and the Radley Balko/The Agitator exposure on the death sentence of Corey Maye ( The current drumbeat on Chris Dodd and his Countrywide sweetheart mortgage and his Irish cottage is partly from Connecticut papers and partly from bloggers.
    It’s not good enough, and won’t be. There aren’t going to be nearly enough people working volunteer to cover contracts going to nephews in every Inland Empire town government, or Maxine Waters’ stake in the banks for which she gets money. But some of it does happen.
    The BBC is a worrisome example of brightest-and-best subsidized journalism which sees only the things which the right Oxbridge people think pose problems. I don’t know how you fix it.

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