“Investigative Reporting: Strategies for Its Survival”
– Edward Wasserman
Back in 2006, The News-Press in Fort Myers, Florida, a paper owned by Gannett, got noticed not so much for what happened inside of its newsroom but for what happened outside of it, when residents became part of an investigative team. They did so by telling us about their experiences with soaring water and sewer assessments, and they did so through a method of reporting called “crowdsourcing.” The idea was born of technological possibility, with the use of easy online communication tools, and implemented as part of a major investigation we undertook into rising assessment costs faced by homeowners in our area. This experience of meshing what “citizen journalists” could provide with information our reporters found proved to us that there are a lot of involved, intelligent people in our community who are passionate about holding local government accountable.

After this endeavor, some of us in the newsroom saw the possibility of a natural evolution of this experience. We’d enlist a panel of volunteers who could bring into our newsroom a range of expertise to supplement the work of our staff of reporters and editors. As we began discussing this initiative in early 2007, we believed that by inviting inside of our newsroom this kind of informational help from citizen journalists, we would improve our investigative reporting and also extend our reach into the community by engaging (and invigorating) new audiences.

As special projects editor, I was put in charge of this effort. At first I thought we’d attract a few volunteers. I figured I’d organize them and then this entity would pretty much take care of itself. At things turned out, I was either wrong or ill-prepared for much of what happened, including the following:

  • We discovered a big reservoir of intense public interest.
  • We encountered resistance to the project in our newsroom.
  • I vastly underestimated the day-to-day work required to manage the participants, both inside and outside of the newsroom.

The first step was easy—deciding what type of person should serve as a volunteer citizen journalist. Southwest Florida has a large population of retired professionals who have settled here after living and working all over the country and throughout the world. They are retired scientists, educators, CEOs, lawyers, judges—even spies. In the call for volunteers that I put on our Web site and in the newspaper, I was specific in citing “retired professionals such as lawyers, CPAs,” and I appealed to their competitive natures by requiring a resumé and cover letter as part of the “application.”

Within two days of putting a notice on our Web site and in the newspaper, 40 responses arrived. When we published the notice on the front page of the Sunday paper, entries flooded in until we had about 100 to sort through. Though difficult to do, we narrowed the list to 20 and, before interviewing in groups of five, I gave their resumés to reporters so we could complete background checks.

After get-to-know-you interviews, we introduced these 20 people to our readers, online and in the newspaper, and to each other and our paper’s journalists at a social event. They were articulate, passionate and committed to the First Amendment and to holding government accountable. During our one-day orientation session with them, we engaged in detailed discussions about journalistic ethics and conflicts of interest and how the newspaper and newsroom work. We described our goals for the project and then we brainstormed story ideas; in all, we listed more than 200 topics or specific projects. Nearly everyone on this new team—we call it “Team Watchdog”—had a story or project he or she wanted to pursue. I didn’t want to discourage our new recruits, but most of our staff reporters had story lists a mile long. So I tried to pitch to editors the best ideas that came from these team members who were connected with a staff reporter.

With orientation behind us, the project was launched. But it did not take long for a range of difficulties to arise. Despite meetings about this project, staff members’ inclusion in the process, memos about the new approach, and our editor’s message that this was a priority, pockets of resistance to Team Watchdog existed in the newsroom. I wasn’t surprised that some editors thought this collaborative approach would create more work or to learn that some didn’t trust the motives or skills of the new team members. What did surprise me was to discover the number of reporters who believed that the project was designed to eliminate jobs. “It’s just a way for you all to be able to cut the staff,” one told me.

At a time when reporters in many newsrooms are losing their jobs because newsroom budgets are being cut, it was probably natural for some to see this project as a threat to their livelihood. However, this was not the case and, after about three months, we found ways to work through most of those reservations from staff members.

By then, too, some of the first efforts of Team Watchdog members had developed into front-page stories. Some examples follow:

  • One member worked with our newspaper’s child welfare reporter on building a database of day-care inspection reports.
  • Another requested, received and analyzed government documents that led to our paper’s exclusive story about how the district in which he lived had accumulated an excess of taxpayer funds that were not being used for the services the district was charged with providing.
  • A watchdog member with experience in school administration consulted with our education-beat reporter for a story about teachers’ use of “time-out rooms” to discipline disabled students.

As these and other projects got underway, relationships among the staff and volunteers improved. One reporter who’d expressed reservations was assigned a volunteer to help with some monotonous research. When the Team Watchdog member completed the task quickly and perfectly and asked for more work, a convert was born.

In the first six months, members of Team Watchdog made more than 70 contributions—story tips, online research, or original reporting. Among the assistance they provided was the time when a retired FBI agent accompanied a columnist on a tour of a corrections facility after inmates complained about conditions there. Or when a retired CPA worked with a reporter to help examine budgets and records on a utilities project.

Over time, skepticism in the newsroom eroded and it became second nature for editors and reporters to think of ways to use the team members: When an enterprising reporter discovered that Social Security numbers were included in some county court documents, a retired lawyer on the team spent hours wading through the records looking for more; a retired Miami police detective is monitoring jury selections for our paper’s investigation of the courts and, this spring, a half-dozen team members will seek public records as part of our paper’s Sunshine Week project.

Team Watchdog requires more of my time than we’d initially predicted. But the time I spend on it speaks to its success as team members have become very involved and engaged. Their infusion of energy lessens some of the tedious work our reporters need to perform as part of their investigative efforts. Their expertise from a lifetime of work in a particular area can offer our reporters—and ultimately our readers—valuable insights.

Betty Wells is special projects editor at The News-Press in Fort Myers, Florida. She spent 23 years with Knight Ridder—at The Wichita (Kansas) Eagle as a reporter and editor, in the Knight Ridder Washington bureau as a reporter, and at the Post-Tribune in Gary, Indiana as managing editor and executive editor. She joined The News-Press in 2004.

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