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Spotlight Shines on Investigative Journalism

A stack of newspapers

The 1976 film, "All the President's Men," glamorized investigative journalism. The movie won four Academy Awards, was nominated for Best Picture and inspired a generation of investigative journalists. This year another film, "Spotlight," tells the story of an investigative team at The Boston Globe, who uncovered the Catholic Church's pattern of protecting priests accused of child sexual abuse. Will it spark the same inspiration in an industry facing financial struggles, that is growing increasingly fragmented and driven by a need to fill a 24-hour news hole?

"Journalism, especially investigative journalism, was seen then as a cool, glamorous, and very important profession, something that was helping right wrongs across our nation," says Andy Hall, executive director and co-founder of Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. Hall entered Indiana University in 1977, and was drawn to it after the Watergate scandal. He says "Spotlight" is likely so inspire today's young people to go into investigative journalism, but the media landscape has changed substantially since the 1970s.

Hall says "Investigative journalism has never been able to pay for its own way. It's always been subsidized by something else." He says while newspapers were making 30 - 40% profit margins in the 70s and through the early 2000s companies could afford to subsidize teams of investigative reporters to dedicate the time necessary to do this work. The internet has totally disrupted that business model, slashing advertising and circulation revenue. "What you're left with is diminishing resources that are unable to, by and large, support the kind of enterprise and investigative teams that we saw across America in previous decades."

Lyle Muller is executive director - editor of the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism, a non-profit news service funded almost entirely by foundation money, matching donations and other media partners. "Strong investigative journalism still exists in Iowa. The problem is, fewer people are doing it," says Muller.

He says there are three dedicated investigative journalists remaining at newspapers in the state. "Those are the three people whose jobs in Iowa are identified in the traditional media as fulltime investigative reporters." Muller says many others are doing good journalism, but they aren't given the time to research a complex investigative story. "They're expected to do investigative reporting while also covering some of the routine matters, which are important, that's watchdog journalism, they just don't have the time and ability to devote months to a project."

"The movie really captures a sense of what goes on in a newsroom, and that is debate and conversation," says Jason Clayworth, investigative reporter for The Des Moines Register. Clayworth was responsible for many stories about Iowa's effort to privatize Medicaid, including stories that the companies chosen to manage Iowa's Medicaid system have faced allegations of mismanagement and systematic denial of claims. "Journalism in my mind is a public service. And something that's such a big program, and massive changes being made, it requires quick journalistic work," says Clayworth. But he says he's grateful to be given weeks, and even months to dig into stories.

This edition of River to River is part of the Pulitzer Prizes Centennial Campfires initiative, a joint venture of the Pulitzer Prizes Board, The Federation of State Humanities Council and Humanities Iowa, a state affiliate of the National Endowment of the Humanities, in celebration of the 2016 centennial of the prizes. The initiative seeks to illuminate the impact of journalism and the humanities on American life today, to imagine their future and to inspire new generations to consider the values represented by the body of Pulitzer-Prize winning work.

For their generous support of the Campfires Initiative, we thank the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Ford Foundation, Carnegie Corporation of New York, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Pulitzer Prizes Board, Columbia University and Humanities Iowa.

Editor's Note: This show originally aired on 2-23-16. 

Ben Kieffer is the host of IPR's River to River
Katherine Perkins is IPR's Program Director for News and Talk