Where are the investigators? Part one…

(hat tip David Zetland) for this informal note on the question of “Where are the investigative journalists?”. This comment is from a reddit thread and is a beginning to thoughts of how to take personal responsibility for change. 

Eslader writes on reddit in response to the question of ‘Where are the investigative journalists?”: know? Ex-journo here. I’ll tell ya, if you have a minute or three.

Exposes, dirt digging, etc, is expensive, both in money and in time spent by a reporter working on a single story over the course of several days, weeks, or months. Journalism these days has devolved to “at least one story per day” out of most reporters. In TV news, where I worked, you got 2-4 (sometimes more) stories handed to you in the morning meeting, and you had to have something turned by 4 – and that means shot, written, voiced, and edited which boils down to “you’d better be back in the station by 2 at the latest or you’re not going to make air, and if you don’t get back until 2, you have to write very quickly.” So basically, counting travel time, you have maybe 4 hours to research a story, interview the subjects, get your video, and drive back. That’s not much time at all for investigative work. It’s a lot cheaper and easier to just parrot whatever the guy says. The theory is that if he’s lying, his opponent will say he is, and then you can report what his opponent says and that he-said-she-said reporting is “balanced journalism.” And so you have an industry full of watercooler gossip mongers who are publishing stories at a prodigious rate, but managing to give us almost no real information at all.

Newspapers have it a little better, sort of, except that, as with most mainstream journalism shops, they’ve had cutbacks, salary freezes, etc. You have people in journalism making less than shift managers at McDonalds ,

but who are supposed to be smart, sharp and savvy, and the math just doesn’t add up. If you’re smart, sharp, and savvy, you’re going to look at the student loan debt you will accumulate to get your journalism degree, and then you will look at the $17k or less starting salary, and the fact that you will probably lose your job several times over your career due to downsizing or straight out elimination of news departments, and you’ll say “screw that, it’s not worth it.”

Journalism has always been pretty low-pay unless you were a TV anchor at a large market station, but it managed to attract some good people because they were dedicated to the craft – to making a difference, and were willing to sacrifice the money in order to do that. Now that the “craft” has devolved into “news managers want the latest celebrity gossip a whole lot more than they want real news,” the craftsmen are leaving the business in droves. Of the people I worked with in my first job, only one is still in the profession, and he’s put up with more bullshit than I could ever think of dealing with unless I was getting compensated at the level of a CEO.

If Watergate happened today, Nixon would never have resigned. Woodward and Bernstein were very lucky – not only that Deep Throat pointed the way, but also that the Washington Post let them run with the story, even though it meant they’d be chasing it for years. You’d almost never find that today, because that would mean those reporters aren’t turning stories for today. Shop managers (many of whom rose up through the ranks from marketing rather than news) would rather 10 stories about what celebrity cheated on their wife than 1 story about political shenanigans that actually affects their readers.

Since journalists have very little time to become thoroughly grounded in their story’s subject, and news managers have very little interest in going in depth anyway, you end up with general-assignment reporters at political press conferences who may or may not know anything about politics. They have to get a story up ridiculously fast – often these days they’re supposed to tweet updates from the press conference while it’s still going on, which means they’re paying attention to tapping on a smart phone rather than thinking about what the guy is saying so that they can ask thoughtful questions. There’s simply no time to get into the hard-hitting journalism, even if there were still people left with the expertise to do it, which there aren’t because we’ve either quit like I did, or been canned because kids fresh out of college who have no news chops work cheaper than the 20 year veteran who knows what he’s doing.