Ask an entire generation of journalists what inspired them to go into or stay in the news business and the answer often comes down to one word: Watergate. Forty years ago this month, two young reporters at the Washington Post filed their first stories about what a White House spokesman described as “a third rate burglary.” It’s debatable whether the news media’s coverage of the Watergate break-in and the corruption inside the Nixon administration forced the first resignation of a sitting U.S. president, but there’s no doubt that it changed journalism. So where are we now, two decades later?
Former Post editor Len Downie writes that investigative, accountability journalism is at a crossroads. At many newspapers, he says, it’s still being produced but by fewer journalists with fewer resources. On television, he argues, much investigative reporting consists of consumer and crime stories–something we’ve documented here, as well. And while he applauds the zeal of nonprofit sites, he’s worried about their future:
Investigative nonprofits are being started all the time. But many of the fledgling sites are struggling to survive. Foundations that provide seed money seldom are interested in helping with long-term sustainability. Fundraising and membership drives must compete with other causes. Some start-ups have already failed. Others have had to cut costs and staff to stay alive.
There’s no question that newspaper investigative staffs have been slashed as the industry has contracted. A new documentary, Fit to Print, follows some of those reporters as they’ve tried to keep watch-dogging after losing their jobs.
Filmmaker Adam Chadwick, a former copy editor at the New York Times, tells Politico that he’s actually fairly optimistic about the future. “We leave viewers with a renewed sense that the industry will shake itself out — maybe not the newspaper industry, but the news industry will be better than ever.” But Chadwick himself is an example of how tough it can be to go it alone. He’s still trying to get funding to finish the film and is only a third of the way toward his goal.
Perhaps the best place to get a real sense of the current state of investigative reporting is in Boston, where the 36th annual conference of Investigative Reporters and Editors is being held this week. I’m sorry to miss it this year. If you’re going, please share your take-aways: Where is investigative reporting still going strong? Can it get the funding it needs to survive?