Henry Demarest Lloyd, a journalist working for the Chicago Tribune, published a series of articles exposing corruption in business and politics in the early 1880s. This included The Story of a Great Monopoly (1881) and The Political Economy of Seventy-Three Million Dollars (1882) in the Atlantic Monthly and Making Bread Dear (1883) and Lords of Industry (1884) in the North American Review. These articles caused a stir and Lloyd has been described as America's first investigative journalist.
Ida Wells was another journalist who attempted to use her writing skills to obtain social change. In 1884 she began teaching in Memphis. She also wrote articles on civil rights for local newspapers and when she criticised the Memphis Board of Education for under-funding African American schools, she lost her job as a teacher. Ida used her savings to become part owner of Free Speech , a small newspaper in the city. Over the next few years she concentrated on writing about individual cases where black people had suffered at the hands of white racists. This included an investigation into lynching and discovered during a short period 728 black men and women had been lynched by white mobs. Of these deaths, two-thirds were for small offences such as public drunkenness and shoplifting.
On 9th March, 1892, three African American businessmen were lynched in Memphis. When Ida wrote an article condemning the lynchers, a white mob destroyed her printing press. They declared that they intended to lynch Ida but fortunately she was visiting Philadelphia at the time. Unable to return to Memphis, Ida was recruited by the progressive newspaper, New York Age . She continued her campaign against lynching and Jim Crow laws and in 1893 and 1894 made lecture tours of Britain. In 1901 Ida published her book, Lynching and the Excuse for It. In the book she argued that the main aim of lynching was to intimidate blacks from becoming involved in politics and therefore maintaining white power in the South.
By 1906 the combined sales of the ten magazines that concentrated on investigative journalism reached a total circulation of 3,000,000. Writers and publishers associated with this investigative journalism movement between 1890 and 1914 included Nellie Bly, Jacob A. Riis, Frank Norris, Ida Tarbell, Charles Edward Russell, Lincoln Steffens, David Graham Phillips, C. P. Connolly, Benjamin Hampton, Upton Sinclair, Rheta Childe Dorr, Fremont Older, Thomas Lawson, Alfred Henry Lewis and Ray Stannard Baker.
Harold Evans, the author of The American Century: People, Power and Politics (1998) has pointed out: "Crooks in City Hall. Opium in children's cough syrup. Rats in the meatpacking factory. Cruelty to child workers... Scandal followed scandal in the early 1900s as a new breed of writers investigated the evils of laissez-faire America... The muckrakers were the heart of Progressivism, that shifting coalition of sentiment striving to make the American dream come true in the machine age. Their articles, with facts borne out by subsequent commissions, were read passionately in new national mass-circulation magazines by millions of the fast-growing aspiring white-collar middle class."
President Theodore Roosevelt responded to investigative journalism by initiating legislation that would help tackle some of the problems illustrated by these journalist. This included persuading Congress to pass reforms such as the Pure Food and Drugs Act (1906) and the Federal Meat Inspection Act (1906). Roosevelt was seen to be on the side of these investigative journalists until David Graham Phillips began a series of articles in Cosmopolitan entitled The Treason in the Senate. This included an attack on some of Roosevelt's political allies and he responded with a speech where he compared the investigative journalist with the muckraker in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress: "the man who could look no way but downward with the muck-rake in his hands; who would neither look up nor regard the crown he was offered, but continued to rake to himself the filth on the floor."
These investigative journalists objected to being described as muckrakers. They felt betrayed as they felt they had helped President Theodore Roosevelt to get elected. Lincoln Steffens was furious with Roosevelt and the day after the speech told him: "Well, you have put an end to all these journalistic investigations that have made you."
After Roosevelt's speech these investigative journalists became known as muckrakers. David Graham Phillips believed that Roosevelt's speech marked the end of the movement: "The greatest single definite force against muckraking was President Roosevelt, who called these writers muckrakers. A tag like that running through the papers was an easy phrase of repeated attack upon what was in general a good journalistic movement."
Ray Stannard Baker argued: "In the beginning I thought, and still think, he did great good in giving support and encouragement to this movement. But I did not believe then, and have never believed since, that these ills can be settled by partisan political methods. They are moral and economic questions. Latterly I believe Roosevelt did a disservice to the country in seizing upon a movement that ought to have been built up slowly and solidly from the bottom with much solid thought and experimentation, and hitching it to the cart of his own political ambitions. He thus short-circuited a fine and vigorous current of aroused public opinion into a futile partisan movement."
Some of the magazines such as Everybody's, McClure's Magazine, and the American Magazine continued to publish investigations into political, legal and financial corruption. However, as John O'Hara Cosgrave, editor of Everybody's admitted, the demand for this type of journalism declined: "The subject was not exhausted but the public interest therein seemed to be at an end, and inevitably the editors turned to other sources of copy to fill their pages."
In his book, The Era of the Muckrakers (1933), C. C. Regier argued that it is possible to tabulate the achievements of investigative journalism during this period: "The list of reforms accomplished between 1900 and 1915 is an impressive one. The convict and peonage systems were destroyed in some states; prison reforms were undertaken; a federal pure food act was passed in 1906; child labour laws were adopted by many states; a federal employers' liability act was passed in 1906, and a second one in 1908, which was amended in 1910; forest reserves were set aside; the Newlands Act of 1902 made reclamation of millions of acres of land possible; a policy of the conservation of natural resources was followed; eight-hour laws for women were passed in some states; race-track gambling was prohibited; twenty states passed mothers' pension acts between 1908 and 1913; twenty-five states had workmen's compensation laws in 1915; an income tax amendment was added to the Constitution; the Standard Oil and the Tobacco companies were dissolved; Niagara Falls was saved from the greed of corporations; Alaska was saved from the Guggenheims and other capitalists; and better insurance laws and packing-house laws were placed on the statute books."
The situation changed dramatically after the First World War because of what became known as the Red Scare. The man considered to be the "godfather" of muckraking journalism, Lincoln Steffens, had great difficulty finding magazines willing to publish his work. He told Ella Winter, "I don't seem able to state my truths so that they'll be accepted." In 1926 Fremont Older what had happened to these radical journalists: "Some of them are in jail, some of them, with little hope left, are still on the job, but more of them have been inoculated by the money madness that has seized America."