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.

Here’s Rusbridger on that. I hadn’t known that Rusbridger, desperate for support on the story, actually phoned Bill Keller to encourage him to get on it; Davies then briefed the Times reporters:

If the majority of Fleet Street was going to turn a blind eye, I thought I’d better try elsewhere to stop the story from dying on its feet, except in the incremental stories that Nick was still remorselessly producing for our own pages. I called Bill Keller at The New York Times. Within a few days, three Times reporters were sitting in a rather charmless Guardian meeting room as Davies did his best to coach them in the basics of the story that had taken him years to tease out of numerous reporters, lawyers, and police officers.

The Times reporters took their time—months of exceptional and painstaking work that established the truth of everything Nick had written—and broke new territory of their own. They coaxed one or two sources to go on the record. The story led to another halfhearted police inquiry that went nowhere. But the fact and solidity of the Times investigation gave courage to others. Broadcasters began dipping their toes in the story. One of the two victims began lawsuits. Vanity Fair weighed in. The Financial Times and The Independent chipped away in the background. A wider group of people began to believe that maybe, just maybe, there was something in this after all.

They “took their time.” There has to be room for this in today’s hamster-wheel environment of sped-up news productivity requirements. (For contrast, read Reuters’s harrowing look inside NotW, the hamster-wheel of evil. Seriously, these are news-productivity requirements run amok.)

Is this a knock on new media? Not at all. In fact, academics should examine the News of the World story as a case study in how social media amplified the power of the Guardian’s recent scoops to a deafening pitch around the globe, to a degree the Guardian could never have achieved on its own. There may be a new model in this.

But for now, let’s pause a moment and give it up, just once, for the old school. Another investigation changes the world.

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.