Magazine article Nieman Reports

Changing Equations in Investigative Reporting: An Editor Proposes That Journalists Seek New Partners in Their Mission of Monitoring Those in Power

Magazine article Nieman Reports

Changing Equations in Investigative Reporting: An Editor Proposes That Journalists Seek New Partners in Their Mission of Monitoring Those in Power

Article excerpt

Ferrel Guillory, director of the Program on Public Life at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, told a group of public administrators that North Carolina's major newspapers--including Greenboro's News & Record where I am editor--bore indirect responsibility for a scandal taking place at the State Department of Transportation.

When newspapers stop assigning reporters to keep an eye on such a large and important state agency, he said, corruption and bureaucratic ineptitude flourishes. The public's business is replaced by monkey business. It's a truth that journalists covering government have long known.

Guillory isn't the typical academic shooting at the news media. He's a former newspaperman and a longtime newspaper lover. But he falls into the trap so many former and current journalists do: thinking that the newspaper operation is the same now as it was back in their day. Oh, how we wish it were.

In response to Guillory, I wrote the following words on my editor's blog:

Welcome to the world of hard choices. It's always been this way. We don't cover everything. We don't even cover what we used to. Newspaper staffs are getting smaller, yet the number of meetings and events, of commissions and government agencies grows. Partly as a result, newspapers are also moving away from devoting as much energy to covering 'buildings.' Not only are there fewer reporters, but there is evidence that readers aren't as interested in what traditionally is produced by that coverage: stories about meetings and bureaucracy. For every big scandal story, there are 100 smaller process stories required to get there. (1)


What's happening at newspapers has been well documented--with endless reams of copy about downsizing, layoffs and takeovers. Editors are--or should be--sparring with the bean counters who want to "do more with less," which is either a misunderstanding of what it takes to produce journalism or an insult to hard-working journalists everywhere. Meanwhile, newspaper readership sinks, advertising revenues decline, and editors search for relevant content to draw in new audiences.

What often gets kicked to the curb is what takes the longest to produce: investigative reporting. I know. My paper has gone through downsizing, layoffs and tight budget controls, and is now being shopped around. We strive to cover the traditional beats, plus develop unique enterprise reporting, all at the same time we are learning how to extend our journalism with video and audio, plus become hyperlocal.

At such a time, the question isn't how we can do more investigative reporting; it's more like how can we do any investigative reporting.

I believe many agree we're now at a defining moment in newspaper history. The era in which we, as professional journalists, impose our judgment as the determining factor of what is considered newsworthy--or even how to cover what is happening--is fast fading. The days of newspaper omnipotence and omnipresence are over.

When it comes to investigative journalism, however, the professional journalist still sits in the catbird seat. But in the not-so-distant future, that seat seems all but certain to get a bit more crowded--with citizen journalists and bloggers and others.

Sometimes it can be hard to think about this in traditional terms. Shining light in dark places is a birthright of those of us who were part of the tidal wave of reporters who rushed into journalism after Watergate. Now that tide is ebbing, at least for many of us who work at small and midsized papers, even as we cling to our fundamental belief that a core purpose of the job we do is to serve as an independent monitor of power. "As history showed us, it more properly means watching over the powerful few in society on behalf of the many to guard against tyranny," wrote Bill Kovaeh and Tom Rosenstiel in "The Elements of Journalism. …

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