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Keep the Flame Lit for Investigative Journalism

Walter Robinson was playing to the crowd. Now famous as the investigative editor played by Michael Keaton in the movie “Spotlight,” Mr. Robinson and other real-life Boston Globe journalists were in Lower Manhattan a few weeks ago, telling war stories in ProPublica’s newsroom, just before the New York film premiere.

Describing a moment in late 2001 as the Globe’s Spotlight team reported the priest-pedophilia scandal, Mr. Robinson, known as Robby, recalled seeing something he found strange on a colleague’s computer screen: “Lines going one way and lines going another way.” What is that? he demanded.

With the timing of a comic, Mr. Robinson told the answer as a joke on himself: “It’s a spreadsheet.” As intended, this got a laugh from ProPublica’s journalists, who live in the numbers-heavy world of today’s investigative reporting, where databases and spreadsheets have replaced the rumbling of the presses beneath the floor.

His story gives a tiny picture of what’s changed in 14 years. But writ large, it raises serious concerns. Digital tools are a boon to reporting, and digital distribution can make a story go global, but digital-era economics have devastated newspaper staffs.

Now the question is how that crucial work will continue — especially on the local level. The Times and a few other news organizations will endure, and keep doing worthy investigations, but they can’t replace local papers’ strengths. Those papers have lost nearly half their reporters in recent years.

The Times has six reporters devoted to investigations in New York’s metro area. Michael Luo, who runs that team, told me that some investigations can be “quick hits” but that others take many months to “identify something no one else has identified and go deeper than anyone else has.” For example, Kim Barker’s investigation of New York City’s so-called three-quarter houses for recovering addicts took six months.

Encouragingly, some smaller papers have redoubled their investigative efforts, proving that a large staff is not necessary to do important work. At The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C., the top editor, Mitch Pugh, has created a four-person investigative team in a newsroom of only 72 staffers. Their series on deadly domestic violence brought reform — and won this year’s Pulitzer for Public Service.

“If we’re going to ask readers to spend their money on us, we have to make investigative and public service work a cornerstone,” Mr. Pugh told me.

Meanwhile, new players have arrived. In addition to national nonprofits — including ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting and the Center for Public Integrity — many cities now have local ones. (The Texas Tribune probably is foremost.)

Local public radio stations are also making a push: At KPCC, for example, the public radio station in Southern California, Melanie Sill’s staff built a database on police shootings. There is “a growing commitment to do more investigative and accountability reporting at stations around the country,” said Jim Schachter of WNYC, which won a national award this year for investigating abuse of power by the city’s Police Department. NPR’s news chief, Michael Oreskes, told me that supporting local investigative work is a major emphasis for him.

This activity helps explain the all-time high membership in Investigative Reporters and Editors, which brought a record 1,800 journalists to Philadelphia last June, including many from alternative papers and television stations. I found the sense of mission there invigorating, as young journalists jammed into sessions to hone their craft.

But what about the future? Investigative reporting’s transition won’t be a smooth one, said Richard Tofel, president of ProPublica. With newspapers still dominant in many cities, there’s not enough of a gap to create great need for new players, funded in new ways, including through philanthropy.

Mr. Tofel told me, “There’s still an irrational amount of print advertising” supporting newspaper economics. “But the next recession will be very unkind to newspapers.” By the time it’s over, “seven-day-a-week newspapers will be the exception, not the rule.”

Can what’s left of newspapers, together with the new entrants, get the job done?

“We have to,” said Tim Redmond, former executive editor of The San Francisco Bay Guardian, a now-defunct alternative paper. He started 48 Hills, a nonprofit online news organization with a staff of two reporters. “Democracy can’t function without somebody holding the power structure accountable.”

But not much of this is likely to approach the investigation that The Globe’s Spotlight team began in 2001. And when newspapers retrench again, investigative reporting may be hit hard.

Even now, local newspapers’ desertion of major beats and coverage of public meetings is disturbing. Important in its own right, that reporting also feeds the best investigations. And new ventures’ long-term effectiveness and sustainability is tough to gauge.

Top-flight investigative reporting takes skill, time, backbone, vision — and money. Increasingly, there’s new funding, including from foundations like Knight, which has put millions toward the cause. And just last week, the Globe announced a new fellowship for investigative work prompted by “Spotlight.”

I hope that the movie’s success will drive home the importance of this work, and have far-reaching effects. That’s not impossible. After all, in the 1970s, the Watergate film “All the President’s Men” helped inspire a generation of young journalists.

The future is in flux. What is certain is that citizens value investigative work. “People don’t know of corruption unless it’s disclosed to them,” said Martin Baron, the Globe’s editor during the church investigation, now editor of The Washington Post. When they see the media bringing wrongdoing to light, he said, they often express appreciation: “If it weren’t for you, nobody would do this work.”

That enduring appetite for investigative journalism may hold the key. And so, for the good of the democracy (and their own survival) news organizations, whether start-up or legacy, must make it a high priority to keep digging — with the public’s interest at heart.

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