Can Old-School Reporting Save New Media?

The Inquirer's "Assault on Learning" series reminds us that investigative journalism can invigorate readers

The Philadelphia Inquirer, a once glorious newspaper that fell into afterthought status some time ago due to market conditions, bungled decisions and changes in reader habits—all of which is too tedious and chewed over to want to think about, let alone enumerate here—is suddenly and unexpectedly regaining its footing this week.

The Inquirer has introduced a bold and ingenious concept, one with an awesome throwback hook: investigative reporting.

If you’re of a certain age, you may remember investigative reporting. It was tried relatively often by a lot of different editors and publications back in the day. Then, sometime early into the Clinton Administration, it was replaced by lists—lists of fat cities, of boring cities, of cities with good coffee and great veggie burgers, whatever; it didn’t much matter if the list held validity, because, really, who cared?

Lists are easier and cheaper to produce than investigative stories, and they attract eyeballs (a term popularized about the time investigative reporting came to a halt), until they suddenly don’t.

The Inquirer’s searing and disturbing seven-part series on violence in our city’s schools—“Assault on Learning”—running all this week and continuing with part five today on intervention, is not surprisingly striking a deep nerve with Philadelphians. Not only does the series have us talking and emoting about what’s going on in our schools every day, but we’ve been reminded what a daily newspaper, whatever the delivery platform, can mean to a city.

Investigative stories in and of themselves don’t necessarily translate into legions of excited and transfixed readers. They have to center on a subject that readers care about, be well crafted and well written and exhaustively and scrupulously reported. As of today’s installment, the Inquirer’s investigation appears to be accomplishing all three handily. The series took a year to report, and, boy, does it show. After reading each installment you can almost feel damp from the sweat you run into at every line break.

It’s too simple to suggest that a newspaper (okay, a multi-platformed vehicle), like the Inquirer, could regain its former status and once growing readership through investigative reporting alone, though it would be fun to see it tried.

But after watching the Inquirer fool around with op-ed columnists no one wanted to read, marketing campaigns that didn’t resonate and a website that gave readers vertigo upon impact, they just may have landed on the one thing that will help bring honor and readers back around: deeply reported stories about things that make us think and act.

“The world is a crazy, beautiful, ugly complicated place,” David Remnick, the editor of The New Yorker said at a symposium on journalism recently, “and it keeps moving on from crisis to strangeness to beauty to weirdness to tragedy. The caravan keeps moving on, and the job of the long-form writer… is to stop—is to pause—and when the caravan goes away, that’s when this stuff comes.”

This week, with its “Assault on Learning” series, the Inquirer paused… and so did we.

Tim Whitaker ([email protected]) is the executive director of Mighty Writers, a nonprofit program that inspires city kids to write.