A New Book Attempts to Define the Value of Investigative Journalism

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October 10, 2016, Poynter

The Poynter Institute is one of the world’s leading resources for journalism and consequently civil society. Readers should take note when Poynter recommends a new book such as this one: Democracy’s Detectives; The Economics of Investigative Journalism, by James T. Hamilton. The book is a work of journalism about journalism.

“Democracy’s Detectives” finds hope in the rise of local nonprofits like the Texas Tribune, the Voice of San Diego and MinnPost. And Hamilton devotes his last chapter not to general musing on the future, but to a detailed examination of the promise of “advanced computational journalism,” streamlining and strengthening more traditional shoe-leather investigations.

Hamilton concedes, though, that his conclusion amounts to “a warning and a wish.” On the one hand, the changes in media markets “put local investigations particularly at risk.” On the other, Hamilton clarifies “the great benefits to society” of original content on public issues—even when that means a smaller return for investors.

Investigative journalism is expensive and almost never profitable, but it generates “hundredfold benefits to society in the reforms they provoke.” It is the journalism that matters, information that citizens in any democracy deserve to know. The challenge is in finding ways to justify and financially support this kind of stubborn reporting that pushes for important truth the benefits of which are widely distributed across society.

Long after Watergate, the movie Spotlight reminded everyone how this is traditionally achieved. A determined team at a major newspaper, led by a brave editor, is permitted to spend months relentlessly chasing down a major story. After many setbacks, the presses roll. Justice is done.

More recently, a newer model of investigative reporting arose: The Panama Papers. The International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, a subsidiary of the nonprofit Center for Public Integrity, did not break this story by themselves. ICIL organized an international network of 107 media partners, mostly small, to embrace the project and commit to a single deadline. They all shared the credit.

From ProPublica, GroundTruth, Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, and local and regional news nonprofits like the Texas Tribune and Voice of San Diego, to the single-topic news organizations like Marshall Project and InsideClimate News, holding government and private institutions accountable to the public is still happening.

The migration of journalism into digital channels disrupted incumbent newspapers and undermined their business models. In such an unstable audience environment, civil society needs to find new ways to keep investigative journalism alive. Democracy’s Detectives draws on “a painstakingly assembled data set of thousands of investigations by U.S. journalists and reaches conclusions about the types of investigative stories that get prioritized and funded.” Important stories are going untold as news outlets increasingly shy away from the expense of watchdog reporting. Hamilton suggests that technology may hold at least one answer. “Computational journalism” (making use of digital records and data-mining algorithms) lowers the costs of discovering stories.

Journalism has been in a dreary crisis for about twenty years. The challenges have nothing to do with the work of journalism itself. This is a business model crisis. New digital news enterprises that have very little to do with journalism are elevated, if not preferred, by the marketplace. Reporting in depth, at length, and in complex detail remains both vital and viable to any working democracy. Hamilton is determined to help find a way to assign value to the hardened “democracy detectives” in an effort to keep them working. The truth is far more complicated than what ascends to the top of hyperactive amalgam “news” sites where readers vote with emoji on what is worth sharing.—James Schaffer