The Proper Cultivation of the Muck-Raked Garden

Conor’s $75K newspaper rescue-mission thought experiment is spawning a bunch of awesome comments, and I hope that discussion continues to develop. As if on cue, today the Center for Public Integrity (which is a national nonprofit dedicated to the sort of investigative work Conor’s trying to promote) announced the launch of a new feature on their blog which would compile “often-overlooked” investigative reports. (Unfortunately, they don’t seem to have a separate RSS feed set up for it yet, but if you’re so inclined you should bookmark the main blog — called, ironically, The Paper Trail.)

CPI isn’t the only nonprofit engaging in investigative journalism, plus or minus the journalism. The Project on Government Oversight does similar work, and ProPublica was formed a few years ago with the explicit mission of filling the investigative gap left by newspaper cuts. (I’m sure there are others of which I’m unaware, and I’d love to hear about them.)

All of these focus on the federal government, meaning that they suffer from the watchdog equivalent of the Times fallacy. But maybe they could complement the network Conor would be building. I’m imagining a system where up-and-coming muckrakers get their start in Washington working for a national watchdog group, then fan out from there to become the big fish in a lot of smaller investigative ponds. This might seem like a hard sell to a would-be Woodstein, but it’s worth considering that a good local investigative reporter could get more consistent attention, and more results, than a good national one. There’s just so much more muck to rake in DC, and it seems so much harder to convince anyone that any one story is particularly slimy.

The difference is that DC had Woodstein. It’s hard for me to think of any local muckrakers with that kind of stature. (Then again, I don’t pretend to be up on my localist newspaper traditions…) The only local newspapermen in pop culture I can think of are in comic books. Contemporary pop culture has switched to television news, where correspondents are at best slightly hapless and at worst, well, you know.

Come to think of it, local media generally gets portrayed as some pale, barely-competent imitation of national media, especially if the locality in question isn’t a major urban area. I’m sure some of that is the smugness of national “network types” et al., who have the power to create that sort of image, but it’s something that has to be dealt with if we’re trying to determine the real community benefits of local journalism.

Incidentally, the California Civic Journalism Project (which needs a better name) may be my second favorite of Conor’s pipe-dream projects, after the Wood Quarterly Journal. Much of TAS has been burned by recent experiences with venture capital, but if any wealthy reader wants to alleviate his economic-crisis survivor guilt, I strongly suggest endowing a Friedersdorf Grant for Media Awesomeness.