What happens if the market kills off Spotlight-style investigative journalism?

Would the government pay for this public service?

"Spotlight" showcases the importance of investigative journalism.
(Image credit: Kerry Hayes/Open Road Films)

This past Sunday, Spotlight nabbed the Oscars for Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay. Both are richly deserved. Spotlight achieves something of a miracle: It takes the daily drudgery of investigative journalism — reading through endless documents, hounding sources, conducting scores of interviews, compiling huge amounts of data — and turns it into compelling cinema without resorting to gross Hollywood sensationalism.

Unfortunately, the film could also serve as the epitaph for the kind of journalism it so admirably portrays.

Precisely because it involves such intricate and sustained labor by skilled reporters — the four-person Spotlight team at the Boston Globe, from which the film takes its title, spent over a year putting together the blockbuster story that blew open the sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church — investigative journalism can cost newsrooms dearly while delivering content in big-but-rare one-offs. Caught between the twin hammer blows of the digital revolution and the Great Recession, many news desks are dying, and investigative teams are often first on the chopping block when it comes to cost-cutting.

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"The amount of investigative reporting being done now in most cities is a small fraction of what it was in the year 2000," Walter V. Robinson, who led Spotlight at the time (and is played by Michael Keaton in the movie), told Journalists Resource earlier this month. "In many communities, even City Hall doesn't get covered. So the whistleblower who knows about official corruption in City Hall has no one to go to... that's a really serious problem for our democracy right now."

There were 43,000 newsroom jobs across the country in 1978, and the number peaked in 1990 at 56,900. After that they bounced up and down with the business cycle, but never got under 53,000, and were at 55,000 in 2007. Then they fell off a cliff with the Great Recession, hitting 32,900 in 2015. At this point, the only outfits not hemorrhaging jobs are the very few newspapers with circulation over 250,000 or the small ones under 5,000.

The internet can't be discounted as a factor here, of course. Most newspapers get most their revenue — sometimes as much as two-thirds — from advertisements. The New York Times is one of the few publications that reverses the trend, and gets over half its revenue from circulation. In this sense, advertisers have always been newspapers' main customers. Readers' role as paying customers themselves has always been limited. So now that the internet has reduced the costs of "printing" and "shipping" stories and advertisements to readers to basically zero, it's an open question if that business model is still viable. It might be that the Great Recession was simply the final blow to an industry whose economic foundation was already crumbling.

One possibility is that the problem is largely cultural, and that the shift to free digital content created expectations in readers for costless content that are now difficult to unwind.

To some extent small-scale digital publications are growing to fill the gap in local investigative journalism specifically. Larger digital investigative projects have also popped up, such as ProPublica, Texas Tribune, and InsideClimate News, for instance. And many of them seem to be discovering that investing in quality content and a well-staffed, well-paid newsroom pays dividends in terms of readership. But so far paywalls have proven to be a mixed bag, and the big legacy newspapers have been the most successful at pulling them off.

The business model may adapt and figure this out on its own, but it hasn't yet. More fundamentally, if most readers are happy receiving free content, and aren't willing to pay for the long-game investment of investigative journalism, markets alone won't able to solve this.

One thing that merits consideration is a federal funding stream. States or local municipalities could receive funds from the federal government, which they'd distribute to shore up the finances of metro reporting outfits. You need good reporting in both good economic times and bad, and only the federal budget can spend without regard for the business cycle. That will of course raise conflict of interest problems. (What if the reporters are investigating the state government, the feds, or even that very funding stream?) But news outfits already deal with those issues when it comes to grants and underwriting from a whole host of benefactors, so there's already some institutional experience we could draw on to figure out the right kind of firewalls and best practices.

More radically, economist Dean Baker has proposed a system for funding recording artists and the like through an alternative system than copyright law: Every year the government gives every tax filer a voucher they can distribute to an artist of their choice. It mimics the market-discipline of customer choice, but with the federal government as the ultimate source of funding. You could imagine a similar system by which Americans could distribute funding to the local papers of their choice.

The broader point is that the newspaper business may have fundamentally shifted. If the business model that allowed for-profit papers to invest in solid investigative work was an economic fluke, unrepeatable in the age of the internet, we need to get creative and start thinking of alternatives.

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