It is ironic that Hearst newspapers are some of the first going out of business these days since it was in early Hearst publications that investigative journalism first found its voice, and it is in this very voice that our ailing press may yet find salvation.
The Seattle Post-Intelligencer (P-I), a Hearst publication, and a paper that has been in print for nearly 150 years, will publish its last edition this week. The San Francisco Chronicle, another Hearst publication, is rumored to go the same way soon, as are numerous other papers across this country.
As an old school journalist and one who loves the power of the press at its best to investigate and expose corruption in our democracy, I've watched with sadness as the Rocky Mountain News (which published its final edition in late February ) and the P-I (which will exist only on-line in a scaled-down version) have become publishing history.
And yet as a writer obsessed with the transformative power of a story, I discern in this extinction of a species -- the newsprint version of journalism -- the thread of a hopeful narrative. In the midst of this epidemic demise of our great cities' great papers there sparkles one flashy gem of hope: the tabloids stepping in where they have never trod before.
Celebrity web sites like TMZ and TV shows like "Inside Edition" and "Extra" are jumping in to fill a contemporary role in the muckraking tradition. Instead of focusing their dollars and time on the likes of the me-me-me behavior of Paris Hilton, they have begun to throw their energy at reporting the excesses of our corporate elite.
Is it possible that in this midst of the rubble in the collapsing newspaper industry we are witnessing the rise of the new muckrakers, reporters willing to go undercover to capture evidence of corporate abuses and then to report to an outraged public the discrepancies of the American dream? Footage of corporate moguls emerging from private jets and images of expensive gifts being showered on employees and clients at corporate events, daily lead news reports on once-celebrity-focused news sites and contribute to the fueling of the fiery populist rage whipping across this continent.
Obviously, these changes in reporting by outlets like TMZ have been made to capitalize on public outrage, to draw in viewers, but so too was the case of the early muckrakers who emerged in large part at Hearst publications about 100 years ago. Living conditions for the average American, during those days of our country's urban/industrial revolution, were at their lowest in the history of the country. People were hurting. The stories those muckrakers wrote found a ready home in the anger and resentment of the masses, and they helped make changes in government.
So while these contemporary media outlets are surely serving their own interests, there is hope in comments like Rory Waltzer's, a photographer for TMZ quoted in The New York Times, that unlike stories about Britney Spears, stories of Bernard Madoff and politicians in D.C. have an "impact on the country."
This shift in priorities could signal the dawn of something new in the Fourth Estate. If media outlets with enough money to continue reporting during these economic times rethink their contributions to our culture, journalists like Waltzer could become the new muckrakers. And if they did, they could do good in this country by filling the gap left by our failing newspapers.