The word is out that we're embarking on a new golden age of journalism.
In recent months some of the hottest names in the business — the Washington Post's Ezra Klein, Nate Silver of the New York Times, Kara Swisher and Walt Mossberg of the Wall Street Journal, Glenn Greenwald of the Guardian — have jumped from their old perches to join or launch new digital news ventures aimed at melding their grasp of 21st-century technology to the old verities of news reporting and writing.
It's exciting, and dangerous. The danger is that these changes won't usher the old standards and goals of journalism into the future so much as relegate them to the past. And that may already be happening. If so, it will be a shame, because the leaders in the digital transformation of the news are among the most accomplished and promising voices in the field, who have delivered important reporting with real impacts on politics, government and business.
What's unclear is whether their new business models will support the aggressive and expensive journalism that regional and national newspapers became known for during the last few decades, their era of peak profitability.
One question is whether the new ventures even expect to try. In describing his new venture, which is backed by the venture-funded online publisher Vox Media, Klein asserted, "Today, we are better than ever at telling people what's happening, but not nearly good enough at giving them the crucial contextual information necessary to understand what's happened."
That's exactly wrong. Consumers today have "contextual" analysis coming out of their ears. What they're getting less of is the hard information — "what's happening" — around which context is built. There are fewer reporters from general-interest publications covering city halls and statehouses, fewer devoted to issues such as the environment and healthcare, fewer keeping an eye on state and federal regulators.
The information ecosystem today is a vast edifice of commentary built upon an ever smaller foundation of hard news. The travails of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie are so handsomely filling the ample airtime and website space available for commentary and analysis that viewers and readers may forget that the fact that made the story into a nationwide sensation — the email from a Christie aide calling for "traffic problems in Ft. Lee" — was unearthed via traditional good-government reporting by a traditional local newspaper, the (Bergen County, N.J.) Record.
But as George Packer put it last week in the New Yorker, "What the Web has never figured out is how to pay for reporting, which, with the collapse of print newspapers, is in desperately short supply, and without which even the most prolific commenters will someday run out of things to say."
Packer might have added that newspapers today also are struggling to figure out how to pay for this sort of reporting. The problem isn't a lack of demand in the marketplace, but the shrinking revenue options in the transition to online distribution from advertiser- and subscriber-supported print. At The Times, circulation revenue from the printed newspaper is a fraction of what it was 20 years ago, but thanks to the Web our audience today is probably larger than it's ever been in our 132-year history — and more national, even international, than ever before.
One suspects that the real reason that new online journalism sites often focus on commentary, analysis and context isn't to feed unfulfilled demand, but because the overhead is low. You can commentate from anywhere, including your bedroom or your mother's attic. Breaking a news story, however, often means buying a plane ticket, checking into a hotel, and deep-ending into a single subject for weeks or months at a time.
News reporting is often threatening to someone, which creates another expense: lawyers.
I spent more than three years investigating the 1-800-GET-THIN weight-loss enterprise with my colleague Stuart Pfeifer. We reported that five patients had died after Lap-Band surgery at Southern California clinics associated with the GET-THIN ad campaign, according to lawsuits, autopsy reports and other public records.
We also got sued — a lot. The subjects of our reporting filed seven harassing lawsuits in state and federal court against us and The Times.
Judges dismissed all seven, but not until The Times had incurred a legal bill running into six figures. That underscores that aggressive investigative journalism often requires strong and confident institutional support: Sometimes what allows reporters and editors to keep from being intimidated is that their institution's stick is bigger than the stick with which they're being menaced.
A very good magazine editor of my acquaintance once defined journalism for me as finding out information its subjects don't want to see in print. How many privately financed information enterprises will have the stomach for that quest? The coverage of venture-backed start-ups by some Silicon Valley news websites, which are financed by venture investors and like to think of themselves as part of the same ecosystem, doesn't encourage one to think the number will be large.
Obviously, newspapers don't have a monopoly on independent-minded reporting — especially today, when even institutions with the strongest traditions are laboring under severe economic stress. Foundation-supported ProPublica has made itself an institution in public-interest reporting since its launch in 2008, filling a vacuum in investigative journalism by partnering with traditional newspapers, including The Times, as well as with digital publishers. California Watch, which was founded by the donor-funded Center for Investigative Reporting, produces outstanding and aggressive work, such as its investigation of the hospital chain Prime Healthcare.
Many specialty and news websites offer expert reporting and analysis that's indispensable today. It's difficult to understand fully the issues we face in healthcare without the assistance of theincidentaleconomist.com, a group blog devoted to the topic; UC Berkeley economist Brad DeLong's unique new Equitablog at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth already has emerged as an important clearinghouse of data and commentary on economic inequality. Kevin Drum's blog at motherjones.com and Josh Marshall's talkingpointsmemo.com manage to combine the aggregation of news reported elsewhere with original insights and analysis that do provide context you can't find anywhere else.
Some website publishers plainly believe that original reporting will pay its way, and they're staffing up to provide it. Buzzfeed, which has perhaps unfairly been pigeonholed as purveyor of lighter-than-light online click bait, last fall hired Mark Schoofs, an investigative reporter and editor with impeccable hard news credentials (including two years at ProPublica), to form a six-person investigative reporting unit.
Nate Silver, whose fivethirtyeight.com is now affiliated with ESPN and ABC News, says he's hired 15 journalists to produce data-driven news, and plans to add more. EBay co-founder Pierre Omidyar is launching a news service with (among others) Greenwald, who broke numerous stories based on documents from Edward Snowden, and Jeremy Scahill, an investigative journalist associated with the Nation.
One could assemble a pretty broad and comprehensive news report from these sources. But stopping in at all of them is a full-time task, and how many citizens will make the effort? Most will gravitate to only a few, most likely those that reflect their own political coloration or most intense personal interests — liberal, conservative, healthcare, economics, dogs, cats, etc., etc.
No one planned this transformation; it's the inevitable product of technological and economic changes. Thus far, no one has come up with a sustainable alternative — not newspapers, and not online publishers. (Although the Washington Post under its new owner, Jeff Bezos, has just announced a series of initiatives to build up its hard news and analytical report, both online and in print.)
The risk this bears for the public interest is that voters become less informed about broad issues of general interest, less exposed to information they haven't proactively sought out. During the golden age of journalism of the last few decades, the general interest newspaper was a smorgasbord in which, while paging through to the crossword puzzle, one might stumble upon an expose of city council chicanery. That was the ideal, anyway.
There is less of that in the fragmented and segmented new world of online news and commentary, and less money to produce it. We may find that the decline of centralized hard news opens the way for legislators, governors, mayors and town board members to get away with murder. Now and then some of this behavior may come to light, but by the time the commentating voices on the Web chime in to put it in context, it will be too late.
Michael Hiltzik's column appears Sundays and Wednesdays. Read his blog, the Economy Hub, at latimes.com/business/hiltzik, reach him at email@example.com, check out facebook.com/hiltzik and follow @hiltzikm on Twitter.