It got pretty lonely….

Ian Katz, deputy editor of the Guardian on the News of the World Story

CJR’s top editor, Mike Hoyt, says the global, righteous indignation now consuming News Corp. is a testament to the power of newspapers.

Allow me to be more specific. It’s a testament to investigative reporting—expensive, time-consuming, risky, stressful—at newspapers. If you think investigations aren’t under pressure at institutional news organizations, you’ve probably been caught on the news hamster wheel yourself.

As Katz rightly points out above, the Guardian’s fabulous Nick Davies, our hero, Alan Rusbridger, his editor and our other hero, and their newspaper were left alone on the story after they broke the first big blockbuster more than two years ago: that two News Corp. papers had doled out more than $1.6 million to keep hacking victims quiet and that hacking at News Corp. papers was rampant and hardly confined to a single reporter as News Corp. executives had testified.

The Guardian’s revelations were met by a wall of silence by the British press, as Archie Bland documented in CJR, requiring both discipline and guts on the Guardian’s part to keep digging. Rusbridger, in a lovely how-we-wrote-the-story piece in Newsweek today, recalls the wilderness years when Murdoch’s power still held British press and political elites in its grip:

I knew (if I didn’t know already) how lonely our chosen track was going to be in November 2009 when an employment tribunal awarded a former News of the World journalist more than $1 million in damages after finding that he had suffered from a culture of bullying under Coulson.

Big story? Not at all. Not a single paper other than The Guardian noted the fact in their news pages the next day. There seemed to be some omertà principle at work that meant that not a single other national newspaper thought this could possibly be worth an inch of newsprint.

So, yes, the institutional press can also be part of the problem, and often is. Look at the MSM’s pre-Iraq War coverage or its pre-financial-crash coverage. Look at News Corp. In this case, it is the problem.

But, also, in this case, institutionalized investigative reporting—journalism’s most potent weapon— was the solution. Thank goodness for Nick Davies, 58 years old, who, one assumes is reasonably well-paid and has health insurance. His 35 years as a journalist clearly has left him deeply sourced in the U.K.’s media, legal, and political establishment. In this story, the seasoned investigative reporter was the linchpin, the indispensable man. Plus, he had the institutional resources, the investigative culture, and the good name of the Guardian behind him. Among other things, the paper was able to provide Davies with journalism’s most precious resource—time. This proved crucial in his being able to stick to a story over two years, when nobody else would, when Rebekah Brooks was vowing to see Rusbridger “on his knees, begging for mercy” (see the Rusbridger piece above) until the breakthrough came with the Milly Dowler hacking story. The Guardian, despite its tenuous finances and relatively small circulation (279.000 vs. 2.7 million for NotW alone), brought institutional heft to this street fight.

In the interim, the Guardian got its biggest boost, not from social media, but from The New York Times, which documented in its own investigative blockbuster the extent to which Scotland Yard colluded in the cover-up. The byline on that seminal story, Don Van Natta Jr., Jo Becker and Graham Bowley, includes some of the paper’s top investigators.

Dean Starkman Dean Starkman runs The Audit, CJR's business section, and is the author of The Watchdog That Didn't Bark: The Financial Crisis and the Disappearance of Investigative Journalism (Columbia University Press, January 2014).

Follow Dean on Twitter: @deanstarkman.