Remarkable journalism exposed corruption, righted wrongdoings and held government accountable in 2019.
This is highlighted by the recently announced Investigative Reporters & Editors awards. They laud stories exposing abuse of children, bribery and state prison-system failures, among other wrongs.
Sadly, the list could be a high water mark.
While news readership is surging during the pandemic, many outlets are doing stellar work and reporters’ zeal for investigative work continues, that’s not enough. The crisis is accelerating the downward spiral of the news business.
Several IRE winners and finalists work for publishers that went bankrupt or were sold in private-equity deals in the last six months.
Across all U.S. media, newsroom employment fell 25%, shedding 28,000 jobs, from 2008 to 2018, according to Pew Research. At newspapers, newsroom jobs fell 47% over that decade. At least 1,800 newspapers went out of business since 2004.
That could be repeated in a single year. So far the crisis has resulted in 28,000 news workers being laid off, furloughed or having pay cut, according to a New York Times estimate. Some newspapers are dropping editions or suspending print altogether.
“Clearly this is going to be an extinction event for some news publishers,” industry analyst Ken Doctor told USA Today.
Every industry is suffering, and all workers are important. As the nation works to shore them up, it must also ensure the free press survives and continues to perform its essential role informing the public and holding institutions accountable.
Newspapers officially have been an essential business since 1791, when the First Amendment was ratified. Democracy depends upon a free press to inform voters. The press also provides critical information such as health and safety information during a crisis.
Local newspapers continue to provide most original reporting in their communities. They “significantly outperform local TV, radio, and online-only outlets in news production, both in overall story output and in terms of stories that are original, local, or address a critical information need,” a 2019 Duke University study found.
With advertising and content being siphoned by online giants, press survival increasingly depends on subscribers and philanthropy. It will also require federal support this year.
That’s just sustenance. As newspapers contract, fewer may be willing or able to devote resources to investigations.
That makes this year’s IRE awards all the more remarkable.
The Chicago Tribune, working with nonprofit ProPublica, was a finalist for exposing schools wrongly confining and restraining children as young as 5. That was in 2019. In early 2020, some staffers are pleading for a philanthropist to rescue the paper from its hedge-fund owner.
Also lauded were stories published by Gannett papers in Tennessee, Kentucky and North Carolina. All were sold last year to GateHouse Media, a private equity-backed outfit known for trimming newsrooms. The stories exposed shoddy work of doctors denying disability claims, police seizing property from innocent people and drug cartels in the U.S.
Will the merger’s debt burden limit those papers’ ability to keep investing in such work? Gannett recently ordered staff to take a week off without pay.
McClatchy’s Miami Herald, El Nuevo Herald and Washington, D.C., bureau were lauded for exposing corruption by a giant engineering company. McClatchy has since gone bankrupt. Its likely buyer is the hedge fund controlling The National Enquirer.
On the bright side are IRE wins by organizations pursuing new models to sustain journalism.
The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit co-founded by a venture capitalist, won for exposing voter-roll shenanigans that disenfranchised thousands of voters. The Philadelphia Inquirer, which was saved by a billionaire who donated it to a nonprofit institute, was lauded for exposing abuse at a youth reform school.
But there are only so many billionaires supporting journalism. Thousands of communities no longer have a local newspaper, or only have ghost papers with little reporting.
The pandemic is highlighting how critical local news coverage is to every community, much less award-winning accountability journalism.
America’s free press is essential, gravely threatened and must be preserved.