Investigative journalism: First casualty of the Net?

The debate over the impact of technology on media and the potential impact on political governance takes center stage at a weekend colloquium on IT and society.

I'm spending Saturday in an auditorium somewhere in the bowels of Microsoft's Mountain View, Calif., campus. The occasion: a series of panels co-sponsored by Microsoft, Google, the Computer History Museum, and the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, probing "the impact of information technology on society."

That's quite a mouthful, not to mention quite an ambitious subject to tackle, but a very timely conclave. To their credit, the hosts have assembled a collection of very big brains up for the task.

The day started off with a rocking presentation by Joshua Cohen, a Stanford professor of political science. Alluding to the accelerating collapse of newspapers, he cautioned that the still-to-be-determined impact on the American polity will be anything but good.

From left to right: Edward Lazowska, Joshua Cohen, Henry Brady, and Edward Felten Charles Cooper/CNET

"Here's where there is a big problem," he said, arguing that a "successful democratic sphere" is impossible without the information that newspapers supply. He added that "the damage is growing, and the consequences, potentially, are severe."

"Call me old-fashioned," Cohen continued, but blogging will not offer "a viable alternative" to investigative journalism. He faulted arguments that an increasingly decentralized blogosphere can fill that vacuum, a contention that he dismissed as "cyberutopianism."

"It is not only misplaced," Cohen said. "It's dangerous."

Talk about waking up with a strong cup of coffee.

Cohen's argument has been made by many others in different forums. But for the sake of perspective, however, keep in mind that it not universally shared. You'll find investigative reporting by agencies or individuals who don't belong to the ranks of professional journalists. But as the discussion broadened out to the political impact technology was having on public discourse, electoral politics, and governance, Cohen maintained that investigative journalism was "an important source" of information for the nation's political discourse.

"I think you have to talk about investigative journalism...It's not about weather or reporting sports. A world in which investigative journalism disappears is not a world in which democracy works very well," he said.

"The situation is getting urgent. Big newspapers are laying of about 20 percent of their investigative journalists," he said. "This is a profession where people learn how to do it. There are standards. It would really be a disaster if this investigative profession went out of business, a disaster for democracy. There's absolutely no reason to think that there's a fundamental hostility between the future of investigative journalism and technology, but nobody's figured it out yet."

He was right about that. Nobody did provide a conclusive answer to the question. Another panelist, Edward Felten, who teaches computer science at Princeton University, said that by 2020, the current disruptions taking down so many newspapers will lead to a reshaped landscape with more emphasis on what's taking place in peoples' backyards.

"There will be many fewer newspapers...partly due to fact that people can read newspapers from far away. We'll see smaller outlets which focus on the local and operate in a low-budget way, more like a community paper than a big city newspaper. And we'll see a lot of non-profit or low-profit punditry."

 

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