It needs to be told because the mortgage crisis and its aftermath have coincided with a crisis in the news business. Google and a new vanguard of internet companies have wreaked havoc on traditional news-media business models, siphoning away a huge chunk of the advertising revenue that had long sustained American journalism. Once-great newsrooms have been devastated and thousands of former print reporters are out on the street or in PR. Their former colleagues now operate in a harrowing and harried new environment of financial distress and sped-up productivity requirements. Meanwhile, a new digital journalism ecosystem has bloomed with new publications, models, forms, practices, idioms, tools, and institutions.
Another fierce argument is underway about the future of news—about who will do it, what it will look like, and who—or what—is this “public” that journalism is supposed to be speaking to. As in all times of crisis, the consultants, marketers, and opportunists of various stripes—never far from journalism—step forward to proclaim that they know what the future holds. But no one really knows. The only thing we can be sure of in journalism is that everything is in question, everything on the table: business models, forms, roles, practices, values. Will news organizations survive? Can amateur networks help? Is storytelling out of date? Is statistical analysis—known as Big Data—the next breakthrough? That the new digital era has not lived up to its promise is no reason to dismiss it.
So we stand at a moment when established journalism can be fairly said to have failed in a basic function, and, as usual, the future is uncertain. And the present, well, it’s a bit of a mess. Is there no hope?
Actually, there is. One form of journalism has proven itself an effective advocate for the public interest, a true watchdog, and proven itself at least since the great Ida Tarbell in the early 20th century. It’s neither alternative nor mainstream. It’s not necessarily professional or amateur. It’s neither inherently analogue nor digital. It’s a practice.
The practice has never really had a good name. Sometimes it’s called “accountability reporting.” Sometimes it’s called “investigative reporting.” Sometimes it’s called “public-service reporting” or “public-interest reporting.” Sometimes it’s called something else. We’ll go with “accountability reporting.” Accountability reporting is a journalism term of art—the shoptalk of reporters and editors, as Lippmann would put it. But it’s one the public would do well to better understand.
Accountability reporting sounds like something everyone would be for, but that’s actually not the case. It only arrived as a mainstream, professionalized practice in the 1960s and has had to fight for its existence within news organizations ever since. Confrontational and accusatory, it provokes the enmity of the rich and powerful as a matter of course. When Theodore Roosevelt dubbed it “muckraking” in 1906, he didn’t mean it as a compliment. Risky, stressful, expensive, and difficult, it perennially faces resistance within news organizations and tries the patience of bureaucrats, bean counters, and hacks. News corporatists, such as the late USA Today founder Al Neuharth and mogul Rupert Murdoch, deride public-service reporting—or anything that resembles it—as a form of elitism, an affectation of prize-mongering and self-important reporters, journalists writing for “other journalists,” as one Murdoch biographer puts it. Withholding resources for public-interest reporting, as we’ll see, is invariably couched as opposition to “long” and “pretentious” stories foisted on the public by “elitist” reporters. But opposing long and ambitious stories is like fully supporting apple pie but opposing flour, butter, sugar, and pie tins. In the end, there is no pie.
In our digital age, impatience with accountability reporting is, if anything, more pronounced. The economics and technological architecture of online news militate against accountability reporting. As a result, digital-news advocates, too, tend to ignore it or dismiss it altogether. “The whole notion of ‘long-form’ journalism is writer-centered, not public- centered,” as Jeff Jarvis, a prominent digital-news thinker, tweeted. Yet accountability reporting is a core function of American journalism. It is what makes it distinctive, what makes it powerful when it is independent. It is the great agenda setter, public-trust builder, and value creator. It is the practice that explains complex problems to a mass audience and holds the powerful to account. It is the point.
Now is a good time to consider what journalism the public needs. What actually works? Who are journalism’s true forefathers and foremothers? Is there a line of authority in journalism’s collective past that can help us navigate its future? What creates value, both in a material sense and in terms of what is good and valuable in American journalism?