Bob Woodward was in Philadelphia the other night, for an event at the Free Library, where he and I engaged in an on-stage conversation. The best stuff, albeit the most depressing stuff, was about the future of investigative journalism.

At one point, I asked him whether the Watergate scandal would have been more speedily exposed in today's 24/7 digital world - as opposed to the news cycle circa 1972, when he and Carl Bernstein spent long months knocking on doors and sifting documents. In his response (which I recorded and transcribed), Woodward veered in an unexpected direction:

"There’s a man named Steve Brill...who teaches journalism classes at Yale. And he called me up two years ago and said, 'I’m asking the students to write a one-page paper on how Watergate would be covered in the digital age. And I’ll send them to you if you'd talk to the class afterward on speakerphone.'

"So he sent me all their papers, and I looked at them on a Sunday evening, and I almost got an aneurysm. They said things like, well, Watergate would be so easy to cover in the digital age - you just Google 'Nixon’s secret fund.'"

The audience exploded in laughter, with just the right tone of rueful disgust.

Woodward continued: "But not just one student said that. This was the general conviction - and these were supposedly smart students. I worried that it was an April Fool’s joke, but it wasn’t. They think the Internet is a magic lantern, and you kind of rub it, and out comes the truth. Eric Schmidt, the former CEO of Google, says that the only problem with the Internet is that it's 'a sewer.' And there’s a lot of sewage in there....

"You know, (breaking a scandal story) still comes down to good information, and where do you get good information? Not necessarily on the Internet. It’s really about having good human sources, and they trust you and you trust them. And you've established a relationship. That’s how you get inside data. But (the students) did not see it as a human interaction problem. They saw it as, 'just get on your computer.' I have a 16-year-old daughter, and sometimes I want to smash all the devices because they have taken such a role in her life, and I keep trying to tell her that life is more than just Facebook and the Internet."

In other words, today's young journalists can't expose a latter-day Watergate ("a decent attainable version of the truth") by simply tickling the keyboard; now, as back in the 1970s antiquity, it happens only via the slow and patient cultivation of sources - the "human interaction," as he called it. Assuming, of course, that the journalists have the requisite financial resources and institutional support to keep doing the work.

The problem is, that's an increasingly shaky assumption - as Woodward well knows. The Washington Post continues to be rocked by buyouts and layoffs; in terms of personnel, the fabled newsroom is now 40 percent smaller than it was at its peak. The parent company's newspaper division (which includes some community newspapers) lost roughly $26 million during the first three quarters of 2011. And online news outlets have yet to create sustainable business models that would finance and support the kind of investigative reporting that enables the Fourth Estate to (in Woodward's words) "tell people the truth about power."

In the absence of a healthy 21st-century press, he said, "we would have the government’s version of the truth, or the corporation’s version – and believe me, those versions are woefully inadquate. The problem is that, right now, with the cutbacks at The Philadelphia Inquirer, with the cutbacks at The Washington Post - we’re going through convulsions - where do we land? I’ll tell you my assessment: We're going to miss the big story....

"And then the people who have the money - Apple, Google, Facebook - are going to realize they’re going to have to get into the news content business. That they just can’t snatch all the advertising money (away from print), which is what they've done. They have to take on the risk of publishing (original) content," by emulating Katherine Graham, the late Washington Post publisher who insisted that reporters use all possible resources to unearth the truth. "You can’t function as a reporter unless you have that kind of support at the top."

But Woodward warned that unless 21st-century information moguls provide that kind of support, secrecy will cripple democracy. "And then people are going to say, 'Where were the journalists?'"

Yeah. What he said.

-------

Speaking of secrecy, when will most Americans - especially liberals - start asking questions about President Obama's secret drone program? (I broached the issue at length on this blog, on Oct. 3, 2011). My Friday newspaper column.

-------

Follow me on Twiter, @dickpolman1