It was one of those meetings in which newspaper editors spend all too much time these days: a cross-departmental conversation about how to cut our company’s budget. Executives from around the operation—advertising, circulation, production, news—turned ashen in unison as we pored over another set of ugly ad-revenue returns. We adjourned with the assignment of each squeezing more blood from our respective department’s turnip.

The home-delivery director made a beeline for me, clearly wanting to share an idea for how I should cut the newsroom budget. Knowing that newspaper editors and circulation managers don’t always see eye to eye, I braced myself. So I was delighted when he said, “Whatever you do, please, please, please don’t cut the investigative reporting!”

He knows what I know: Investigative reporting is expensive. It’s time consuming. It’s risky, both in terms of digging dry wells and instigating litigation. It can anger readers and advertisers.

And he also knows this: It may be our saving grace. In an age when our critics love to crow that news is an undifferentiated commodity available anywhere, investigative reporting clearly isn’t. It’s something newspapers do that hardly anyone else can afford to: spending weeks, months and sometimes even years uncovering important stories that powerful people and institutions don’t want the public to know.

Of course, these days, we in the newspaper industry are asking ourselves whether we can still afford to do it. It’s a question we’ve asked ourselves even at The Seattle Times, where watchdog reporting has a long and rich tradition. Our newsroom staff is significantly smaller than it was a decade ago, while the demands of being a 24/7, multiplatform news organization are immeasurably greater.

Our answer? We can’t afford not to.

Sustaining Our Watchful Eye

As our industry moves from a business model largely supported by classified advertising to one fueled by new and largely still elusive revenue sources, we must retain our audience and sustain our mission. We believe that now and in the future, investigative reporting is not only good journalism, it’s good business—in print and online.

In Seattle, the record supports that. While the industry saw an average circulation decline of nearly 20 percent between 2000 and 2007, the Times is actually selling more newspapers than we were eight years ago. One major reason, we are certain, is our investigative reporting.

Readers love it. Nothing we do elicits more response—and these days, more Web site hits—than a provocative investigative report. When, earlier this year, we exposed the previously unreported level of criminal activity among members of the 2001 University of Washington Rose Bowl football team, newspapers flew off single-copy racks, and the story and its sidebars dominated our Web site traffic for more than a week.

It’s great for our “brand.” In surveys, people in the Northwest—both readers and nonreaders—consistently cite our watchdog approach to news as one of our attributes. They know that during the past 15 years, we have taken on our region’s biggest employer (the Boeing Company), one of our best advertisers (Seattle-based Nordstrom), our hometown airline (Alaska), and the most respected medical facility in the Northwest (the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center) in our investigations. While each of those reports has angered a segment of the readership—usually people employed at those companies—the collective result is a belief that our organization is beholden to no one and not afraid of the powers that be. Both readers and advertisers like to be associated with that strength and independence.

So nearly everyone at the Times, from our owner-publisher to the circulation and advertising directors to the troops engaged in the breaking-news battle on the Web, believe with conviction that we can’t abandon watchdog journalism and, in fact, must expand it.

But how, in these times of paucity?

We’re focused on three elements:

  1. Structure: Certain aspects of investigative reporting, such as complex data analysis, document navigation, and difficult confrontational interviews, demand experience and expertise. For that reason, we are not disbanding our I-Team of seasoned, highly skilled investigators. But we have moved a couple of them from that largely sequestered elite group out to the middle of the newsroom to work on the metro reporting team, where they will be more visibly in the daily mix and will be powerful evangelists for the investigative ethic we’re working hard to instill across the staff.
  2. Culture: During the past few years, we have stressed, and demonstrated, that the best ideas for investigations come not from meeting rooms but from the street. Our beat reporters—from biotech experts to art critics to high-school football reporters—are learning that great watchdog stories are everywhere. And they know that if they find one, we will team them with expert investigators who can help them deliver the goods.
  3. Training and technology. The same medium that has stolen away our want ads offers us new, more efficient ways to dig up information and to report it. We are striving to make optimal use of Web-based tools in collecting and collating data, experimenting in crowdsourcing techniques to gather tips and test theories. We’re using our intranet to put powerful technology tools at reporters’ fingertips and training them how to use them. And we’re using the Internet—and our Web sites—to present investigations in new, richer, more multifaceted fashion.

The result is an evolution of the investigative tradition that began in the last midcentury here when a cub reporter named Ed Guthman published the first bull’s-eye hit on McCarthyism. It’s a tradition that developed through the decades, producing a passel of Pulitzers and other investigative awards and, more importantly, changed laws, saved lives, and improved the quality of life in the Northwest.

In this decade, investigations are springing from beats like never before:

  •  “License to Harm,” in which medical and investigative reporters revealed that Washington State allows hundreds of medical professionals to continue to practice even after sexually abusing their patients.
  •  “The Art of Deception,” in which our visual art critic teamed with an investigative reporter to expose the sale of counterfeit Chinese antiquities at a respected Seattle gallery.
  • “Coaches Who Prey,” in which a court reporter’s instinct based on a couple of unconnected lawsuits led to the revelation that 159 middle- and high-school coaches in this state had been reprimanded for sexual misconduct with players—and that most had been allowed to continue to coach and teach.
  • “Chief Sealth Recruiting,” in which a tip to a prep-sports reporter led to an investigation exposing illegal recruiting of players to the two-time state champion girls basketball team, which was ultimately stripped of those titles.
  • “Selling Drug Secrets,” the product of pairing an investigative journalist with a biotech beat reporter, leading to the revelation that despite signing confidentiality agreements, doctors across the country were being paid by elite investors to reveal the secret details of their ongoing drug research.
  • “Landslides and Logging,” an investigation that actually began with a picture by one of our photographers of a massive mudslide in the Cascade Mountains, which led one of our environmental reporters to work with our mapping expert. They proved that Weyerhaeuser’s logging practices were both destroying the landscape and putting watersheds at risk.

“Connecting Congressional Earmarks With Campaign Contributions”
—David Heath
Every one of these investigations, and others like them, set tongues a-wagging in our community, and all had direct, positive results. They were good journalism. Every one of them also sold newspapers and drove Web traffic. They were good business. And every one of them was a reminder—to the newsroom, to the rest of our company, and to our community—of what newspapers still do better than anyone else.

David Boardman is executive editor of The Seattle Times and a past president of the board of directors of Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc.

Most popular articles from Nieman Reports

Show comments / Leave a comment