30 Mar 2009 8:11 am   //   Filed under: In the news, Media

Investigative journalizzzzzzm

People are bemoaning the loss of investigative journalism. Really?

Do you really miss those seven-part series that ran on newspaper front pages during slow news weeks in August? Did you really enjoy reading 50,000 words on defense spending, or an unsolved crime from 30 years ago, or sewage easements?

Truth is, maybe 1 newspaper investigation in 10 was worth reading. The rest were dry thesis papers aimed at contest judges and ignored by everyone else. You never read them, I never read them. (I even wrote a few nobody read.)

Some time (I think in the 1990s) the word “investigation” became code for “Pulitzer,” and ambitious metro papers set up long-term project desks where they relegated two or three of their top (and slowest) writers. No longer can newspapers afford to waste such resources. And honestly, the concept of a separate investigative desk was a poor idea. A good beat journalist is always in investigative mode. The reporter keeps notes and reports and contacts that may come in useful in future stories, and is ready to deploy them to devastating effect when necessary. A newsroom should be one big investigative engine, a huge, fast intelligence network assembling years of collective memory and experience. Anyone who can write a deadline story can write an investigation.

Here’s what I’ll really miss about newspapers: The next-day, on-deadline package bringing sense and order to something confusing that happened mere hours ago. The A1 sports photo of an amazing game the night before. The columnist who builds on years of history to call B.S. on some policy fad. The culture writer who deftly throws two extra background sentences into the middle of a review to teach the reader about art. And mostly, that feeling that you were reading a product prepared by smart experts who were more interested in sorting out facts than in reinforcing an agenda or protecting sacred cows.

It used to be that the definitive first accounts always came from local newspapers, due to their authority and gravitas (and, when appropriate, swagger). The whole enterprise was supposed to be investigative. This is one of the nuances that’s getting lost as newspapers die and here-today, gone-tomorrow Web sites fill the gaps in our information diet.