Whenever I begin to despair about the future of journalism, and newspapers in particular, I remind myself that I’ve lived through worse and that my newsroom produced powerful reporting even then.

Not “worse” in the macro sense, for there hasn’t been a time when the combination of a damaged economy and industry upheaval has been as daunting for mainstream journalism as it is now and is likely to be for several more years. “Worse,” rather, in what I confronted personally, for I was once the editor of a money-starved small newspaper that was part of a chain led by a bully, whose decisions squeezed both the money and the spirit out of my paper.

Back then, though, I lucked out by finding a gutsy and talented veteran reporter who had been knocked around by alcohol and wanted to redeem his career by bringing journalism that mattered to our community. His personal agenda and my vision for our paper yielded results. One fond memory: The stories we produced prompted Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) to invite us to collaborate on a panel called “Small Town Heroes: Kicking Butt on a Budget.” It almost didn’t matter to us that we had to pay our own way to the conference.

My life is better nowadays, thank you. My current newsroom’s budget, though tight, affords enough resources for some high-impact reporting, and I now work for an enlightened company with smart strategic leadership and a commitment to good journalism. And, yes, I have still been lucky in hiring.

But what that hardscrabble newsroom 15 years ago cemented in my mind is the notion that where you work isn’t the deciding factor when it comes to making journalism that matters. From my experience—as a reporter and editor at newspapers ranging from a 3,800-circulation Corn Belt daily to a Top 10 powerhouse in the Northeast—I’ve become convinced that an editor who cares about journalism that holds the mighty to account need not be held back by limited resources or a tough economic climate.

What Our Readers Expect

Newspapers develop identities—for such attributes as, say, great narrative storytelling or fine design or best practices in generating reader involvement. All those are important. But I’m pleased that the (Albany, N.Y.) Times Union in recent years has drawn attention for its investigative work. It’s not that we don’t value all the other merits of a great newspaper, but I’m convinced that a focus on watchdog journalism is not only the right thing to do journalistically, but also a smart business strategy.

Readers care about watchdog reporting. A study—Building Reader Loyalty—we commissioned last year revealed that 68 percent of our readers believe it is important for a media outlet to “investigate community issues”—one of the top three attributes they’re looking for. The same study reminded us that the Times Union was the most used source for that sort of news. People told us that “providing news that is up-to-date” is the most important service a newspaper provides. But clustered right behind that in our survey were values associated with watchdog reporting: providing in-depth information, alerting readers to harmful situations, and investigating community issues.

In the digital era, fewer people are turning to their local newspaper to find out what happened yesterday. Most news has become a commodity supplied by any number of sources—all readily accessible on the computer or cell phone. To thrive, our focus must be on unique content that readers consider valuable. If the newspaper’s brand is identified in readers’ minds as a place where they find content they can’t get elsewhere and as a watchdog who is on their side when it comes to taking on powerful interests, then we’ll be a welcomed—perhaps even an esteemed—guest in their homes and workplaces for years to come, in print or online.

Editors who share this devotion to a journalistic imperative that is also a smart business strategy might wish to consider six tactics that I’ve come to view as helpful.

Nurture the support of key people in your organization outside the newsroom—including your publisher and other department heads. An editor has three constituencies, really: the people in the newsroom who create our journalism; those in the community who consume what we create, and the people who lead and sustain our enterprise. The latter is often the group we fail to cultivate. If your publisher isn’t committed to the sort of journalism that sometimes makes his or her job harder, and if the folks who work in your newspaper’s advertising, circulation and marketing departments don’t understand why watchdog journalism is important, the editor runs the risk of losing the financial backing that good journalism requires and the necessary moral support to get through difficult times.

Sober conversations need to happen with these non-newsroom colleagues about the values that drive journalism and the business benefit that arises from establishing a bond of trust with consumers. Don’t assume support for all of this will be there without asking for it. And use whatever communication channels exist with the corporate overseers, too, to build the case for journalism that matters.

Marshal resources, however limited and strained, to support journalism that makes a difference. Long before great stories are launched, tough decisions confront an editor who wants to pay more than lip service to investigative reporting. A tradeoff will almost certainly need to occur in which something good at the newspaper gets pushed aside so the newsroom can afford to do something even better. Example: When a talented artist left our staff, we used that vacancy to create a research director position. We then cut back on other expenses to put money into acquiring databases that our research director can use to support the newsroom’s investigative work. We created a new investigations team by taking reporters from other beats, even though we knew we would miss some of the daily stories those reporters would have produced. To give this sort of reporting the space it often fills, we had to cut other content—and implement story length guidelines—because the days of easily adding extra pages have vanished with the rise of newsprint costs.

Hire tall. Back when the Chicago Bulls dominated the NBA, I had a boss who urged us to think the way Phil Jackson would if he had to replace someone in his starting lineup. “You have to hire tall,” I was repeatedly told. “No second-stringers here.” It’s especially important advice when it comes to investigative reporting because of the stakes involved. Second-rate writing is embarrassing, but flawed investigative reporting can ruin lives and affect your newspaper’s bottom line. Don’t settle for mediocrity or, as too many papers do, for the imitation of real investigative work. Several years ago, leaders of the Hearst Newspaper division challenged the editors of the company’s five metros to hire the best investigative editors we could find; they promised that the company would fund the first-year salary of that person at each of the papers. There was no shortage of outstanding candidates in Albany, but to lure the best of the field, we had to go far beyond our usual salary package and create a position with newsroomwide responsibilities. My great hire was Bob Port, a veteran of the New York Daily News, The Associated Press, and the St. Petersburg Times. He has not only established investigative techniques as a vital part of our work—he also oversees research and database acquisition—but also has energized our entire news report with the ethic of watchdog journalism. This is a place where an editor can make a difference. Don’t fail to do so.

Take all the help you’re offered, including some that’s free. In terms of both training and content, don’t turn down handouts. Reporters and editors alike need instruction and inspiration, and there’s a lot of it that doesn’t cost much. Send staffers to state and regional conferences or enroll them in online training from Poynter’s NewsU. Seek out the flock of journalists-turned-authors stumping the countryside; when they’re nearby, ask them to drop into your newsroom for a brown-bag lunch with the newsroom staff. Consider publishing content from beyond what the newspaper’s staff produces—content that sets a good example for your newsroom and underscores in readers’ minds how much the newspaper cares about investigative reporting.

An article by Steiger about ProPublica’s mission and operation was published in the Spring 2008 issue of Nieman Reports.
Read it here »
This summer, for example, the Times Union was the first newspaper to publish work generated by ProPublica, the nonprofit investigative newsroom headed by Paul E. Steiger, the former managing editor of The Wall Street Journal. A few days later, we secured permission to use a smart investigative piece relevant to our community that had been originally published in a fine newspaper a couple of hours south of us, the Times Herald-Record of Middletown, New York. Neither of those stories cost us anything. But they surely reminded readers that the Times Union is the place to look in our community for powerful reporting. Another source of cheap labor to tap, when managed very carefully: students. Because Port is not only our investigations editor, but also an adjunct professor teaching investigative techniques at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, under his careful teaching and editing eye students have assisted in reporting and thereby extended our reach.

Take on some big dogs, and celebrate when you beat ’em. The leaders of the New York state legislature have for years withheld details about so-called member items—that is, local spending that individual legislators earmark for use by their constituents. With strong support from Hearst Corporation, we sued to get the information released. The general counsel of Hearst, Eve Burton, came to Albany to personally argue the case, and she won. The judge ruled that the state had wrongly denied us information clearly in the public domain and awarded Hearst attorneys’ fees—which Burton promptly turned over to the Times Union to fund more investigative reporting. Her letter transmitting $37,000 to us is on our newsroom wall, alongside other awards that we treasure. And when that reporting won an IRE medal, we announced it in the newsroom with only a bit less hoopla than a Pulitzer might have generated. We recently beat the Albany police chief on a public access case, and we have gone to court so many times as plaintiffs in recent years that I can’t remember all the cases. We’re quite pleased, in fact, when an official takes a stand that leaves us no option other than to sue. We want officials to know we won’t back down and that we’ll go after our attorneys’ fees if they stand in our way.

Let your readers know what you’re doing. If there was a time for subtlety in our business, it has passed. The first time I used the label “exclusive” on a Times Union story, the reporter objected. “It’s kind of like we’re trying to draw attention to ourselves,” one editor told me. Yep. Similarly, when we break a big story online, we fight the broadcasters who swipe our information by letting our print readers the next day know what time the story was first published on timesunion.com. We use house ads to remind readers of our triumphs. We partnered with our community’s strongest commercial TV station on one groundbreaking investigation, and we’re weighing whether to do more of that; although our overall reach is bigger, the TV newscasts touch tens of thousands of people who don’t read the Times Union, so extending our brand in that way might make sense.

Most of us went into journalism to make a difference. And our role as an independent public watchdog—recognized as an essential balancing force to hold powerful interests accountable—has its roots in the founding documents of our democracy. Our hope today is that by continuing to focus resources and attention on investigative reporting we will reveal a true picture of experiences that affect people’s lives. Watchdog reporting is vital to what newspapers offer readers, though in these challenging times doing this job can seem to us the hardest kind of work to sustain. Yet our readers assure us they need us to keep doing it, so when we do we send an important signal that even in tough times we recognize the value of journalism that matters. Knowing this—and demonstrating that we do—is what will keep us vital through these stormy times.

Rex Smith is editor of the Times Union in Albany, New York. His commentary about what is happening at the newspaper and in the industry can be read at http://blogs.timesunion.com/editors/?p=932.

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