Tim
Luckhurst, in a Guardian-UK article, Why Journalism Needs Paywalls, argues that
“It’s time to admit that giving away value undermines democracy.”

I’m
not sure he makes the case that democracy is any real trouble, but newspapers
surely are. They’re losing tons of money and, in an effort to staunch the
blood-flow, are tossing everything toss-able overboard. The fact seems to
remain that, in a world of instant on-line technology, pulling a daily print
edition together, rolling the presses and sending countless trucks off to thump
the bales of paper at news-stands and front porches is unprofitable—in the
extreme.

Johnny
Carson used to say, “If you buy the
premise, you buy the bit
.” My premise is that print editions of The New
York Times (insert your personal favorite here) will not survive. If you buy that
premise, the bit has to do with how to rescue investigative journalism from the
life-boats.

One
major paper after another has closed down foreign bureaus and heaved their best
investigative staff into the choppy waters of early retirement. These are not
lightweights and many, if not dead and buried,  are still working at their place of choice:
  •        
    Christiane
    Amanpour
  •         James
    Baldwin
  •        
    Carl
    Bernstein
  •        
    Ed
    Bradley
  •        
    Jimmy
    Breslin
  •        
    Joel
    Brinkley
  •        
    Walter
    Cronkite
  •        
    Thomas
    Friedman
  •        
    Amy
    Goodman
  •        
    Adam
    Gopnik
  •        
    David
    Halberstam
  •        
    Seymour
    Hersh
  •        
    Peter
    Jennings
  •        
    Pauline
    Kael
  •        
    Ted
    Koppel
  •        
    Norman
    Mailer
  •       
    Bill
    Moyers
  •        
    Edward
    R. Murrow
  •        
    Morley
    Safer
  •        
    Diane
    Sawyer
  •        
    Nina
    Totenberg
  •        
    Bob
    Woodward
But
the writing is on their wall and ours. Those who glibly pass off print media as
not as New Age as blogging and the Internet, would do well to pause and reflect
on where the content comes from that is so cheaply and irreverently commented
upon in cyberspace. Consider the Washington Post expose, “Soldiers Face Neglect, Frustration At Army’s Top Medical Facility,
by investigative reporters Dana Priest and Anne Hull.

The
blogosphere, the Congress and the American public went ballistic at this
travesty of care, particularly as it occurred in the midst of a bloody and
miserable war in Iraq and Afghanistan. No Dana Priest and Anne Hull . . . no
story, no exposure, no cleanup of the medical care at Reed.

The
Post, of course, cut its teeth on the Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein Watergate
break-in story that brought down Richard Nixon. That was a piece of
investigative reporting that, if it didn’t define the term, certainly
popularized it. Yet that kind of digging is expensive. A major piece may last
for three or four updated editions and take months to prepare and source
accurately. The reporters entrusted with that job are the cream of the crop . .
. and expensive, when it comes to word-for-word costs. I have a suggestion or,
perhaps, more of a template than an actual solution.

The
newspaper industry has long supported the Associated Press for breaking news.
The organization is a cooperative, owned by newspapers, which both contribute to
and use AP material written by its staff journalists. Non-members outside the
United States pay a fee. Likewise, the British-Canadian Reuters and American
Bloomberg make a profit from the hustling of financial news. The need seems to
be there for a similar organization in the field of investigative journalism.

Consider
the advantages:
  • Major
    newspapers, as they struggle to slide out from under a cost-structure that no
    longer works, would be relieved of the direct overhead attributable to
    investigative journalists with star-power.
  • Journalists would be relieved of the drudgery that comes of meeting the individual
    editorial policies of their parent publication.
  • Major
    stories would savor the breaking-news élan of stories they bid to carry, which
    would then enter the public domain (after perhaps 24 hours) and require a
    by-line from both the source and the reporter.
  • Lesser
    events (of state or local interest) would bring lower prices or syndication.
    Syndication made guys like Mike Royko very wealthy (writing over 7,500 columns,
    ultimately syndicated in over 600 newspapers).
Considering
disadvantages, I can really think of none.

Such
an organization would depend upon the reputation and integrity of its
contributors. But they are out there now, on smaller and smaller ice-flows;
thousands of highly regarded professionals who could bring up a next generation
of young reporters by the oldest method in history . . . apprenticeship.

Someone
is going to do it, perhaps a Mike Bloomberg type, with lots of know-how,
experience and a regard for the public sphere.

Let’s
hope so, before they are lost and the print world becomes one tedious and
uninformed blog, with nothing upon which to feed. Giving away value does not
spell the end of democracy, but it goes a long way towards frittering away the
investigative report.