In Praise of Investigative Reporting  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   April/May 2006

In Praise of Investigative Reporting    

Its not only important, its also good business. Posted May 1, 2006

By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      


You didn't have to attend last week's ASNE convention in Seattle to know that the newspaper business is riddled with angst.

Its all-too-familiar problems, coupled with the explosion of the Internet, has led to all manner of speculation about the future of newspapers, if any.

Much of the current thinking focuses on ways for newspaper companies to make better and more creative use of the Web. And that makes sense.

But it's also critically important for newspapers to find ways to make their old-school print products as well as their Web sites essential to their communities.

Here's one way to do that: Emphasize investigative reporting.

In our saturated media landscape, it's crucial to focus on things that a) are meaningful to readers and b) differentiate you from everyone else. That's where investigative reporting comes in. With few exceptions, only newspapers have the staffing, the expertise and the will to carry out this essential task.

Watchdog reporting is one of journalism's bedrock responsibilities in our democratic society. So it's what newspapers should be doing. But it also makes good business sense.

It's fashionable in some quarters (read: Dean Singleton) to denigrate the big enterprise packages, the multipart series, as self-indulgence, as things that journalists love to do but readers couldn't care less about. In some cases, anyway, that may be true.

But I'd argue that readers love good investigative stories. Bringing down the bad guys. Uncovering the waste of taxpayers' money. Spotlighting reckless medical care and life-threatening environmental hazards and corrupt cops and dangerous drugs. What's not to like?

Much is made these days of the need for newspapers to "connect" to their communities. Well, that's a pretty good way to connect.

Obviously the big national papers the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Wall Street Journal have the resources to excel at this, and they often do (check out the Pulitzer winners). But some awfully fine investigative work is carried out by much smaller news organizations.

Two good recent examples are Ohio's "coingate" scandal, driven by the Blade of Toledo, and the taking down of corrupt ex-Rep. Randy "Duke" Cunningham by Copley News Service and the chain's San Diego Union-Tribune.

And watchdog efforts hardly are the sole province of elite investigative teams holed up in obscure offices, emerging once or twice a year with blockbusters whether they need to or not.

There was a good panel at the aforementioned ASNE convention about ways to build a watchdog culture in a newsroom.

At the Orange County Register, the investigative team is salted throughout the newsroom, according to panelist Mark Katches, the paper's senior team leader for watchdog journalism. The reporters work with various sections and teams business, sports leveraging their savvy throughout the paper.

Ron Royhab, executive editor of the 139,398-circulation Blade, talked about redeploying his troops for Coingate. Since the paper did hundreds and hundreds of stories on the subject, that meant a lot of redeploying. When the Blade put together a six-member team for the project, editors met to determine which reporters would be thrown into the breach to cover daily stories that their readers still would expect to see, Coingate or no Coingate.

One forward-looking initiative: Katches outlined some of the steps the Register was taking to make investigative reports more accessible on the Web.

A major highlight of the convention was an impassioned address by former Los Angeles Times Editor John S. Carroll, who is deeply concerned that today's corporate owners are pushing the field he loves in a profoundly wrong direction. And he raised the specter of newspapers disappearing entirely.

One of the things that would be most missed, he said, were the legion of excellent stories stories of huge importance to the public--unearthed by the "rock-turners" who work for newspapers.

Let's keep turning over those rocks while there is still time.

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