Who will do investigative reporting once the daily newspapers go out of business? This seems like a rhetorical question. Without a large journalistic institution paying the substantial costs, how could anybody out there have the guts, the moxie, the chutzpah to wear out the shoe leather, ask the hard questions, chase the story wherever it leads, and expose the skullduggery of the powerful in an exclusive article for the bulldog edition?
The prospect of a world without snooping reporters should be troubling even if you’re not the type who can say “Fourth Estate” with a straight face. Sure, reporters on lengthy investigative junkets produce their share of multi-part snoozers that wouldn’t see print if not for the sunk costs of the investigations— Pulitzer bait informing the reader, for example, that U-Haul trailers may flip if you turn your car too sharply. But the daily newspaper, specifically the daily newspaper with a full or near monopoly in its local market, can still afford to concentrate reporting resources with a degree of intelligence that blogs and news aggregators have not yet matched.
Like many self-evident truths of the media collapse, however, this one has a rubber/road challenge. The experience of the average news consumer is vastly richer than it was 10 years ago. (And considering that whole new categories of news consumers—such as the 23 million Americans who now receive their journalism via mobile phone—have been created in just the last few years, we should use the term average with caution.) News sources, documentation, and opinion have never been more abundant or more easily accessible. If you want to learn about the scandal- laced competition between Boeing and EADS/Northrop Grumman for the next Air Force tanker contract, or the collapse of the Schenectady, New York, police department, you’ve never been in a better position to do so.
How is this possible? Everybody you talk to says there are fewer investigative reporters out there. Everybody you talk to who is honest admits that bloggers and other holy fools have failed to fill the gaps on a sustained basis. “The amount of investigative reporting going on in Sacramento has definitely declined over the last decade,” says Jon Fleischman, whose California politics roundup flashreport.org itself offers the kind of inventive, idea-driven, aggressively researched journalism you would normally associate with traditional investigative reporting.
Here’s one hypothesis. Numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics suggest that in the decade from 1998 through 2007, another field was outgrowing, and perhaps growing at the expense of, traditional journalism. The number of people working as “reporters and correspondents” declined slightly in that period, from 52,380 in 1998 to 51,620 in 2007. But the number of public relations specialists more than doubled, from 98,240 to 225,880. (Because job types and nomenclature change substantially, I have used only directly comparable jobs. The U.S. economy was still supporting 7,360 paste-up workers in 1998, for example, while in 2007 some 29,320 Americans were working under the already antique title “desktop publishers.”)
So are flacks the future, or even the present, of investigative journalism? This interpretation makes intuitive sense. Important data points by which we continue to live our lives— the number of jobs that were created or destroyed by NAFTA, the villainy of the Serbs in the Yugoslav breakup, all sorts of projected benefits or disasters in President Obama’s budget plans— are largely the inventions of P.R. workers.
And though it’s considered wise to believe the contrary, these communications types are not constructing all these news items entirely (or even mostly) by lying. Flackery requires putting together credible narratives from pools of verifiable data. This activity is not categorically different from journalism. Nor is the teaching value that flackery provides entirely different from that of journalism: Most of the content you hear senators and congressmen reading on C-SPAN is stuff flacks provided to staffers.
For some, this development may seem appalling, even threatening. “Without Woodwards and Bernsteins, there will be even more Nixons and Madoffs raining mayhem and destruction,” Bruce Ackerman and Ian Ayres wrote in a February U.K. Guardian plea for a public journalism endowment. Addressing a February 28 Microsoft panel in Silicon Valley, the Stanford political scientist Joshua Cohen warned, “It would really be a disaster if this investigative profession went out of business, a disaster for democracy.”
But the idea of public relations (and its many fancy permutations, from “image management” to “oppo research” to “crisis”) replacing objective journalism becomes less scary when you reflect that, pace Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the cast of High School Musical 3, we are not all in this together. Communications is a highly competitive environment, and it is becoming more competitive. Frequently the most valuable information comes out just because somebody wants to make somebody else look bad.
It’s an odd hero-to-zero reversal: from the most sainted of journalistic types, the in-depth reporter, to one of society’s most despised bottom feeders, the publicity hound. During a recent P.R. job I found it jarring to work with a Pulitzer winner now doing the kind of work that, in better days, we both would have considered akin to defrauding widows and orphans. But that’s the real value of the industry, and why it should be considered, along with blogging and social-networking media, as an important step in the democratization of journalism. Even the Octomom can hire representation.
You may not share my skepticism that newspapers were ever in the objectivity business, or my enthusiasm to see them replaced by openly interested parties. But it’s a good bet you always liked the idea of investigative journalism more than the reality. “The public appetite for that kind of serious, probing journalism has always been extremely limited,” says Allan Mayer, a journalist turned partner at the communications firm 42West. “My feeling is that the era of high-minded journalism lasted roughly from the ’60s to the mid-’80s. For most of its history journalism was a pretty low-minded occupation. The people decrying the loss of investigative journalism are largely people of my generation, who grew up with this anomalous situation."
An earlier version of this article included the wrong URL for the Flash Report. The correct URL is flashreport.org.
Contributing Editor Tim Cavanaugh (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a writer in Los Angeles.