Watchdog Analysis: Offering Context and Perspective Online: At the Beacon in St. Louis, Reporters Attempt to 'Provide Context to Illuminate Why Something Is Happening, Explain What's at Stake, and Assess What Might-Or What Should-Happen Next.'

By Freivogel, Margaret Wolf | Nieman Reports, Spring 2009 | Go to article overview

Watchdog Analysis: Offering Context and Perspective Online: At the Beacon in St. Louis, Reporters Attempt to 'Provide Context to Illuminate Why Something Is Happening, Explain What's at Stake, and Assess What Might-Or What Should-Happen Next.'


Freivogel, Margaret Wolf, Nieman Reports


The spotlight often focuses, justifiably, on the threats that downsized newsrooms pose to investigative reporting--the kind of muckraking that should (but didn't) spot a governor dickering over the value of a U.S. Senate seat. But investigative reporting has a less celebrated cousin in the family of watchdog journalism--that is hard-hitting analysis. It is equally important and equally threatened by the economic earthquake rattling journalism.

Investigative reporting exposes corruption. Watchdog analysis exposes sloppy thinking by raising uncomfortable questions about public policy and political issues. Both are essential for keeping public discussion real and public officials honest. For example: Did the Senate really have the legal authority to refuse to seat the appointee of Illinois's tainted governor? For days, most senators vowed they would prevent Roland Burris from taking the seat vacated by President Barack Obama. But a previous court case involving Representative Adam Clayton Powell and other legal precedents seemed to offer strong precedent that said they'd have to seat Burris.

We reported this in the St. Louis Beacon, our online-only nonprofit regional news site, www.stlbeacon.org, that launched last spring. Our reporting--and analysis--might not have directly influenced the Senate's decision to seat Burris, but it did give our readers telling and little-known facts that turned out to be important in the outcome of the controversy.

Watchdog Analysis

At first glance, an online-only news publication might not seem the ideal home for watchdog analysis. The Web is known for breaking news, short video, and pithy opinions. Watchdog analysis requires words, sometimes many of them, and it demands patient attention to looking at issues from several perspectives. At the Beacon, we're acutely aware of these challenges.

Yet we do this work because we regard watchdog analysis, along with investigative reporting, as among our core responsibilities and greatest opportunities for serving our region.

Among our founders are several veteran St. Louis Post-Dispatch expats who still take inspiration from the tradition of the newspaper's three editors named Joseph Pulitzer, whose platform commands "always be drastically independent," and "never be satisfied with merely printing news." These two phrases capture the approach and value of the entire genre of watchdog analysis.

"News That Matters" is the Beacon's motto. Amidst the flood of information swamping all of us, our mission is to help St. Louisans understand events, trends and issues that have long-lasting significance for our region. To do this, we provide watchdog analysis that takes several forms. We give readers the story behind the story. We provide context to illuminate why something is happening, explain what's at stake, and assess what might--or what should-happen next. We raise pertinent and sometimes impertinent questions that can fundamentally reshape the assumptions of a current debate.

Our most ambitious and sustained effort has been a project called "Facing the Mortgage Crisis." (1) It began early last summer, when subprime mortgage foreclosures were mounting, but the larger economic meltdown was not yet apparent. Working in partnership with our local public television station KETC, which mobilized resources to help prevent foreclosures, the Beacon zeroed in on a series of tough questions.

How did so many homeowners get overextended? Why was the larger economy ensnared in their problems? Why was it so difficult to funnel help to those who needed it? Would the proposed solutions work? Beacon reporter Mary Delach Leonard dug deep into each one to understand and analyze what was known. To do this, she explored St. Louisans' housing situations and tapped experts with St. Louis perspectives.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

To our surprise, perhaps the most insightful explanation of the big picture emerged when Leonard focused microscopically on the plight of one person, Maureen MeKenzie.

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