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.

Weigel adds:

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.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. James H says:

    Was investigative reporting ever profitable? Seems to me that it’s always been subsidized by the profitable, if nonsensical, features departments.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    James H, above, is right on the money. Investigative reporters making money is an anomaly, not the norm. Indeed, journalists full stop making money is an anomaly.

    Journalism is not a profession. It’s a craft. It won’t be paid like a profession. Opening J-schools won’t make it a profession, it just makes money for J-schools.

  3. Given that we now know from the various Jornolist leaks that Weigel saw his job primarily as a Democrat operative and was deliberately distorting his reporting to advance the party agenda, it takes a lot of chutzpah for him to complain about how politics is reducing the quality of journalism.

  4. tom p says:

    I will miss it.

  5. Brett says:

    James H, above, is right on the money. Investigative reporters making money is an anomaly, not the norm. Indeed, journalists full stop making money is an anomaly.

    Across all spectrums, too – if I remember right, a lot of the tv networks’ news rooms and bureaus were basically paid for with money from more profitable programs. And of course, newspapers were dependent on bundling this stuff with the sections that sold ads, which is probably what HuffPo is doing (financing their reporting with money from the traffic generated by their more gossipy and celebrity-driven stuff).

  6. Greg Ransom says:

    What story did Dave Weigel or any of these guys ever break?

    Just asking.

    I’ve seen lots of worthless commentary and snark from Weigel. What else does this guy produce?

    Just asking.

    Give me a reason to care.