Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told a group of public administrators that North Carolina’s major newspapers—including Greenboro’s News & Record where I am editor—bore indirect responsibility for a scandal taking place at the State Department of Transportation.
When newspapers stop assigning reporters to keep an eye on such a large and important state agency, he said, corruption and bureaucratic ineptitude flourishes. The public’s business is replaced by monkey business. It’s a truth that journalists covering government have long known.
Guillory isn’t the typical academic shooting at the news media. He’s a former newspaperman and a longtime newspaper lover. But he falls into the trap so many former and current journalists do: thinking that the newspaper operation is the same now as it was back in their day. Oh, how we wish it were.
In response to Guillory, I wrote the following words on my editor’s blog:EDITOR’S NOTE
To read more of what Robinson wrote in his blog reply to Guillory, go to the News & Record’s Web site and scroll down to his Nov. 5 entry, entitled “The future of journalism.”
Welcome to the world of hard choices. It’s always been this way. We don’t cover everything. We don’t even cover what we used to. Newspaper staffs are getting smaller, yet the number of meetings and events, of commissions and government agencies grows. Partly as a result, newspapers are also moving away from devoting as much energy to covering ‘buildings.’ Not only are there fewer reporters, but there is evidence that readers aren’t as interested in what traditionally is produced by that coverage: stories about meetings and bureaucracy. For every big scandal story, there are 100 smaller process stories required to get there. [See editor’s note.]
What’s happening at newspapers has been well documented—with endless reams of copy about downsizing, layoffs and takeovers. Editors are—or should be—sparring with the bean counters who want to “do more with less,” which is either a misunderstanding of what it takes to produce journalism or an insult to hard-working journalists everywhere. Meanwhile, newspaper readership sinks, advertising revenues decline, and editors search for relevant content to draw in new audiences.
What often gets kicked to the curb is what takes the longest to produce: investigative reporting. I know. My paper has gone through downsizing, layoffs and tight budget controls, and is now being shopped around. We strive to cover the traditional beats, plus develop unique enterprise reporting, all at the same time we are learning how to extend our journalism with video and audio, plus become hyperlocal.
At such a time, the question isn’t how we can do more investigative reporting; it’s more like how can we do any investigative reporting.
I believe many agree we’re now at a defining moment in newspaper history. The era in which we, as professional journalists, impose our judgment as the determining factor of what is considered newsworthy—or even how to cover what is happening—is fast fading. The days of newspaper omnipotence and omnipresence are over.
When it comes to investigative journalism, however, the professional journalist still sits in the catbird seat. But in the not-so-distant future, that seat seems all but certain to get a bit more crowded—with citizen journalists and bloggers and others.
Sometimes it can be hard to think about this in traditional terms. Shining light in dark places is a birthright of those of us who were part of the tidal wave of reporters who rushed into journalism after Watergate. Now that tide is ebbing, at least for many of us who work at small and midsized papers, even as we cling to our fundamental belief that a core purpose of the job we do is to serve as an independent monitor of power. “As history showed us, it more properly means watching over the powerful few in society on behalf of the many to guard against tyranny,” wrote Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in “The Elements of Journalism.”
Nurtured in journalism with this sense of purpose, I believe newspapers must devote the necessary resources to investigate corruption and wrongdoing within its community. The tried-and-true method of putting reporters’ feet on the street—talking to lots of people, tracking leads, unearthing and searching through records—still works at holding people in power accountable. But it’s not the only way. The times we work in and technology we have demand new thinking about how investigative reporting can happen. Even if we, as an industry, have not shown ourselves to be especially innovative or entrepreneurial when times were good, perhaps the threat to one of our core competencies will serve as a powerful incentive in these troubled times.
Dan Gillmor, director of the Knight Center for Digital Media Entrepreneurship at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, often says, “My readers know more than I do.” Back in the late 1960’s, as a teenager, I learned this lesson well as I sat near my father as he read a story about someone arrested for building a bomb. My dad sold explosives for DuPont, and he knew immediately that the reporter had gotten some information wrong. I’ll never forget the tenor of his voice as he exclaimed, “Why wouldn’t they call someone who knows what they’re talking about before they print garbage like this?”
With new assignments arising all the time—and deadline pressures constant—there are natural limitations on how much expertise, inside information, and insight a reporter can bring to each story. But there is an excellent chance that there are people who live in our community—and those who live thousands of miles away—who might be able to help us exceed those limitations. It’s our job, as an industry, to figure out how to bring these “experts” into the work we do in gathering information to monitor those in power.
Let me raise some new strategies being tried.
Beat blogging: It is an idea conceived by Jay Rosen, a New York University associate professor and author of the influential media blog PressThink. He envisions a social network of experts who are connected to the reporter and to each other. RELATED WEB LINK
More details about how these news organizations are participating are available at BeatBlogging.org.
“Using Expertise From Outside the Newsroom”
– Betty Wells
“Maybe a beat reporter could do a way better job if there was a ‘live’ social network connected to the beat, made up of people who know the territory the beat covers and want the reporting on that beat to be better,” he wrote at the time the idea was launched in late 2007. In all, 13 news organizations, including The Dallas Morning News, ESPN, the Houston Chronicle, and The Chronicle of Higher Education are participating in a variety of ways [see related Web link]. Young people, most of whom are not newspaper readers, use Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn to spread news and stories. Perhaps there are ways to use these social networks to develop in-depth and insightful investigative journalism.
Citizen journalism: Possibilities exist for pairing an amateur with an interest in a topic with a professional journalist. Often, the amateur arrives with technological know-how that the journalist doesn’t have, which can put them on a coequal footing when it comes to meshing their talents to address the task at hand. Collaborations of this sort between citizens and newsrooms are developing but are in their infancy with more work to be done on making them true partnerships. Strengthening this partnership is both logical and vital, for citizens can bring us knowledge and interest and insight and perhaps some skills we can benefit from having. Combined with the tools of the trade we possess, some deeply textured and incisive journalism might emerge.
Hyperlocal journalism: An extension of the citizen journalist idea is well represented by the concept of EveryBlock.com, a project still being developed by Adrian Holovaty, creator of chicagocrime.org and recipient of a $1.1 million grant from the Knight Foundation. As a hyperlocal news site, EveryBlock.com will aggregate public information and databases about neighborhoods and publish stories written by local residents. Ideas, information and sources will surface here. This is the kind of place where newspaper editors can discover what people want to know more about, whether it is the U.S. presidential election or the race for presidency of the neighborhood association.
Bloggers: With an early reputation as independent gunslingers, the most well-traveled blogging sites have evolved into consortiums of journalism and opinion, such as Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo (and his TPM Muckraker) and The Huffington Post. Bloggers’ tenacity is well-documented, and with so many government records online, it is becoming a lot easier to find good stories. It’s easier for newspaper reporters and for bloggers, too. Partnering in some fashion can make sense.
Crowdsourcing: This method of reporting essentially outsources some of the work to the audience, who add information to the mix. Gannett papers have adopted crowdsourcing as a way of gathering news. The News-Press in Fort Myers, Florida, asked readers for help in examining the high cost of being connected to water and sewer lines. According to a 2006 article in Wired, response was quick and powerful: “Readers spontaneously organized their own investigations: retired engineers analyzed blueprints, accountants pored over balance sheets, and an inside whistleblower leaked documents showing evidence of bid-rigging.”
“When Video Is King”
— Stuart WatsonPartner with the local television or radio station: Though reporting styles can differ, those who work at these media have something of value to teach print journalists about the use of audio and video in visual storytelling.
These suggestions don’t begin to touch on all of the possible reporting pathways to be pursued. They do open a window on different methods of watchdog journalism. They won’t necessarily save money, especially when newspapers get over the hurdle—as they inevitably will—that people will do high-quality work for free. Newspapers, with their digital presence, will survive by finding ways to report deeply on their communities—and in doing so produce a local news product that can’t be matched anywhere else. Key to that survival is the willingness to dig deeply into how government works and where injustice is occurring.
In full disclosure: the News & Record does not do enough investigative reporting. We must do more, and writing this article has prodded me to push us more aggressively in that direction.
John Robinson is the editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, North Carolina.