When the economic story spreads into media (which it has, though I didn’t get a chance to cover that in the book), the news becomes about giving the customer what it thinks he or she wants and less about what a democratic citizen might need to know in order to function effectively in a democratic society. The news becomes about attracting eyeballs in order to build the biggest audience possible, and less about the communication of meaningful information.
That means you start to see lots of celebrity news and shock stories that are intended to make you tune in, and less investigative reporting and detailed journalism, which is more expensive to produce anyway, and not necessarily “efficient” (more on that below).
Happily, not everyone is on board with that, though it seems to hard to believe sometimes when 24-hour news channels seem to be spending a lot of time on information that doesn’t seem to really matter in the larger scheme of things. But there are pockets of people who are trying to live the independent life of society in media, and one group that’s doing that is ProPublica.
ProPublica is an independent newsroom of 34 working journalists headquartered in Manhattan that has been producing journalism in the public interest since June 2008. From their website:
Investigative journalism is at risk. Many news organizations have increasingly come to see it as a luxury. Today’s investigative reporters lack resources: Time and budget constraints are curbing the ability of journalists not specifically designated “investigative” to do this kind of reporting in addition to their regular beats. This is therefore a moment when new models are necessary to carry forward some of the great work of journalism in the public interest that is such an integral part of self-government, and thus an important bulwark of our democracy.
The business crisis in publishing and — not unrelated — the revolution in publishing technology are having a number of wide-ranging effects. Among these are that the creation of original journalism in the public interest, and particularly the form that has come to be known as “investigative reporting,” is being squeezed down, and in some cases out.
The business crisis in publishing is making it increasingly difficult for the companies that control nearly all of our nation’s news organizations to afford—or at least to think they can afford—the sort of intensive, extensive and uncertain efforts that produce great investigative journalism.
It is true that the number and variety of publishing platforms are exploding in the Internet age. But very few of these entities are engaged in original reporting. In short, we face a situation in which sources of opinion are proliferating, but sources offacts on which those opinions are based are shrinking. The former phenomenon is almost certainly, on balance, a societal good; the latter is surely a problem.
More than any other journalistic form, investigative journalism can require a great deal of time and labor to do well—and because the “prospecting” necessary for such stories inevitably yields a substantial number of “dry holes,” i.e. stories that seem promising at first, but ultimately prove either less interesting or important than first thought, or even simply untrue and thus unpublishable.
Given these realities, many news organizations have increasingly come to see investigative journalism as a luxury that can be put aside in tough economic times. Thus, a 2005 survey by Arizona State University of the 100 largest U.S. daily newspapers showed that 37% had no full-time investigative reporters, a majority had two or fewer such reporters, and only 10% had four or more. Television networks and national magazines have similarly been shedding or shrinking investigative units. Moreover, at many media institutions, time and budget constraints are curbing the once significant ability of journalists not specifically designated “investigative” to do this kind of reporting in addition to handling their regular beats.
In 2011, a series of ProPublica stories was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting, and in 2010, one story won a Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. You can follow them on Twitter at @ProPublica.