Investigative Journalism, RIP
The Washington Independent goes dark in December, failing to find profitability in three years.
Yet another new media startup is biting the dust:
Nearly three years ago, The Washington Independent was launched as a bold experiment in online journalism. The idea was to combine hard-nosed investigative reporting with all the web had to offer: the nimbleness of real-time coverage, the interactivity made possible by this new thing called blogging, and the ability to create a narrative that was bigger than the sum of its parts.
The results were spectacular. We won awards for our reporting and recognition for our pioneering efforts. We sent reporters to Alaska, Afghanistan and Guantanamo. We graced numerous TV shows and were cited by every leading newspaper in the country. Most important, our reporting made a difference, whether by bringing flawed legislation and programs to the attention of people in power or by bringing critical overlooked issues to the attention of a broader public.
But TWI was not just a journalistic experiment; it was also a financial one, and ultimately, the successes of the former couldn’t sustain the strains of the latter. Our first year was marked by a kind of exceptionalism, the feeling that we were expanding as other newsrooms were contracting, that this new model of journalism would survive as our dead-tree colleagues struggled. But in the end, we fell prey to the recession just like everyone else.
Two of its former star reporters, Dave Weigel and Spencer Ackerman, lament its passing, both as a source of investigative journalism and a place where young reporters can cut their teeth. Stacy McCain, who’s less than sympathetic to TWI’s leftist point of view, joins them:
If you know anything at all about how investigative journalism actually works, you know that it requires a publisher who is willing to foot the bill while a reporter — or a team of reporters — roots around on a story that may not actually pan out to be anything. Or, as is more often the case, you get one of those long-run-for-a-short-slide affairs: A five-part series that doesn’t really “make a difference,” as they say.
Weigel notes that even basic reporting that used to be commonplace (e.g., when every good-sized daily paper would send a reporter to cover the state legislature when it was in session) has become too much of a financial burden for most newspapers.
This isn’t a bad time to be a political reporter. But it should be a better time for economic and foreign policy reporters. I realize I sound like the worst sort of J-school scold* but when you’ve got a rampaging economic crisis, two wars, and a collapsing environmental policy consensus, it seems almost perverse that it’s easier to find coverage of who the winners and losers of the day are, how much trash an anonymous congressman is talking about another congressman, and how a politician’s kid is doing on a reality TV show. TWI couldn’t make its kind of reporting profitable, but I hope someone can.
It’s unlikely, alas. While investigative reporting of that sort is important, the payoffs are, as Stacy notes, uncertain. If you subscribe to Politico, whether in the traditional sense of having the print edition delivered to your doorstep or the newfangled sense of getting its feed sent to you, you know what you’re going to get on a daily basis. There’s always something to report on in the world of horserace politics and the things on which one can provide interesting commentary are endless. It’s not every day that you break a major investigative story. And, when you do, it’s pretty easy for everyone else to piggyback off your work and satisfy their readrs.