Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Content Reloaded

Perhaps it’s spending so much time reporting bad news, but some journalists are prone to doom and gloom when it comes to their own profession. Yes, there are some scary facts and figures out there: the number of newsroom staff has declined by as much as a quarter since 2000, a few newspapers are closing down, fewer people than ever tune in to network news.

But to use a reporter's lingo, these pessimists are burying the lead. The real story is not format, but content – and, by that measure, journalism is either in the midst of a heyday or on the verge of one.

Take the case of investigative journalism. Theodore Roosevelt coined the phrase "muckraking" to describe journalism that exposed corruption and skullduggery in the early 20th century. The term "muckraker" stuck, not least because the hard-charging reporters themselves embraced it. It was a suitably gritty and unsentimental reflection of their craft. During the Industrial Revolution, much muck was raked, especially the kind involving politicians, wealthy businessmen and money: a familiar narrative. By World War I, however, investigative reporting is widely regarded to have tapered off. It re-emerged as a powerful social and political force in the 1960s and 1970s with stories like Seymour Hersch's My Lai massacre expose and the unmaking of Richard Nixon at the hands of the Washington Post. Some experts credit part of the exposé explosion of the late 20th century to technology – but not computers or the Internet as much as photo-copiers and fax machines.

Technology continues to expand the reach and deepen the impact of whistle blowing across the world. The Internet has the dual effect of providing almost limitless scope to investigate along with boundless capacity to promulgate. Not surprisingly, it attracts conspiracy theorists galore: check out rense.com and whatreallyhappened.com. Daniel Ellsberg, the man who famously leaked the Pentagon Papers to the New York Times 40 years ago, has no doubt about his preferred leaking method today, telling the same paper: “I would have gotten a scanner and put them on the Internet." And Propublica, a non-profit online investigative newsroom, just shared a Pulitzer Prize for its exposé of a hospital scandal in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. It shared the prize with none other than the New York Times, a fusion of print and digital that offers yet more cause for optimism.

Freedom of speech meets freedom of the press in the digital world and the lines get blurred. For every crazy conspiracy, there is a site debunking it; for every wild opinion, there is a wildly agreeable one. There is scandal as well as substance.

However we look at it, there is no shortage of compelling content all around us. As long as we are drawn to stories of intrigue, scandal, malfeasance and corruption, there will be a welcome place at the table for those who uncover them – not to mention tell them to us in as much detail as we can stand.