When Spotlight won the Oscar for best picture in 2016, it had already sparked a degree of journalistic nostalgia, harkening back to an era before Twitter determined the media cycle (and did so at a breakneck pace). Yes, there was once a time when investigative teams were given the resources, time and space to shake the foundations of the worlds most powerful institutions.
Now, investigative teams are making a comeback thanks to a new muse: Donald Trump.
“[The administration] have said they’re going to try to remake how Washington works, how government is, and we need to be in place to figure out where to go deep in terms of coverage across the board,” said Mark Mazzetti, the new Washington investigations editor for the New York Times.
Numerous media organizations have recently announced the formation of new investigative teams or renewed investment in existing teams. The New York Times recently announced its new Washington D.C. investigations team; the Washington Post is doing the same; Fusion/Gizmodo have a new investigations unit; CNN invested in investigatory work by hiring Andrew Kaczynski and the “K-File” team away from BuzzFeed; BuzzFeed then hired Vice’s “FOIA terrorist” Jason Leopold and Pulitzer Prize winner Anthony Cormier. Even smaller outlets like TalkingPointsMemo are hiring for investigative roles.
That’s a reversal of the recent trend for investigative teams. The modern, ultra-fast media metabolism combined with a growing economic reliance on quantity above quality on the internet has made investigative journalism difficult to sustain. One big story every few months (if that) wasn’t enough, even if they did end up having a massive impact.
Trump is just half the equation. The new president is fertile ground for investigations, but the fevered opposition to him and his policies have generated a renewed sense of importance around the work of journalism. The notion of using major investigative pieces to galvanize an audience to open their wallets was already being embraced by Mother Jones, which made a direct appeal in August for subscribers based around a piece in which a reporter worked as a prison guard. The story, the magazined claimed, cost $350,000 to produce.
Cameron Barr, a managing editor at the Washington Post, said that the paper had taken this into account when forming its new investigative unit. The reader reaction to the investigative work WaPo reporter David Fahrenthold on Trump’s lack of charitable giving showed that doubling down on investigative work “would pay dividends in terms of subscribers and digital audience.”
“We think we already have proof of concept from what we’ve seen in 2016, and now we’re excited to act on it,” Barr said.
There’s also the proposition of a long tail for making money off investigative work that wasn’t around a few years ago.
Keith Summa, who oversees Fusion’s investigative teams as senior vice president of content and programming, said his company sees opportunities to make money from in-depth journalism in a variety of ways.
“We see our investment in investigative journalism as a multi-platform play. Whatever platform a story originates on, we know how to realize it across many others digital, TV, social, OTT, podcasts and weve sold many of our investigative docs overseas,” Summa said.
This mini-revival shares DNA with the Spotlight-style investigatory work, but is updated for the digital era. The Times and WaPo teams are both being portrayed as fast-response units that will be able to react quickly and work with other sections of their respective publications. Even the Boston Globe’s now-famous Spotlight team is putting out more stories.
It also does little to quell the broader problem of a widespread decline in local reporting, particularly investigative work.
“It’s not a group of five people that is going to go off and bury itself for nine months and come up with some big project,” Mazzetti said. “We have to do a few things. We have to work pretty quickly, and we also are going to be very collaborative not only with other reporters or in the [Washington D.C.] bureau but across the paper.”