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The Death or Birth of the News?

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GCHAT PRODUCTIVITY
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Almost a decade ago, I spent more than a year freelancing for a major metropolitan newspaper -- one of the biggest in the country. I would, on an intermittent basis, work out of a newsroom that appeared to be in a state of constant churn. Whoever wasn't being downsized seemed to be jumping ship or madly searching for a life raft. It looked as if bean counters were beating reporters and editors into submission or sending them out of the business and into journalism schools where they would train a new generation of young reporters. For just what wasn't clear. Jobs that would no longer exist?

Before the special series I was working on was complete, my co-writer -- the paper's Washington investigative editor -- had left for the friendlier confines of academia and the editor who greenlit the series had resigned in the face of management's demands for steep cuts to newsroom staff. It seemed as if the only remaining person associated with the series was a gifted photographer (who left for greener pastures within a year).

I thought I was witnessing the end of an era, the death of an institution.

At the same time, I was also working for a small but growing online publication that managed to produce three original articles each week -- a mix of commentary, news analysis, and original investigative reporting. More than a decade into that gig, the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com is still going strong, still publishing three original articles per week, and syndicating that content out to dozens and dozens of online publications, reaching hundreds of thousands of potential readers.

Over that time, online outlets have come and gone, venerable newspapers have closed up shop, predictions of doom -- of the death of print publications, the demise of investigative reporting (maybe even of journalism itself) -- have been aired repeatedly. And it's true that in this new era it hasn't been easy to make a living as a journalist or keep a media outlet afloat. Yet, as a reader, I notice something else: I can't even hope to read every eye-catching article that flashes by on my Twitter feed or piles up in my inbox from one listserve or another. I end up with 25 open windows in my taskbar -- top-quality journalism from legacy media outlets and new digital magazines that I hope I might be able to skim later that day or the next or sometime before my laptop slows to a crawl under the weight of so much groundbreaking reporting.

It turned out that, 10 years ago, I actually was witnessing the end of an era while living through the formative stages of another. It's been a moment in which stories published on a relatively tiny website like TomDispatch circle the globe in a flash and a writer like me, who never went to journalism school, can see his articles almost instantly translated into Spanish, Japanese, Italian, and languages I don't even recognize, and then reposted on websites from South America to Africa to Asia. In other words, they sometimes reach the sort of global audience that once might have been a stretch even for a reporter at a prestigious mainstream media outlet.

Over these years, I've also watched others who have passed through the Nation Institute wade into a scary media market and find great success. TomDispatch's own former intern Andy Kroll, for example, has gone on to break one important story after another at Mother Jones, a print publication that now thrives online, while former Nation Institute program associate Liliana Segura has taken a top post at First Look Media, one of the most dynamic and talked-about new media ventures in years. And they are hardly anomalies.

In her new book, Global Muckraking: 100 Years of Investigative Journalism from Around the World, Anya Schiffrin, the director of the media and communications program at Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs, chronicles the brave new world of global journalism in the age of the Internet (and how the stage was set for the new golden age of the reader we're living in). In her inaugural article for TomDispatch, "The Fall and Rise of Investigative Journalism," the longtime foreign correspondent reveals the investigative exposés by today's top global muckrakers that you missed and explains why investigative journalism is on the rise, not the decline, worldwide.

From Asia to Central America, a new generation of Nellie Blys and Ida Tarbells, Seymour Hershes and Rachel Carsons, is breaking one big story after another with equal parts old-fashioned shoe leather and 21st-century knowhow. "The fact that journalists have been calling attention to some of the same problems for more than a hundred years might make one despondent, but it shouldn't..." Schiffrin writes in her book. "That the battles are still going on should remind us that new abuses, new forms of corruption, are always emerging, providing new opportunities and new responsibilities for the media." Luckily, there is a new generation of reporters around the world, she points out, rising to the challenge.