Investigation

I was talking to a newspaperman on a land line. Yes, they still have those. Not land lines – newspapermen, or newspaperpersons. Of course, we were talking about what you talk about when you talk to a newspaperperson: All their friends in the business who have lost their jobs.

Funny, it’s not that writing is going out of style or anything. Despite the relentlessly visual age we live in, there seems to be more writing than ever and more ways than ever to deploy it. The talented people losing their jobs at newspapers are the expensive writers. They are experienced, older, with vesting, pension plans, those who have climbed their way up in the salary ranks and are now replaceable. They are being replaced by cheaper labor or by harried, overworked multi-taskers doing the work of several writers.

Newspaperpersons can be crabby even on a good day, but when they’re out of work they are absolutely despondent. Like actors, their craft doesn’t mean much unless it is practiced in public. Kicked out of the newsroom, they walk the streets and drift into cafes, pretending to write on deadline over a Venti coffee. It hurts to witness their suffering. They have skills, but where to put them?

Recently, in the New York Times the public editor Margaret Sullivan wrote a story titled “Keep the Flame Lit for Investigative Journalism.” She made all the important points. Investigative journalism keeps politics honest. It is a keystone of democracy. It’s challenging and it’s expensive. And yet …

Investigative journalism requires the skills that mature journalists have: The ability to stick with a story over the long haul, the experience to know when you are being bullshitted. The writing style of the best investigative journalism has anger simmering below the surface, something like rage constrained by a strong web of facts. It requires courage and independence to write these stories. You need the ability to sort through a complex mess of half facts and find some whole facts. You need a good enough memory not to write anything down or a bad enough memory to need to write everything down, everything anybody told you, and be prepared for it all to be the subject of a subpoena.

When you hit out in an investigative piece, even if you don’t intend harm but only to surface the truth, the people you write about will hit back, sometimes hard. To survive, you need to have nothing to lose or else deep organizational support: Somebody has to pay the lawyers to defend you. You an organization behind you.

Certainly, not al out-of-work journalists have the guts to do this kind of work. But those with the right intersection of skills will be great at it. Sullivan writes about the organizations that are keeping the flame of investigative journalism alive. Wouldn’t it be amazing if some of them were able to find the funds to hire those with the courage and skill to practice this critical craft?