SLOSHED ON 30 percent profit margins, the news media went on a drunkard's tear over the final three decades of the 20th century. Some publishers, such as Gannett, spent their loot acquiring more newspapers. The Boston Globe blew a portion of its windfall on foreign bureaus, establishing its first in the early 1970s and eventually expanding to five. Newspapers everywhere expanded regional and national bureaus, sprouted additional sections, added color printing, hired more journalists, and boosted circulation as the money bender continued.
Almost every news outlet--print or broadcast--spent heavily on investigative journalism, producing a scoop renaissance. The Johnny Deadlines dug deep to bust crooked cops, call out polluting corporations, and expose criminal justice outrages. Health care fraud, banking hijinks, payoffs, bribes, and government waste got a full press airing.
But the renaissance stalled at the new century mark as cable TV and the web encroached on the advertising monopoly the press had grown sozzled on. Then came the 2008-09 recession, reversing the grand expansion. The Globe closed all of its foreign bureaus; newspapers shed their suburban and regional bureaus; whole newspaper sections folded; and tens of thousands of journalists got sacked.
The investigative beat took a hit too, as James T. Hamilton, a Stanford professor of communications, explains in his comprehensive study, Democracy's Detectives: The Economics of Investigative Reporting. Unmistakable proof of the decline: No trade honors itself as grandly as journalism, so submissions to investigative award programs are a fine marker of how much of that genre is being produced. During the 2008-09 recession, submissions to the popular Investigative Reporters and Editors contest dropped 34.1 percent compared to 2006-07, indicating the extent of the cutback.
The biggest losers haven't been journalists--who cares about them, any way?--but members of the public, from whom more perfidy is concealed, while public officials, bureaucrats, and corrupt businessmen have scored. "Which stories get discovered where depends on economics," Hamilton writes. By bringing the economist's eye to the business of investigative journalism, Hamilton sharpens our appreciation of the craft as he explores its history, the motivations publishers have to fund the work, and the cash benefits investigations pay out.
Investigative journalism, Hamilton tells us, produces extraordinary benefits--perhaps...