The Washington Post set off a flare over the United States last month when it published a series of investigative articles that found we now have, in effect, a fourth branch of government, one draped in secrecy, one that even our national leaders don’t understand.

The investigation, labeled “Top Secret America,” discovered that this shadowy establishment had arisen, with no comprehensive oversight, mainly since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. As reported by the newspaper, the federal, military and corporate apparatus that has been created is enormous:

• Some 1,271 government organizations and 1,931 private companies work on programs related to counterterrorism, homeland security and intelligence in about 10,000 locations across the United States.

• An estimated 854,000 people … hold top-secret security clearances.

• … 33 building complexes for top-secret intelligence work are under construction or have been built since September 2001 [in the Washington, D.C., area]. …

• Analysts … [publish] 50,000 intelligence reports each year — a volume so large that many are routinely ignored.

The Post disclosures triggered bells in thousands of news operations around the globe, generating reports by all the major U.S. TV networks and newspapers and many websites, including Truthdig. The news was serious, and it was taken seriously. Among others, syndicated columnist Joe Conason testified to the gravity of the issues being raised, declaring on this site that the involvement of corporations and lobbyists in the secret complex is “a challenge to democracy of unprecedented proportions” and that our “democracy and our security both depend on bringing this monstrous bureaucracy to heel.”

As significant as the Post series is, this article isn’t about the findings. It’s about where the report came from, and how America, sadly, may be losing major journalistic investigations.

The Web page of “Top Secret America” says the investigation — led by double Pulitzer winner Dana Priest and William M. Arkin — consumed almost two years and involved more than 20 journalists, “including investigative reporters, cartography experts, database reporters, video journalists, researchers, interactive graphic designers, digital designers, graphic designers, and graphics editors.” The page is filled with elements connecting to one or more articles, videos, blogs, maps, charts, graphs, lists and tweets.

Clearly, this inquiry is a product of big journalism: A probe this massive, lengthy and expensive could not have been pulled off by anything less than a sophisticated, well-funded and well-staffed organization like the Post.

That does not mean important investigative work cannot be done — and has not been done — by small organizations, tiny teams of journalists or even individual reporters. Journalistic history is full of substantial initiatives that sprang from limited resources and circumstances, and some of those have had far-reaching national or international consequences.

Although the biggest investigations almost invariably have occurred in the domain of major newspapers and magazines, that fact takes nothing away from the stellar achievements of some small-scale investigations, and the distinction between the size of an investigation and its value must be stressed. Big does not necessarily mean excellent; small certainly does not mean second-rate.

The list of writers who achieved high recognition, even fame, without benefit of extensive organizations is long. There are the legendary Upton Sinclair and I.F. Stone, who inspired countless investigators. And on the job currently are Seymour Hersh, venerated by some as a one-man army, and dozens of others producing remarkable articles and books that deeply affect American attitudes and lives. Many of them, such as Truthdig Editor Robert Scheer, are working with small organizations or alone after having been part of big journalism earlier in their careers.

Valuable contributions have also come from television and, in recent times, the Internet. An exemplar is the long-running “60 Minutes,” the predominant investigative show of network TV, which has produced many hard-hitting broadcasts and won more than 75 Emmys in the process. On the Internet the number of good investigative blogs is growing, and these mostly small operations will play increasingly important roles.

Even so, at times the truth lies far below the surface, at a depth that yields only to journalistic bulldozers. Big investigations can produce big payoffs, especially in cases requiring hundreds or thousands of contacts; when data are spread across a huge area; when many investigators must travel many miles; when meaning comes into focus only under analysis by numerous specialists. The problem is, the big print publications that usually have opened their wallets for this seem to be on a steep, one-way slide to a place where such investigations will be rare.

Although the Washington Post Co. and the New York Times Co. have enjoyed fiscal upturns recently, those improvements — probably transitory — have come in an era of anxiety and general decline for American print journalism.

On Monday it was announced that the Washington Post Co. had agreed to sell the renowned weekly magazine Newsweek, which it has owned since 1961. In doing so it cast off a financial liability that lost $28 million last year.

In 2009 The New York Times found itself turning to Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim Helú for a $250 million loan. “The deal comes as the Times Company looks to raise money amid flagging advertising sales …,” an NYT article said at the time.

Another prominent media company, Tribune, which is the owner of the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times, is trying to fight its way out of Chapter 11 bankruptcy.And on it goes.

Over the past decade or so, all of those newspapers have had to take dramatic cost-saving steps, such as heavy reductions in staffing and changes in news coverage and presentation. But at least they have kept their presses running, unlike many of their smaller brethren.

One Internet site said on July 9 that 166 U.S. newspapers had closed or stopped publishing on paper since 2008, and another recently quoted federal findings that newspaper publishing jobs had dropped by about a third, from more than 450,000 in July 1990 to about 300,000 in July 2009, and that the rate of decline increased after 2001.

Now there is even a website named Newspaper Death Watch, with a subtitle that registers both fatalistic acceptance of reality and hope for better days: “Chronicling the Decline of Newspapers and the Rebirth of Journalism.”

So, what is sucking the juice out of print journalism? The answer usually given is “the Internet,” but not everyone agrees with that. In an article titled “How to Save Journalism,” John Nichols and Robert W. McChesney write:

The decline of commercial journalism predates the web. Newsrooms began to give up on maintaining staffs sufficient to cover their communities — effectively reducing the number of reporters relative to the overall population — in the 1980s. Real cuts came in the 1990s and have accelerated since then. All the pathologies blamed on the rise of the Internet — declines in science reporting, the disappearance of serious business and labor coverage, cutbacks in investigations and the shuttering of statehouse, Washington and international bureaus — began before anyone knew what it meant to Google.

These trends went largely unnoticed because the dominant news-media firms continued to rake in colossal profits. By downsizing reporting staffs and ramping up less expensive journalism based on trivia, sensationalism and press releases, they were able for years to maintain boomtime profits. But the party was destined to come to an end, as readers and viewers gave up on “products” that no longer contained much in the way of news.

… [T]he primary impact of the Internet has been to accelerate and make irreversible a process that began before the digital age.

Whether the virus infecting print journalism jumped from the Internet or some other source, the patient is unarguably, grievously ill.

Most of the fellow journalists I speak with, especially those working in print, are reticent when it comes to trying to predict the future of the industry, saying the name of the game is “wait and see.” Being less prudent (maybe foolish?), I will rush in where these angels fear to tread. Here is my guess — and it is just a guess, although it is supported by some who claim expertise in tracking the course of print journalism: The decline of ink-on-paper newspapers and magazines is irreversible; most will disappear. Ink-on-paper staffs will be ever more reduced, physical plants will be ever smaller, operating budgets will grow weaker and weaker.

The great metropolitan dailies that dominated geographical regions will lose much of their markets as circulation and ad revenue decline, as the costs of raw materials go up, and as electronic rivals that do not depend on rail cars, heavy trucks and publishing schedules gain strength.

Some publications will hang on for quite a while by shrinking to sizes that can be supported by stingy economic conditions. Some big print publications, dieting heavily, will undergo transformation and move most or all of their operations to the Internet, where they may stay afloat if they can figure out how to get customers to pay for their products (a feat rarely accomplished now), but those shape-shifters will never again be the behemoths they once were.

Among the few paper publications left standing will be some special-interest magazines, with limited circulation, that can charge high subscription fees.

For big journalism of the ink-on-paper variety, it is almost over. No miracle of salvation is on the horizon.

So, that’s what my low-rent crystal ball is telling me in this summer of 2010. Sorry, print journalism — next stop, Heartbreak Hotel.

I dearly hope my forecast is wrong. I love big newspapers. I always have loved newspapers, period. They have played a dominating role in my work life, and when I was a child they were highly valued within my home. For me, speaking of a coming demise of print journalism is an exercise in sorrow: much like a baseball fan predicting an eternity of rainouts.

As big print goes, so go big print investigations. The smaller publications that survive simply won’t have the will or the resources to spend years and millions of dollars to delve into schemes, injustice, corruption, malfeasance, governmental secrets and other such issues of the day. Industry bean counters will tell you: Big investigations are not cost-effective. And they will add that the benefits of seeking out hidden truth for the social good cannot directly be entered on a balance sheet. O, unhappy days.

In 2006, journalism students at Arizona State University conducted a survey on investigative work at major American newspapers. The findings of the survey (which stirred up some disagreement) were no cause for celebration among investigative reporters.An article in The Arizona Republic said:

[The survey] … revealed that newspapers aren’t offering the resources needed to tackle investigative stories, particularly when it comes to time away from daily assignments.

“The reporters themselves are doing a good job, especially with computer-assisted reporting,” said Jon Marshall, adjunct professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism and a freelance reporter. “Unfortunately, the media corporations aren’t giving the time and resources that they did 20 and 25 years ago.”

… Reporters indicated that there is little travel money, research assistance or training to do investigative work. While most said they get some time away from daily assignments and a bit of money to purchase documents or data, it often isn’t enough.

The amount of resources allotted for investigative reporting has been steadily dropping since 1988, said Doug Pardue, special assignment editor at The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C.

“We’re [investigative journalists] an endangered species,” he said. …

In the last four years the picture has grown even dimmer. Those who think that the Internet or television networks or cable TV will move up to big investigations across a wide front are being too optimistic. The figures just will not work. Also, local issues that have been red meat for metropolitan dailies make no sense for investigation by media that have nationwide audiences. Collectively, the net loss in the number, the relevance and the quality of investigations will be grim. An hour of well-orchestrated TV inquiry into how the feds are covering up all those interplanetary aliens at Area 51 does not exactly carry on the legacy of Edward R. Murrow, who might have trouble getting airtime in a day that would rather explore the “Jersey Shore” than the plight of migrant workers.

Interestingly, the international spotlight was pulled away from the expensive “Top Secret America” investigation by a development last week at a relatively lightly funded operation, the WikiLeaks website, which early this year reportedly had only five full-time employees (in addition to hundreds of unpaid volunteers). The site touched off an intense controversy July 25 when it released the “Afghan War Diary,” tens of thousands of classified documents. War opponents hailed the release as a gain for openness, a blow against deception by national leaders, and a potential step toward ending the Afghanistan war.

It would be a mistake to classify together the “Afghan War Diary” and “Top Secret America.” They are very different animals, and the United States, I believe, benefits from both the activities of whistle-blowers and affiliated websites or publications on the one hand and large-scale, traditional investigations on the other. Internet leaks, even those as valuable as the WikiLeaks disclosures, are not acceptable replacements for the investigations historically conducted by big journalism.

Do not take this as a brief for big journalism itself, which is riddled with defects and problems and which suffers because of its size. I side with those critics who maintain that corporate connections and extended interests can make it difficult if not impossible for huge publications to adequately cover certain subjects. The rise of the media conglomerates was often not good for journalism and investigative work. But for the most part over the decades, the super-sized probes were born within newspapers and magazines that were hauling in money. In a newspaper/magazine utopia the publications would have conducted far more and far better investigations: Crime, neglect and governmental abuse have always sprinted far ahead of the hounds of journalism.

If your taste runs toward the grand, or toward reveling in hurrahs late in the game, you might want to work your way through the 12,000 words and the associated material of the praiseworthy “Top Secret America.” I don’t think you often will see such colossal projects in the years ahead. The Washington Post investigation may be one of the last gargantuan dinosaurs of the breed; there will be others, but the herd is in danger and almost certainly will grow thinner as we watch.

T.L. Caswell was on the Los Angeles Times editing staff for more than 25 years and now edits and writes for Truthdig.


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