By Jason Stverak
A recent skit that aired on Comedy Central’s The Daily Show with John Stewart offered legitimate insight into the decline of investigative journalism in the legacy media.
Using CNN as its example, the humorous report revealed to the nation that the original cable news channel has laid-off most of it special investigative documentary unit. The reason for CNN and many mainstream news outlets are dismantling their investigative journalism is financial in most cases. Real journalism – investigative reporting – is costly. The old guard media has been struggling for nearly a decade to stay in the black. It appears they can’t stay in business if they have to do their job.
The economic realities of a changing industry are certainly a driving force behind the decline of investigative journalism, but as our friends at the Daily Show appropriately mocked, news outlets are also spending their limited financial resources on aesthetics and “cool” visuals (hologram reporters) that detract from their ability to fund investigative reporting. Once again, the journalism industry turns to new media and nonprofit news outlets to bring common sense and investigative reporting back into a profession that has lost its way.
As president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, I have a responsibility that is focused on addressing the “falling standards in the media.” My responsibility is to the public. The mainstream press has become a shell of its former self, and nonprofit news organizations stay afloat by filling the void that was left when legacy media put short-term rating over providing substance for their audience. I would argue they have become an extension of the entertainment industry.
Statehouse coverage was once the bread and butter of many newspapers around the country. Reporting was often repetitive and rarely sexy, but none the less, it was the foundation of a healthy news diet.
However, it’s very expensive, as reporters have to monitor long, complicated funding debates — about schools and roads and health care — many of which do not result in front-page news. Uncovering corruption, incompetence or waste takes an inordinate amount of time and effort. As newsrooms and newspapers have become smaller, coverage of state politics has been among the first to get cut.
Today, nonprofit news groups across the country are providing the “unsexy and repetitive” coverage that the old-guard press began abandoning at the turn of the century. Such coverage may not entertain the audience as much as holographic image of Will.i.am, but the public service provided by keeping elected officials accountable to the public is invaluable.
The old-guard press may or may not be able to change with the times and do their job, but I hope they find a way to flourish and can offer real journalism to the public. Regardless, nonprofit news groups will lead the way in conducting investigative reports and keeping elected officials open and honest. We may not provide any fodder for John Stewart, but that’s OK. The Daily Show can entertain, while we inform.
Jason Stverak is president of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity.