The decline—and future promise—of investigative journalism

image The Solomon Scandals, my D.C. newspaper novel, is solidly rooted in Washington and suburbs.

But could future Jonathan Stones break explosive Washington stories without even leaving hometowns in the hinterlands?

That’s one of the intriguing concepts in a video accompanying Investigative ShortfallMary Walton’s generally downbeat article in the American Journalism Review’s September issue. The video itself features Deborah Nelson, a Washington Post and L.A. Times alum now teaching journalism at the University of Maryland.

image The bad news is that fewer investigative reporters work for big papers than before, a point that both Nelson and Walton make. The good news is that philanthropies have taken up some of the slack by way of organizations like ProPublica. Beyond that, more and more of the government is online, simplifying the task of detecting irregularities from afar. Geography doesn’t matter as much, Nelson notes even though she is far from sanguine about the present. When the Washington Post exposed Top Secret America, one of the reporters was an intelligence and computer expert named William M. Arkin, who, at least in the past, has tracked the intel establishment from the metropolis of South Pomfret, Vermont.

What’s more, newspapers can put documents online for analysis by the masses—crowd-sourcing, in common Internet parlance. That’s what the Post itself has done on occasion. “We could engage the public to help us keep an eye on Washington,” Nelson notes. Hundreds could pitch in.

But what about efforts from afar at even the individual level? Nothing can fully replace face-to-face interviews or digging through old-fashioned paper records on the scene when no practical alternatives exist for reporters. But the phone was good enough for me to bluff the truth out of the late Sen. Abraham Ribicoff’s trustee in Connecticut and reveal that the senator had held a secret and illegal investment in a CIA-occupied building in Arlington, Virginia. In fact, during Watergate investigation, Woodward and Bernstein again and again relied on the phone.

image One way to open up the government still further—put more of it online and encourage perusal of the records by both beyond-the-belt way journalists and citizens in general—would be the implementation of the National Information Stimulus Plan about which I wrote in James Fallows’ blog on the Atlantic Monthly site.

Related links: Mediagazer. Also, for another perspective, see comments from Robert Lee Hotz, a director of the Alicia Patterson Foundation, which, along with groups such as the Fund for Investigative Journalism, has long provided help for investigative journalists working on demanding stories.

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David Rothman

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