Watchdog reporting resides at the core of what journalism does. Its roots dig deeply into the common ground uniting the muckrakers’ unearthing of public and private scandals a century ago with what investigative reporters are illuminating today. Though reporting and distribution of this news is very different in the digital era, unfortunately the human conditions requiring press scrutiny are not. These include patterns of corruption and malfeasance among those holding powerful positions of public and private trust. These circumstances and the behavior of others who endanger people’s health, safety and well-being continue to be brought to public attention through the effort of journalists.
It is this effort, most of all the resources of time and money needed to support it, that journalists are now scrutinizing, as they contemplate whether emerging business models for newsgathering and distribution will buttress—or possibly eviscerate—this core role. Digital technology can be an investigative reporter’s closest ally—with its ever-strengthening capacity to locate and search records, create and use databases, and share information in documents—but in tugging eyes and advertising dollars away from print and broadcast media, the financial framework to pay for news reporting is in need of innovation.
In this issue of Nieman Reports, reporters and editors peer into the future of investigative reporting to let us know possibilities they see ahead. For some, their outlook is shaped by their ongoing work in a newspaper’s newsroom or at a TV station. Others speak about what they see through the lens of nonprofit journalism, whether they’ve been there for a few months, as is the case for Paul E. Steiger at ProPublica, or a few decades, as it has been for Charles Lewis. Lewis, founder of the Center for Public Integrity, is now starting a new enterprise, the Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University.
Even as they consider the future, they remember the past. The reporting team of Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele observes: “With a few notable exceptions, even in the best of times investigative reporting was little more than window-dressing in the American press …. Investigative stories often were published only when indefatigable reporters spent nights and weekends pursuing leads after covering their regular beats. A favorite line of editors was, ‘Why don’t you spend a little of your time and see what you come up with?’”
Despite this attitude—and other obstacles—examples of good investigative reporting emerge often enough to remind people of its essential role in our democracy. Journalists, too, are reminded of its merits through awards bestowed on stellar work. Recently, two Nieman Fellows—WCNC-TV investigative reporter Stuart Watson and Charlotte Observer Associate Editor Mary Newsom—read or watched nearly 140 entries as judges for the 2008 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting award given by the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy. After being immersed in contemporary examples, Watson and Newsom reflected on what they saw and heard.
“Obviously, reports of the death of investigative journalism have been exaggerated,” Newsom wrote to me, calling her judging experience “inspiring.” It had “for a time at least counterbalanced the ubiquitous pessimism haunting America’s newsrooms,” she said, but acknowledged “the not-so-pretty truth hiding under that huge stack of inspiring contest entries.” Severe staff reductions in newsrooms mean that because “many of the best investigations emerge from routine coverage, close but skeptical, a reporter who isn’t covering county governments closely isn’t likely to flush out crooked county commissioners,” Newsom wrote.
For Watson, his intense focus brought to mind a newsroom boss who had a category he called “little i investigative reporting.” By this he meant reporting that let readers know, for example, the safety record of a chemical plant that just exploded. “Once upon a time, not too long ago,” Watson writes, “there was another phrase for that kind of deadline journalism—we used to call it ‘reporting.’ Calling plain old backgrounding ‘investigative reporting’ so inflates and cheapens the currency of the term as to render it meaningless.”
With similar blending of remembrance and forward thinking, voices and experiences of investigative journalists carry us through this issue of Nieman Reports. In the three other editions to be published this year, smaller collections of stories about various aspects of investigative reporting will appear. Each article will migrate from our print magazine to our Web site where they will be assembled as a valuable resource for journalists, for those who teach journalism, and for those who study it.