Washington, D.C., 2014—It didn’t seem possible.
Who would have thought, amid the newsroom devastation of the first decade of the twenty-first century, that investigative reporting would find a way to not just survive, but flourish, in an improbable, highly innovative new golden age?
Things had never looked bleaker financially than in 2008, when Gannett and McClatchy alone cut 5,500 newspaper jobs. Overall, according to an Advertising Age analysis of federal employment data, between 2000 and 2008, media industries lost more than 200,000 jobs. And no media sector was harder hit than newspaper and magazine publishing.
The most substantive public-service journalism in American history had been initiated and published by the nation’s newspapers. So the specific impact of this newsroom carnage on investigative reporting—one of the most expensive and difficult genres of journalism—had been dire. Numerous Pulitzer-caliber investigative reporters throughout the nation lost their jobs, and entire “I-teams” at newspapers and television stations were shut down.
This loss of investigative power could not have come at a worse time, with the country facing the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression, and with a global landscape becoming increasingly complex and treacherous in so many ways. In the incipient digital age, disparate information and wide-ranging points of view abounded, but serious, thorough, independent newsgathering did not. This gutting of newsrooms had been occurring not just in the U.S. and Canada but throughout the world. And it became painfully obvious that there was a diaspora of hundreds upon hundreds of talented investigative reporters and editors with nowhere to work.
Both journalism and democracy desperately needed new economic models to support and deliver investigative reporting, as well as a place to explore and incubate new platforms and approaches. And that is precisely why in late 2007, I proposed the creation of the Investigative Reporting Workshop, as a project of the American University School of Communication in Washington, D.C. By the spring of 2009, the workshop, to be funded by the university and by philanthropic foundations and individuals, was approved and staffed and had begun publishing original, online, multimedia investigative stories, prepared by veteran journalists working closely with students.
It was and remains an attempt to enlarge the public space for this kind of crucial work, but it was only the beginning. The mission for the workshop included a research effort—to explore new models for supporting investigative journalism beyond individual, independent reporting centers. For more than two years, I consulted and mulled with media thinkers. I began to conceive of a global investigative news service—a network of preeminent journalists and major news organizations that would chronicle the uses and abuses of power.
For me, the idea had an intellectual firmament and provenance dating back to at least 1992. After eleven years at ABC News and then 60 Minutes, I quit, and in 1989 founded a nonprofit, investigative-reporting organization called the Center for Public Integrity, which I led for its first fifteen years. In late 1992, Victor Navasky, then the editor of The Nation (and now chairman of this magazine), invited me to speak at an international investigative-journalism conference in, of all places, Moscow, in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. In attendance were reporters from around the world, laboring under vastly different conditions and cultural mores, but all deeply committed to exposing the truth. The drama and the life-and-death dimension of this experience struck a deep chord in me that resonates to this day. I realized there was a huge opportunity, and a public need, to extend internationally the methodical modus operandi of the Center for Public Integrity.
It took me five long years to develop the concept, and in late 1997, the center’s International Consortium of Investigative Journalists began formal operation. It was the first working network—one hundred people in fifty countries—of some of the world’s most respected investigative reporters developing stories across borders.
Consortium stories exposed such issues as illegal cigarette-smuggling by the major manufacturers, the privatization of water, and U.S. war contracts in Iraq and Afghanistan (that one won the first George Polk Award for Internet reporting in 2004). Structurally, though, the consortium had never been robustly funded and its important projects were so epic, intricate, and expensive that it was difficult to do more than one or two a year.