Saturday, December 20, 2008

Woodward and Bernstein Are Alive and Well and Living in Their Mother's Basement

Len Downie writes in the Washington Post:

Felt's death raised the inevitable question: Could the kind of reporting that Woodward and Carl Bernstein pulled off be done today, more than three decades later, in the age of the Internet?

For many reasons, I believe it could. But it would probably play out quite differently.

There are still whistle-blowers like Felt in government today -- probably many more than there were back then. They are encouraged by various public employees' organizations and protected by whistle-blowers' legislation enacted after Watergate. And they have many more investigative reporters to talk to -- not only at newspapers, despite deep and worrying cuts in newsroom staffs, but also many other media outlets, including investigative Web sites and blogs.

So Downie is optimistic and suggests that blogs -- and god help us cable tv -- would surface such a story more quickly. However, he adds:

In an age when the media have been turned upside-down by the biggest shifts in audiences and economic models since the advent of television, my two biggest questions about whether we could still pursue a story like Watergate center on resources and verification. Many Americans, including opinion leaders in Washington and elsewhere, simply didn't or wouldn't believe The Washington Post's reporting about Watergate during its early months -- not until we were joined by the New York Times, Newsweek, CBS News, Judge John J. Sirica, the Senate Watergate committee and the special Watergate prosecutor.

In today's cacophonous media world, in which news, rumor, opinion and infotainment from every kind of source are jumbled together and often presented indiscriminately, how would such an improbable-sounding story ever get verified?

As newsrooms rapidly shrink, will they still have the resources, steadily amassed by newspapers since Watergate, for investigative reporting that takes months and even years of sustained work.

So in spite of his top-of-the-essay optimism, he comes back to the question that consumes me. Where's the economic model for future investigative journalism?

Perhaps, crowdsourcing solves the problem. Perhaps, the whole investigative process can be compressed when many hands work at it. Perhaps, some news sites, some of them blogs, will gain renown for aggregating and interpreting all this new information, and will gain authority based not on their original reporting but on their judgment.


Anonymous said...

If blogs are now supposed to replace real journalism, we are in trouble.

Blogavatar said...

I liked your point about the crowding of news. In the age of clutter and spin and of course, 'truthiness,' I think there is something like an anchor or perspective that a newspaper can provide. News acquires all sorts of meanings in the global age when time and space ain't what they used to be. An interesting comparison between reinventing news and bottling water here

....J.Michael Robertson said...

I do think we need news organizations that can pay reporters a living wage for long dry thumbsuckers. We may bemoan corporate monopolies that limit the number of such stories, but professionalism does exist and some righteous stories occasionally surfacing in the mainstream media -- what the smart blog boys are now calling the 'legacy media' -- are better than none at all.

And I do want some gatekeepers. I want editors who judge the quality of the work and its newsworthiness.

Call me a dreamer.