Redefining a Newspaper's Watchdog Approach: At the Oregonian, a New Training Program for Reporters Focuses on Investigative Skills Needed by Specific Reporters for Their Daily Beats
Zaitz, Les, Walth, Brent, Nieman Reports
On a soggy December morning, a hillside above a busy Oregon highway gave way, and a torrent of mud, rock and trees buried the road, destroyed homes, and smashed cars. Our newspaper, The Oregonian, dutifully reported on the landslide and its immediate effects. One reporter then went further.
Michael Milstein, who covers natural resources, soon told readers that a state forestry college had clear-cut trees above the site. Engineers surmised the clear-cut set the stage for the slide.
Milstein showed readers that the newspaper was willing to probe beyond the headline of the moment and shine a light on those in authority who were accountable.
That's watchdog reporting.
This kind of journalism remains a fundamental duty of a free press. In today's unsettled news environment, watchdog reporting also is necessary for our survival. It sets professional journalists apart from bloggers and cell phone videographers, providing added value that readers and viewers simply can't get anywhere else. Readers and viewers respond to watchdog stories, and we believe the stories build loyalty by helping keep journalism viable and relevant.
But reporters and editors face a growing challenge to their ability to produce watchdog reporting. It's a matter of math. Fewer reporters keeping an eye on public and private institutions means diminished chances for discoveries such as Milstein's.
At The Oregonian, we want to improve those chances. The newspaper's editors targeted watchdog reporting as one emphasis to help sustain Oregon's largest daily newspaper, both in print and online. The newspaper has a reputation for aggressive reporting. Yet many of us within the newspaper believed we weren't doing enough watchdog work. It wasn't for a lack of trying. As veteran investigative reporters, we had conducted a lot of in-house seminars over the years to teach fundamentals of watchdog reporting. The newspaper had also invested plenty of money to send journalists to conferences around the country.
But money for travel and conferences is disappearing from newsroom budgets, and freeing up reporters to attend training is ever more difficult. Despite the hunger and enthusiasm for our training sessions, we were never sure how much good we had done. Reporters rushed out of our training sessions all charged up about watchdog reporting, but what we preached didn't seem to stick.
When we explored why, we discovered a few important reasons:
* For starters, people had different ideas of what we meant by watchdog reporting; a lot of folks thought it had to mean big, eye-popping projects, but few had the time to tackle them.
* We also found some editors and reporters lacked a shared understanding of what it took to find these stories. Despite the talk from editors, reporters were under no pressure--and often saw too little encouragement--to do more watchdog reporting and were too often on their own to deploy whatever lesson they had learned.
* Watchdog reporting isn't something you do once in awhile; it requires a continuous effort. Our short bursts of training weren't enough for real change to endure.
How Training Works
So we sought a new idea--one mindful of cost, staff time, and effectiveness. We think we hit that trifecta with our current offer of a one-on-one coaching program of about 10 weeks to any reporter who wanted to take part. We figured five or six reporters would sign up. About 20 applied. The enthusiasm was so high for the idea that one reporter tracked us down to take part after just hearing a rumor about such a program.
We had a diverse pool apply--from suburban police reporters to seasoned veterans. In brief notes, they explained why they wanted in. A political reporter wanted help being tougher in interviews. A business reporter wanted help on pushing routine stories into watchdog stories. A transportation reporter wanted fresh skills to more closely examine state and regional agencies. …