Every reporter digs with a similar set of shovels, but some know the terrain better than others.
Projector won the Oscar for best picture this year, but the story described is slowly sliding into the fiction category. The kind of investigative journalism featured in the film is dying out.
Michael Keaton plays a newspaper editor in charge of the investigative journalism unit at Boston Globe in 2001. When they uncover a child abuse scandal within the Catholic Church, every journalist grapples with how the revelations will affect their lives and their neighborhoods.
Will a devout grandmother be discouraged? Will relations with the city’s country clubs turn against the newspaper? Should neighborhood children be made aware of the presence of a nearby shelter for defrocked priests? Are these the reasons why stories like this are so rarely told? The devil is in the details, and the details of investigative journalism are almost always local.
The register keeper made some big moves last year when Eugene won the 2021 IAAF World Athletics Championships. Bringing an international track and field competition of this scale to Eugene has been a huge accomplishment. Local editors wanted to know how it happened, who spoke to whom, what promises had been made.
Every reporter digs with a similar set of shovels, but some know the terrain better than others. Emails discovered by The register keeperthe investigation caught the attention of the BBC, Times of London, Wall Street Journal and finally a team of French prosecutors.
Investigative journalism doesn’t have to turn every stone to keep things hidden in them. The risk of being discovered is often enough reason not to behave badly. “Don’t say it out loud,” said the reminder, “if you don’t want to read it on the front page of the newspaper.”
This watchdog role is costing a local newspaper dearly. “Spotlight” depicts four journalists chasing a single story for months. It’s a huge investment, but it has always come with the territory. Editors and publishers have told their reporters for generations, “Follow the story wherever it leads.”
We have relied on this kind of relentless journalism without realizing it. Our consumption habits have subsidized their professional curiosity. Grocers, merchants and neighbors paid to advertise their wares. Weekly sales were noted, coupons were cut, used cars were bought and sold. The newspapers then used this income to pay journalists who snooped on our behalf.
Newspaper public advocacy has increasingly been reduced to fact checking, scorecards and other easily repeated elements.
We relied on the newspaper to “show up” to meetings that few citizens had the time or interest to attend. If something interesting happened there, the newspaper would report it. As unchanged from the town criers of the colonial era, we then read it all, as if we had been there. And then we would all talk about it with our friends and neighbors.
We are in the process of tinkering with this formula and none of us know how it will turn out. Newspapers can seldom afford a reporter chasing a story for months. The dailies no longer control the daily narrative of people’s lives. Reading the newspaper is now considered optional, as many other sources of information are available free of charge.
When people have so much choice for the information they collect, they naturally turn to sources they trust and voices that put them at ease. Each of us can now assemble our own echo chamber of familiar and strong stories. Uncomfortable news has never been easier to ignore.
Newspaper public advocacy has increasingly been reduced to fact checking, scorecards and other easily repeated elements. Emerging models of investigative journalism often lack the local connection that drives a daily newspaper. They are still digging for the earth, but on unfamiliar ground.
Who will be the model of engaged citizenship for the next generation? Who will show up at meetings that probably won’t matter – until they do? Who will tell Virginie that yes, there is a Santa Claus? It may still be everyday, but in a different way. We just don’t know, because the movie we’re living in isn’t finished yet.
We hope that our citizens can stay well informed without a unifying source of information – the leading newspaper. Maybe democracy can thrive without well-informed citizens.
Nothing says that our society cannot function differently from what it always has done. It might even be better. Pass the popcorn, and hopefully.