One area of journalism which has had multiple births and deaths in the United States––and currently seems to be undergoing a rebirth in a totally new formulation–is that of investigative journalism. Towards the late ’80s, the post-Watergate surge of investigative reporting fizzled out (before the internet really took hold), there was another dearth of American muckraking. If the current journalistic business model had been allowed to remain intact, it likely would’ve been another decade before the American appetite for hard-hitting investigations was realized within the mainstream as a profitable enterprise. Yet the rise of the internet and participatory-journalism interrupted this somewhat-controlled ebb and flow to prove that, while revenue models for its sustenance still need working out, the American appetite for investigative reporting is more voracious than it’s ever been.
Even absent a new revenue model, there have been numerous examples of concerted investigative efforts led in a grassroots, open-source manner with no need for funding. As this Alternet article about Josh Marshall’s and TPM’s successes points out, “the U.S. attorney’s scandal story was the result of a blog’s willingness to use and give full credit to a number of newspapers — all of which had picked up one piece of a coast-to-coast puzzle.”
This was an investigative story, no question, but the pieces were already there just waiting to be picked up. Pre-internet it would’ve required traveling to the different locations where attorneys had been fired and actually probing into the reasons for the firings. Going about all this just on a hunch is something most media outlets wouldn’t go for without additional evidence, but in the digital age is made possible by crowd-sourcing efforts such as Marshall’s, since it doesn’t require an upfront investment. The internet provides opportunities for investigative reporting that would’ve been fundamentally impossible without a participatory model inclusive of the consumer.
That said, it seems to me that TPM’s string of success would’ve triggered more outlets with pure muckraking aspirations, yet by and large bloggers and cultivators of online media focus on media narratives (what the media is or is not focusing on, etc.) rather than looking for the scoops to factually prove the pervasive mainstream shortcomings they constantly complain of.
Traditional journalism still doesn’t have the money that it once did to put into investigative reporting––it’s expensive, and you usually have no idea what you’ll get out of it. But the last few years outlets like ProPublica, focused on the “journalism as a public good” mantra, have attempted to define a new business model for investigative reporting that can be socially powerful without requiring the business incentives that a traditional outlet’s investigation would (Maybe a portion of Greenwald/Omidyar’s “NewCo” will resemble this model as well).
While ProPublica often does great work, and a business model that isn’t advertising-revenue-based is certainly better than one that is, the participatory and democratic nature of how Talking Points Memo broke the attorney story is a much more fundamental change to media creation-consumption trends. Unfortunately it has taken a back burner the last couple of years, but the potential for more participatory outlets to cover stories with a national or international scope is still possible. When a reader base is involved in creating the content it is consuming, a more knowledgeable and democratic society becomes possible as well. While Greenwald is a lover of reader-participation (and at this point its proven itself as a tool of profit if used correctly), fat-cat-funded journalism won’t be the ultimate answer to the problems with American media (and consequently American democracy). Even if funding journalism comes out of a desire to do public good (as in Omidyar’s case) there will still be an inherent level of elite interest in how that outlet operates.
This surge of millionaires wanting to support journalism in an age where its financial viability is tenuous, misses one key point: TPM’s scoop didn’t really cost much of anything. The power of this business model is far greater than the ProPublica model; it gets scoops faster and cheaper than a re-invented model of 20th century investigative journalism, and it builds a hard-core and devoted base that will buy all the non-corporate SWAG you can dream up.