We continue to live in perilous times, making investigative journalism as essential to our democracy as the Watergate stories were. However, the impact of digital media and dramatic shifts in audience and advertising revenue have undermined the financial model that subsidized so much investigative reporting during the economic golden age of newspapers, the last third of the 20th century. Such reporting remains a high priority at many financially challenged papers, which continue to produce accountability journalism that matters to their communities — but they have far fewer staff members and resources to devote to it. Meanwhile, much of the remaining investigative reporting on television stations and networks, which also are struggling to maintain audience and revenue, consists of consumer-protection and crime stories that drive ratings.
Into this breach have come a variety of nonprofit, Web-based, local, regional and national investigative reporting organizations started by journalists who left commercial news outlets: ProPublica in New York, the Texas Tribune in Austin, California Watch, with offices throughout the state, and the Voice of San Diego, among many others. They have been funded by charitable foundations, philanthropists, other donors and some university journalism schools.
Most of them have small staffs and budgets, but their zeal for their mission reminds me of the Washington Post reporters and editors who chased after Watergate four decades ago. Some of their journalism already has had significant local and national impact. Their Web traffic is relatively small, but a number of them have reached much wider audiences by having their stories published and broadcast by numerous newspapers, television and public radio stations, and their Web sites.
Investigative nonprofits are being started all the time. But many of the fledgling sites are struggling to survive. Foundations that provide seed money seldom are interested in helping with long-term sustainability. Fundraising and membership drives must compete with other causes. Some start-ups have already failed. Others have had to cut costs and staff to stay alive.
This Watergate anniversary will surely elicit where-are-they-now stories, more reminiscences by those key players who are still with us and yet more second-guessing about what happened and why 40 years ago. Journalism and the American people would be best served if it were also an occasion for widespread recognition of the importance of accountability journalism in our democracy — and the need to ensure that it survives and flourishes in the digital cacophony.
Leonard Downie Jr. is the Weil family professor of journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and vice president at large of The Washington Post, where he worked for 44 years. He was The Post’s executive editor from 1991 to 2008.
Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, along with other central figures in Watergate, will be speaking at a Washington Post Live forum Monday evening. Watch the livestream starting at 6:15 p.m. at washingtonpost.com/watergate.
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