It’s beyond dispute that the finest investigative reporting being done by members of the press is marvelous. The problem is, there’s not enough of it. Month to month, we find evidence that gaps in watchdog coverage grow. Where once newspaper reporters were assigned routine beats, such as poverty, labor, the courts, this doesn’t happen so much anymore, or maybe a reporter gets three beats to cover when the average number used to be one. The state of race relations seems good for a Newsweek cover story every five years, but that’s about it. What’s happening in prisons? Forget it. The problems are as large and numerous as ever, but the press’s watchful eyes, in large measure, have gone away.

When reporters are on a beat, they are known by those they cover. In time, they come to know who is doing what and learn why. They sniff out when something isn’t working as it should and, pretty soon, if they are doing their job well, sources start to come to them. Stories that once seemed impossible to nail down now seem doable. One of the great losses of our day is that so much of this kind of daily legwork isn’t happening, not to mention the enormous loss of so much valuable institutional memory vanishing by way of employee buyouts. For any editors who don’t realize what this absence means, perhaps a reminder from a one-time secretary of defense might help; he’d surely put these absent stories in the category of “known unknowns.”

As someone who remembers when beat reporting served a valuable purpose—for the newspaper and the public—I wonder at times whether there will ever again be a time when substantial reporting occurs about the topics and issues on which beat reporters once kept watch. I am not holding my breath for that day to arrive.

The Web: An Investigative Reporter’s Tool

What the Web does incomparably well is to provide information—instantly—on just about anything. Want to know about where there have been cases of bird flu? Or what can go wrong with voting machines? Or about the capital punishment of innocent people? Civilian deaths in Iraq? College enrollment and rising tuition costs? Googling not only provides answers, but it connects reporters and anyone else with possible places and sources to go to find out more. But the ways of the Web also mean that a “source” no longer has to wait for a reporter to call to get word out about something. The Web is always waiting—available anytime for anyone to publish anything.

Determining how trustworthy a piece of information is or how reliable a source might be is what reporters do, or what they were once expected to do by those who read their stories. It is, therefore, not comforting to read a recent Harper’s Index item that observed the following: “Minimum number of edits to Wikipedia since June 2004 that have been traced back to the CIA: 310.” Nor is the habit Web audiences have of finding their way most often to sites where like-minded people reside something that ought to comfort us, either. At least when we open a newspaper we aren’t always sure what we’ll find inside, and sometimes what we find gives us food for thought.

There are plenty of reliable, dedicated groups and individuals responsibly sharing important information through the Web. And at a time when surveys of public attitudes inform us that the public’s trust in the press is exceedingly low, it seems inevitable that other avenues of seeking sources for “news” will be sought. We know already that the role the press once assumed as a gatekeeper of such information is no longer theirs. And with all of the changes brought by technology and with those happening in newsrooms, it is hard to know whether investigative journalism’s future looks brighter for those of us who believe in the essentialness of its traditional watchdog role.

Nieman Watchdog
During the four years I’ve been editor of the Nieman Watchdog Web site, there’s been, of course, an extremely rapid growth in digital media. Web sites of news organizations now display impressive multimedia displays of investigative pieces, such as those done by The New York Times and The Washington Post and other mainstream news outlets. A lot of other investigative work found on the Web is done, however, through nonprofit entities or by individuals, some of whom had distinguished careers in newsrooms before they began to publish on their own. Others with less familiar bylines have surfaced in recent years, and by now some have been around long enough that their work has shown itself to be credible and solid. Now on some important watchdog stories these Web-based writers are doing original reporting to the point where online sites, such as the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Center for Public Integrity, Talking Points Memo, and others are in the forefront of investigative reporting.

If editors believe, for example, that there should be more and better reporting about what is going on inside of prisons and with the courts—yet they lack the staff necessary to do this beat as day-to-day reporting—then there are ways that the Web can help. With well-researched information and links to news coverage in every state, The Sentencing Project’s Web site, operated by a prison reform group in Washington, D.C., for example, can give reporters a good start in figuring out whether there is a story to be told. Or the reporter can go to the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law or to a range of similar sites. It’s not exactly the way shoe-leather reporting was done but, in some ways, use of the Web will likely enable some aspects of reporting to take place that would never have been possible before.

“Revealing the Disinformation Industry”
– Barry Sussman
Another example of that is a public interest group, the Center for Medicare Advocacy, Inc.. Journalists probing the Bush administration’s apparent efforts to weaken and possibly destroy the Medicare system will find this a knowledgeable source. In this case, as in others, experts serve as sources and do their own reporting through regular online releases. Its executive director, Judith Stein, has written occasional pieces for the Nieman Watchdog site that, in my view, provide authoritative, excellent leads for journalists.

Sites like this one—and many others—give reporters guidance that can jump-start an investigative story by confirming hunches they might have with solid data and by suggesting sources to which they can turn. Few investigative assignments, however, will be—or should be—completed online; I’m old enough and experienced enough to know the importance of working with actual sources—people who have stories to tell and documents to back up what they know. Databases, and the computer tools we have to work with, are a terrific resource, but there still need to be stories about real people and real people’s lives. Readers—whether they get their news online or in a newspaper or on TV—aren’t riveted by numbers and timelines. What they still crave are stories, in this case ones in which the powerful are held accountable for actions they’ve taken and the circumstances of the vulnerable are brought to life.

In a letter in his 2006 Berkshire Hathaway annual report, Warren Buffett wrote that, when he was young, “No paper in a one-paper city, however bad the product or however inept the management, could avoid gushing profits.” Those days are gone. Now Buffett believes there are two paths for newspapers to take if they are to survive. One path leads to “civic-minded wealthy individuals [who] may feel that local ownership will serve their community well.” That’s a possibility, but a declining one, he wrote. Speaking about the Buffalo News, which Berkshire Hathaway owns, Buffett held out the hope that “some combination of print and online will ward off economic doomsday.”

Let me add a proviso to Buffett’s two-path strategy. Unless newspapers figure out how—in print and online—to continue their essential watchdog role by providing substantive investigative reporting in well-told ways, then whether they survive or not, what they’ve meant to the survival of our democracy will have vanished.

Barry Sussman is the editor of the Nieman Watchdog Project.

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