Bail Out Investigative Journalists

Investigative journalism is at risk. And investigative reporting is not something that can be outsourced or depend upon other countries' workers to do properly.
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While the Federal reserve and Congress are bailing out corporations so big we can't allow them to fail, let's talk about bailing out the newspaper industry. Or at least, journalism -- an element so essential to our democracy and the honest, efficient running of our government that we can't afford to be without it, either. The fact that the Tribune company has filed for bankruptcy, that newspapers are going solely online or cutting back to three-day-a-week delivery, troubles me. Democracy does not need ad sections, but it does need investigative independent reporters.

The morbidity of journalism in the US is not as new as the economic crisis. Media consolidation, mergers, loosening of federal laws allowing ownership of multiple stations or newspapers in metropolitan areas, the permitting of mergers that produce total or close to total monopolies on news coverage in some regions and the massive domination of talk radio by right wing extremists.

But this article does not advocate for the re-balancing of the media or equal time, or for the fairness doctrine which has some right wing talk show hosts making a lot of noise. I want to see a lot more media, but not talkers and pundits. We have plenty of them. We need more investigative reporters and journalists, thousands, maybe tens of thousands more.

Every week we see more bad news about the newspaper and network TV industries. Ad sales are down. Companies are shutting down or laying off staff, closing departments -- for example, CNN just announced it is shutting down its science and space news division.

Net enthusiasts celebrate this death of the old media and suggest that the web is bigger and better. However, as a publisher of a site which runs more than 1500 articles and receives over 800,000 unique visits last month, I know that most of the articles we web publishers see are not produced through investigative reporting. They are produced by people who comment on the investigative reporting done by newspapers and network news. Of course, there are a handful of investigative reporters associated with web news and opinion sites -- but they are few and far between. America could use an extra ten or twenty thousand investigative reporters to keep the government, legislators and corporations honest.

Maybe while Obama is rescuing banks and car builders he can also throw some money to media sites on the web to hire up some of those unemployed journalists we're already seeing and will soon see a lot more of. Investigative journalism is at risk. And investigative reporting is not something that can be outsourced or depend upon other countries' workers to do properly.

We need a robust journalism community here, even if the newspaper business is going to hell. Just as, in the past, artists and poets have been supported, perhaps this is what we'll need for writers now. Imagine if the government funded a "news conservation corps" of 10,000 investigative reporters at $50-80,000 salaries, plus health care benefits -- costing, say, an average of $75,000 each --probably a high estimate. Throw in another $225 million to pay for 3000 more editors. That would cost less than a billion dollars and provide the nation with probably 50 times more investigative reports than we now have. The reporters could work with one or more publishers and their reporting could be open source -- without copyright, just as TV networks share a common feed. Or publishers could share in the cost.

Bottom up rating, recommendation and other web-based feedback systems as well as analog juried evaluations by peers and editors could determine which reporters, websites and newspapers get funding, which are rated the best -- and therefore deserving of renewed contracts, increased funding and bonuses.

One billion dollars invested strictly in subsidizing salaries of reporters and editors, for newspapers and online media would certainly pay for itself in the uncovering of corruption and misspending of government funds. It might also rescue the newspaper industry by keeping it worth reading.

My own experience as a publisher has shown that bloggers can make the shift to become investigative reporters. The first step: If you're a blogger reading this, all you need to do is to start making phone calls, doing interviews. Doing a story on the economy? Go to a local store or food pantry and ask people how the economy is affecting them. This is the real stuff-the "analog" pounding shoe-leather stuff journalism is made of. It will be great if the new Obama administration discovers this idea. But if just a tiny fraction of the 100 million plus bloggers started doing more investigative work, it would drastically change the world -- even more than the blogosphere has already done.

America faces what could be the deepest crisis it has experienced in the past century. We need big ideas, out-of-the box, big picture solutions which clean up government and corporate corruption, massively increase transparency and engage citizens as active participants in healing the problem. Investing in America's future should not just be about fixing broken businesses and industries. It should be about waking people up and energizing them. I can't imagine any more cost-effective, powerful way to do this than a program to turn bloggers and unemployed reporters into a new team assigned the job of shining the light of investigative reporting on America. And if we do it here, the rest of the world will follow. Light will be cast on some of the darkest parts of the world.

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