As newspaper folks continue to insist that only newspapers can really do investigative reporting, their reasoning just doesn't hold up to scrutiny. The latest is publisher (not radio host) Alex Jones who suggested in a recent interview that we need big news organizations to do investigative reporting, because the subjects of those reports are likely to try to intimidate the investigators
and only a big organization can stand up to that sort of intimidation. However, Tim Lee points out why that doesn't make much sense, and why a group of concerned citizens is probably a lot less likely to be intimidated than a single organization
. It's the same basic theory as the difference between a distributed system and one with a single point of failure:
Jones gets the implications of this story completely backwards. It's only because newspapers are large, profitable, commercial enterprises that the kind of intimidation techniques he talks about work at all. Imagine it's 2020 and the Idaho newspapers have all gone out of business, and they've been replaced by several hundred bloggers, most of them amateurs. A whistleblower discovers some evidence of wrongdoing by a prominent Mormon official. Is it easier or harder for the whistleblower to get the word out?
Obviously, it's easier. She can anonymously email the evidence to a dozen different bloggers. Those bloggers don't have to all prepare long "investigative journalism" write-ups; some of them can just post the raw documents for others to look at. Once they're widely available, other bloggers can link to those raw documents and provide commentary. The official being criticized has three big problems. First, taking legal action will be vastly more expensive because he'd have to sue dozens of bloggers rather than just one newspaper. Second, many of those bloggers won't have any assets to speak of, so he's unlikely to recover his legal costs even if he wins. And finally, if he foolishly presses forward, he'll discover our friend the Streisand Effect: the fact that he files the lawsuit will cause a lot more people to cover the original allegations.
Likewise, the threat of a boycott only works because newspapers are for-profit operations with significant overhead. Threatening a boycott against, a blogger who writes in a his free time is no threat at all.
As if to prove this very point, there were stories this week about a newspaper columnist being fired
(and, yes, the newspaper disputes some of the details) for writing a column that highlighted an investigation of a major advertiser in the newspaper. Oh, and what has the fired guy done? He's gone and set up his own blog
. Again, none of this is saying that professional reporters and news organizations aren't an important part of journalism -- but the idea that no one else can do what they do is just silly.