Even as the media struggle financially and their credibility continues to falter—especially during this last election—investigative reporting, surprisingly, is booming. Legacy outlets like The New York Times still publish in-depth series on major topics like brutality in the Rikers Island jail, labor conditions in the city’s nail salons, and fraud at Trump University. Around the world, niche start-ups like Daily Maverick and El Faro and InsideClimate News cover subjects that are frequently ignored or underreported by the larger media outlets.
The problem, however, is that despite all the investigative journalism being done these days, there isn’t a clear source of revenue to support it. Investigative journalism requires dedicated and experienced reporters and editors who have time and plenty of resources. Above all, it costs a lot of money—and yet it’s hard to fund. Advertisers often don’t want to be associated with it, and declining subscription numbers no longer help to cover costs. In some instances, private foundations and wealthy individuals have stepped into the breach, and organizations like the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists have been formed. These donor-backed groups have helped journalists do the slow, steady work of reporting, leading to several blockbuster series on tax avoidance, including the so-called Panama Papers, Swiss Leaks, and Luxembourg Leaks. Other examples include nonprofit organizations like the Marshall Project and ProPublica, which shared a Pulitzer Prize in 2016 for their investigative feature “An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” and which are also funded by individual donations and foundation support.
But while donor funding helps pay for investigative journalism now, it’s far less certain that this model can sustain it in the future. There will no doubt be funding for the kind of reporting that went into exposing the Panama Papers or that the Times and The Washington Post do, but what about local investigative reporting? Who will cover a story of municipal corruption, or mismanagement by a small-town school district, or lead in the water supply? Without more funding, the current decline in local investigative reporting is unlikely to slow.
Democracy’s Detectives, a compelling new book by Stanford University communications professor and economist James T. Hamilton, helps to clarify the social uses of—and the acute economic threat to— investigative journalism in the United States today. Indeed, Democracy’s Detectives joins the ranks of two other iconic books on the subject: The Evolution of American Investigative Journalism, a history by James L. Aucoin, and The Journalism of Outrage, written by a group of journalists (David Protess, Fay Lomax Cook, Jack C. Doppelt, James S. Ettema, Margaret T. Gordon, Donna R. Leff, and Peter Miller) who used case studies to examine how investigative reporting around the country helped set various policy agendas. Democracy’s Detectives revisits many of the questions raised by these earlier books, both historical and contemporary. But Hamilton also turns to data analysis to explore the economics behind investigative journalism.