Melvin Claxton, whose courageous reporting on crime and corruption won The Virgin Islands Daily News the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1995, today is rehabbing houses in Detroit. Claxton, a highly accomplished, old-school investigative journalist who also was a Pulitzer finalist in 2003, took a buyout last August from The (Nashville) Tennessean. He said he didn’t want to leave the profession but didn’t agree with the future direction of the paper and the direction of much of the industry.

“Ultimately, I believe it is a critical mistake to look at journalism simply in economic terms,” he said in a phone conversation. “I believe a major part of that equation has to be public service.”

Claxton’s case exemplifies one of many dilemmas in American journalism. At a time when newspapers are competing for their long-term existence, proven talent is sitting on the sidelines. Why? In part, because investigative journalism is expensive and time consuming, while editors and publishers are under tremendous pressure to do more with less. How can you continue to put out a quality newspaper, assume ever-expanding responsibilities for 24/7 Web site operations, and teach longtime print journalists how to do video and audio reporting with a shrinking staff, fewer resources, and ever-increasing competition from the Internet? Some very tough choices are being made, and some papers are finding that they can no longer afford long-term, in-depth investigative journalism.

Before I left my job at The Sacramento Bee in October, we had worked hard to create a watchdog culture in my more than nine years as executive editor. And it was working. I felt we were doing some of the best investigative work for a regional paper in the country. RELATED ARTICLE
“What Are Newspaper Journalists Investigating?”
But it wasn’t always easy staying the course, given the competing pressures for resources. I was constantly questioning myself about how best to deploy people. Should we shift more people to the Web? Are we taking too long on stories? Should we pull the plug on some investigations? How are we going to develop the skills to transition to the Web?

Editors across the country are grappling with similar questions and circumstances, and their job today is consequently so much more difficult than it’s ever been. Still, at the Bee, I decided to stay focused on watchdog journalism, because I believe it is the kind of unique content that will help news organizations flourish in the future. And I contend that our industry, as a whole, cannot afford to abandon or cut back on investigative reporting, particularly on local and regional issues. It is what will set news organizations apart from the Web aggregators and commentators as the Web becomes the dominant medium for news reporting. Not only is this decision vital to our democracy but also to our industry’s future.

“Investigative journalism is at risk. It depends on how many cuts you have and how much resolve you have as an editor,” said Sharon Rosenhause, managing editor of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, which has maintained its investigative team. “You can’t do anything more local or useful than watchdog journalism.”

Even Claxton hasn’t given up on the industry. He is part of a coalition hoping to bid on his old paper, The Virgin Islands Daily News, which is on the market. And might his opinions of the business side of journalism change if he becomes a part-owner? “Not at the expense of quality journalism,” he told me. “You have to be a business. You have to make a profit, but you have to understand the paper is a unique product.”

Neither have I given up on the industry’s commitment to investigative journalism. I was heartened by the resolve I saw and the response I got from editors three years ago when, during my term as president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE), we had vigorous discussions about the topic I chose to feature, “Unleashing the Watchdogs.” When I attend Investigative Reporters and Editors conferences, as I did last summer in Phoenix, I am heartened to find reporters filling rooms to hear speakers late on a Saturday afternoon and talking late into the night about how to improve journalism. When I speak with journalism educators and students, their enthusiasm about the future of investigative reporting is infectious.

It is my hope that public service-oriented foundations and individuals—some of whom have already stepped forward to do this—will provide funding to support independent investigative organizations as they work separately or in concert with newspapers. But the newspaper industry must also develop business models by which it can sustain the work of investigative journalists. When the economic downturn subsides, pressures on newsrooms might ease, allowing investigative journalism to grow as reporters and editors find ways to take full advantage of the Internet.

Digital Tools

There are so many digital tools that enable reporters to do better, more comprehensive investigations. Those who’ve mastered database reporting already improve the speed and accuracy of investigations, particularly those in which complex records searches and analyses are needed. No longer is there the same need to depend on outside sources to reveal what numbers are able to tell us. And given the extraordinary information that reporters can now harvest, it is essential that investments are made in newsrooms to give editors and reporters the training and tools this kind of reporting requires.

To find a secure foothold in the digital media environment, news organizations need to establish themselves in the role of the verifier so they can be recognized as a trusted place to which people will turn for information and news. Using the Internet smartly, news organizations can complement the printed word with video, audio, links to documents and to related stories. Using the Web’s interactive features, news tips can be solicited. And audiences far beyond our traditional circulation borders will be reached by what we do, giving the stories we tell an impact that many of us could never have imagined.

With all of this within our grasp, this should be a golden era for investigative journalism. And it still can be, but it will take resolve. When I began my year as ASNE president in April 2005, the industry’s financial situation was not nearly as dire as it is today. But even then there were many competing tugs at newspapers’ budgets. I knew that in order for investigative journalism cultures to flourish in the future, not only editors needed to be on board but so did publishers. That is why, at the outset of my term, I asked the Poynter Institute to work with ASNE to host editors and their publishers at a first-of-its-kind conference aimed at creating watchdog cultures. More than 30 editors and publishers participated, along with members of the Poynter faculty and representatives from top public service journalism groups.

Midway through the conference, the participants broke off into small groups. Their thoughts were recorded in an article by Poynter Distinguished Fellow Butch Ward. What follows are some of their suggestions that bear repeating:

  • Watchdog journalism needs to be more accessible, more digestible to readers. We need to frame our stories with our audiences in mind, not journalism contests.
  • Too much of our watchdog journalism feels like scolding. We need to put more energy into solutions—not just problems. We need to invite the community, through partnerships with broadcasting and through forums, to help us with this.
  • Technology is our friend.
  • There is a strong business argument for watchdog journalism, based not on short-term profit but on the longer-term idea of being essential in the life of the community. To remain essential, we must use our significant resources to tell people what is really happening and why—to get to the bottom of things.
  • Beyond the business argument, watchdog journalism is our core mission and cements our importance and influence in the community. In the words of Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Katherine Boo, “We have a responsibility to give voice to the voiceless.”

To give voice to the voiceless is a responsibility that—even in the worst of times—we must not forget. Investigative journalism is not only a cornerstone of our past, it must be one of the building blocks for our digital future.

Rick Rodriguez left The Sacramento Bee in October after more than nine years as executive editor and five years as managing editor. A former American Society of Newspaper Editors president, Rodriguez is now a consultant to the Bee’s parent company, The McClatchy Company, and is joining the faculty at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

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