Why We Still Need Mainstream Media

I’ve been a big advocate for years of de-corporatizing journalism in this country. But…

Still think having it become more about who’s reporting a story, rather than what publication is important and is happening and will happen even more. Even if that reporting ends up being independently crowd-sourced, or Substacked, or entirely Tweeted, or here on Medium or wherever. By and large, that’s already how I consume most of my news.

It’s also, I think, how local news, now that scores of local newspapers are gone, will survive and revive.

But often enough, I’m still reminded why old school, ad driven, big budget news organizations do have leverage that results in a quality of reporting that couldn’t be equally replicated elsewhere. Yes, anyone these days can work up a piece on, for instance, a Trump rally that he’s blasting all over the place, so we don’t really need them for that. Yet, some of their other enterprise reporting still often results in work of incalculable value.

For some reason, late last week I was thinking about my first big break in the news business: an investigation into penny stock brokers. This was at a major news organization that remains major to this day. My boss gave me free reign to pursue the story: no daily deadlines, no worrying about where my next paycheck was going to come from, or whether my expenses would break me way before I even knew if I had anything. This was a thrilling and liberating experience. And it led to the Securities and Exchange Commission cracking down on these corrupt operations. In the course of reporting the story, I got my first death threats as a journalist. If you’ve ever watched the Sopranos, you’ll already know the penny stock business was pretty mobbed up during this period in time. Still, I was young and indestructible, so I was thrilled when that happened. My boss called the FBI.

My guess is, even at a big, well-financed news operation those chances are now fewer and farther between. But they’re still there.

Something of which I was starkly reminded this weekend when I came across the story in the Washington Post: “Just 27 congressional Republicans acknowledge Biden’s win”. 

There are 249 Republicans in the House of Representatives. The Post said it built a team of 25 people to report the story. That means they threw enough resources at it to make at very least hundreds and hundreds of phone calls  in just a day or two. And probably a lot more, because of follow-ups and things like that.

This isn’t a hard story to report. It may not even be particularly revelatory. But it is a crystal clear quantification, even if we already knew. And it is an important moment of holding people to account at an important moment in history. A roll call of complicity, if not sedition.

But the scale required is just something I could not do as an independent journalist and blogger. I can call dozens of people in a day. But I just do not have the time or the bandwidth as one person to do the unbelievably important work the Post did in this story. I can develop sources. But I also do not have the institutional clout to provide a reason for people I don’t already know to contact me back, and make the point of my reporting even starker when they don’t.

I’ve talked an awful lot in the past couple of weeks about the shameful silence of most of the most powerful Republicans on the fact Joe Biden won, even as Trump tries to pull a malignant, un-Democratic scam, seemingly intolerable to any normal person. But I’ve never been able to present my case in as compelling a fashion as the 25 people at the Post just did.

Being my own publication does make me at times more nimble and flexible, and there’s a lot of value in that. And as much as I still think the kind of thing I and a lot of other people are doing will continue to replace more traditional forms of journalism, there are always going to be stories that are going to need not just one, but teams of smart people working in tandem, and with great speed, and with at least somewhat generous budgets.

Because passion alone sometimes isn’t enough. Sometimes you still do need magnitude and money.