The decision didn't come as a total shock, but the timing was ironic. One day after accepting a prestigious Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award in January for a series of investigative stories, WJLA-TV reporter Roberta Baskin learned she was out of a job.
The I-Team at the Washington, D.C., station had lost its only producer six months earlier. Now it's been shut down. "I was told it's a luxury they can't afford," Baskin says.
Her former boss, Vice President of News Bill Lord, says he values investigative reporting. "I'm also a realist in terms of what we can do in this financial environment," he says. WJLA lost more than 20 staffers in addition to Baskin in layoffs ordered by corporate parent Allbritton Communications at several of its stations. "I've got to do newscasts before I can do specialty items," Lord says.
Investigative reporting on local television has always been endangered, but the economic pressure on newsrooms in the midst of a recession has put I-Teams in greater jeopardy. Serious, in-depth investigations take time, and that costs money. So managers looking for budget cuts are zeroing in on their I-Teams, trimming the staff and changing the mission for those who remain.
Joe Bergantino left WBZ-TV in Boston last year after 22 years as an I-Team reporter. "All I can say is their vision and my vision of what an investigative unit should be didn't match," he says. At too many stations, I-teams cover "drivel that has no meaning in people's lives," Bergantino says. "The word 'investigative' has been cheapened to the point where almost anything is called investigative."
Examples of that are easy to find online. At WBZ, a recent I-Team story revealed that bartending schools teach students to manage drunks. The I-Team at WJAR-TV in Providence uncovered a lawsuit over a lost deposit for a wedding reception. And WJW-TV in Cleveland sicced its I-Team on a garbage problem at one apartment complex.
Not every local TV investigation is unworthy of the name, but slapping an I-Team label on features, consumer complaints and day-of-air stories is more about marketing than journalism. And not every I-Team is even a team. At WJW, what had been a robust investigative unit has been trimmed back, and its lead reporter also anchors on weekends.
Longtime investigative reporter Tom Merriman, who left WJW in December to practice law, calls the outlook for television investigations bleak. "While I-Team types have always had a bit of a 'Chicken Little' complex, this time the sky actually is falling," he says.
Some stations are bucking the trend, however, because they think the payoff is worth the investment. Miami's WFOR-TV has nine people on its I-Team: three reporters, three producers, two photographers and an editor. General assignment reporters can also get into the mix if they uncover stories that merit more digging. "We feel that, now more than ever, we need investigative reporting," News Director Adrienne Roark says. "It's what sets you apart from all the other noise out there."
Another station that has had a longstanding commitment to investigative reporting, WFAA-TV in Dallas, became the first local station ever to win the top duPont-Columbia award – this year's Gold Baton. News Director Michael Valentine believes investigative journalism isn't a luxury; it's a necessity, especially in tough economic times. "We're doing it for selfish reasons," he says. "We want the ratings that come with it."
Even stations that support their I-Teams expect them to produce more than they once did. Most investigative stories used to be targeted for newscasts during sweeps months, giving reporters plenty of time to dig between ratings periods. Now, with people meters measuring audience daily, investigative reporters may be expected to have a story ready for air every week of the year.
Bergantino believes that's too much to ask. He's trying a different model as director of a nonprofit investigative center at Boston University. The center plans to train students to do story research and work with outlets such as New England Cable News and WBUR-FM (see Drop Cap, February/March).
That model may help keep investigative TV journalism alive on a small scale. But if local stations don't sustain their own enterprise reporting, they're the ones that may eventually be in danger.
"How much longer will viewers tolerate three consecutive live shots of shivering reporters telling them it's cold?" Merriman asks. "The flight of viewers to the Internet and cable will only accelerate."
Local television stations would be wise to consider what they are really adding to the information mix now that anyone with a camera can get video of a house fire.
"If a station needs to cut what makes them unique," says WFAA's Valentine, "I don't think those stations will survive over time."