The future of investigative reporting is bleak, unless the following circumstance exists in your newsroom: Someone close to the top has to see it as a priority. These were the very words Bill Hawkins, the top editor at my newspaper, The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, used when I asked him what it takes to keep investigative and project reporting alive in newspapers during this time of shrinking newsroom resources.
In this day of corporate ownership, many of us forget how personal the journalism remains. I have tried to specialize in investigative or project reporting for some 25 years, with varying degrees of success. It was in 1993 that I first became a full-time projects editor at The State newspaper in Columbia, South Carolina, working under then-Executive Editor Gil Thelenand Managing Editor Paula Ellis. At that time, many newspapers were retrenching, which meant cutting back coverage to their metropolitan areas. The State also was retrenching, but Thelen and Ellis wanted to add muscle to the paper’s ability to make a difference and offered me the opportunity to start an I-team from scratch. I would even get to hire two additional reporters of my choice.
Wow. I couldn’t turn that down. And Ellis sweetened the pot with this line: “Come to the state that’s at the top of the lists you want to be at the bottom of, and at the bottom of the lists you want to be at the top of.” So for the first time in my career I had a clear mandate to focus solely on breaking, short-term and long-term investigative reporting. It worked because those two top editors wanted it to work.
Since then, I’ve remained a full-time investigative projects editor at three different-size newspapers, The Tampa Tribune, USA Today, and The Post and Courier. I’ve experienced varying degrees of success with varying structures, from an I-team with four reporters to an I-team with just me and whichever reporters I could snatch from the city desk for a project.
Common to these three jobs was the factor that the top editors wanted and pushed for an organized system for project reporting.
Hope Springs Eternal
Though I’ve been among those lucky enough to stay focused full time on projects and investigative reporting, the sound of collapsing newsrooms around the industry is hard to ignore. I worry about whether investigative reporting, especially at medium and small circulation papers, is heading out the door with the stock listings.
In 2006, Arizona State University journalism students conducted a survey of investigative journalists at the nation’s 100 largest newspapers. From 86 of these papers they received responses. Support for investigative reporting was superficial, the journalists said, and they get less time for it. At 37 percent of the newspapers, there was no full-time investigative reporter; 61 percent had no investigative reporting team, and 62 percent lacked an editor in charge of investigations.
Given this situation, I was somewhat fearful of what would happen here a few months ago when our top editors, Hawkins and Managing Editor Steve Mullins, called me in for a closed-door session. The conversation began with the words reporters have learned to dread: “We’re restructuring the newsroom.”
The last time I heard that, I lost my team’s two investigative reporters. But no—this time, that wasn’t happening. Instead, the editors were going to reassign two investigative reporters to work with me full time. Their core message: produce more investigative reporting and work even harder with other reporters and editors to produce more breaking watchdog reporting and middle- and long-range projects.
Okay, so I’m thinking, “What’s the catch?”
Back to the Future
To Hawkins and Mullins, the catch is the future of journalism. Not that my little I-team is the future. Rather, it’s what they want us to do with it. We were told to work closely with our online folks to create a watchdog site on our Web site, which we launched in May.1 RELATED WEB LINK
The Post & Courier Watchdog
news/watchdogOn it, we are showcasing our public service reporting—both our long-term projects as well as briefer items revolving around community issues. With our Web site’s interactive capacity, we offer ways for people to easily let us know what they think needs fixing or investigating, whether it is dirty restaurants or corrupt officials. And we keep folks up-to-date on what we find out about their tips.
All of our investigative efforts can be seen there, but in addition we provide readers with information on how they can do some digging of their own on topics of interest to them. We call this DIY (Do It Yourself), and to get them started we supply them with many of the online tools of investigative reporters. These include links to Web sites and databases to help them find a person, check the background of a day care center, or the financial stability of a company. There is also a video/photo spot on the site called “Smoking Gun” where viewers can see people caught in the act of some form of waste, abuse or fraud.
We launched our watchdog Web site with a close-up look at a local problem that angers a lot of residents. Appearing first on our Web site—and followed the next day with a Page One story in the newspaper—our reporting team gave readers a front-row look at parking cheaters who abuse handicapped parking permits, stuff meters to jam them, and find all sorts of other ingenious ways to get free, convenient parking. This series was amazingly popular and demonstrated well how watchdog reporting can effectively go after some of the pet peeves many of us deal with every day.
Creating this watchdog site is part of our newspaper’s effort to develop into a news organization rather than thinking of ourselves as only a newspaper.
Unabashedly, Hawkins admitted stealing this idea from other newspapers, especially Florida Today, where Watchdog Editor Matt Reed says the site is popular with readers. With our online watchdog site, Hawkins wants to play off our success with investigative projects that have brought about positive change for the community. These changes are things our readers have noticed and they realize wouldn’t have happened if not for the newspaper’s efforts to shine a light on what was wrong and offer possible ways to bring about improvements.
Among our investigative work this year that promised change was our follow-up coverage of the June 18th Sofa Super Store fire that killed nine Charleston firefighters. Our reporting revealed how the fire department did almost everything wrong in fighting that fire.EDITOR’S NOTE
The Post and Courier’s spot coverage of this fire won the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ Jesse Laventhol Prize for Deadline News Reporting by a Team.Now, the city is upgrading the department’s equipment, training and fire-scene leadership. A series we did on how the state’s public school bus fleet is the oldest, most polluting, least safe in the nation caused the General Assembly to pass a law requiring that older buses be phased out on an annual schedule. Another investigative project we did revealed that many people who eat fish from our state’s rivers have elevated levels of toxic mercury in their bodies due to mercury fallout from coal-fired plants. After that series was published, the U.S. Department of Interior urged the state to stop approval for a new $1.25 billion power plant until a thorough study is made on the effects of mercury pollution. The interior department also urged the state to drop plans for a coal-fired plant in favor of cleaner technology. And state environmental officials agreed to take a new look at how it measures and regulates mercury releases. It also posted warning signs at all boat landings and public fishing spots.
With the new watchdog site, Hawkins says, we’ve expanded our reach on the Web by giving readers a better opportunity to get involved in helping bring about such change. “I am counting on the result to be more quick-hit investigative pieces that supplement our long-range projects,” he says. Hawkins clearly expects that we will get more plugged in with the community, “especially as more and more people … realize that we are interested in their tips and fearless in pursuing them,” as he put it. In some ways, we’ve been doing that already as we’ve responded to tips we’ve received in phone calls, letters or walk-ins. Having the Web page simply gives people in our community an easier way to get their ideas to us. Already, tips are pouring in through our watchdog site, and we are now involving our entire newsroom by farming out the good ideas to appropriate beat reporters.
“Hell yeah!” Hawkins says. “Good investigative reporting effects change in a positive way. It makes our community better. It resonates in the community. It makes people look to the newspaper and say, ‘they’re the ones watching our back.’”
Bottom line: Investigative reporting has a future on the Web. Now, if we can just get the Web to make real money.
Doug Pardue is projects editor for The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina. For his work as a reporter and editor, he has received five National Headliner Awards, including two this year, and a Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards Citation. He was part of a Roanoke (Va.) Times team that was a 1990 Pulitzer Prize finalist for coverage of the yearlong Pittston Coal strike.