Enterprise stories are always at risk during periods of retrenchment.
They take time, and as the staff shrinks, it's tempting to forgo them to concentrate on the meat and potatoes.
But that's the easy way out, and not necessarily the right one.
Accountability journalism is crucial to a news outlet's mission. And it's a good strategy as well. In a world full of commodity news, it is something that makes you stand out. It can enhance your role in the community significantly. It can be your franchise.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a medium-size paper, has distinguished itself by committing to enterprise despite the economic pressures. It has won lots of prizes, sure, but, more important, it has strengthened its relationship with its readers.
And at a panel discussion on the closing day of the American Society of News Editors Wednesday, editors of smaller papers extolled the virtues and the rewards of this vital journalism.
They agreed that ambitious projects, done correctly, can drive the conversation in a community, more than justifying the time and expense they require.
One of the editors singing the praises of such work was Mike Connelly, executive editor of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. The paper won a Pulitzer last year for reporter Paige St. John's investigation of the insurance industry. While it was the paper's first Pulitzer, it was the third time it had been a finalist in four years, no small achievement for a 77,000-curclation daily.
And on Monday, the Herald-Tribune won an ASNE Writing Award for local accountability reporting for reporters Anthony Cormier and Matthew Doig's exposť of Florida law enforcement officials who stay on the job despite "repeated acts of misconduct." The paper, formerly owned by the New York Times Co., was purchased by the Halifax Media Group in January.
Connelly stressed the importance of avoiding artificial deadlines and publishing no story before it was ready. And he emphasized that seemingly boring topics can make for compelling reading if done properly.
"Even insurance can be interesting if you tell the story right," he said.
David Newhouse, editor of the 71,000-circulation Patriot News in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, agreed that powerful enterprise was a critical ingredient for success.
"When you have an impact, it does have a lasting effect," he said, adding that the news business was not going to be saved by listings and "chicken dinner news," important as they may be.
Newhouse's paper distinguished itself with its reporting on the grand jury investigation of child abuse by former Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky. Reporter Sara Ganim broke the story on March 31, 2011, followed up with other exclusives and continued to break news after the scandal became a top-of-the-charts national story. Ganim won a Polk Award for her work, and she and the Patriot-News staff earned a Scripps Howard Award. This week, Ganim also was honored with an ASNE award for local accountability reporting. The daily is owned by the Newhouse family's Advance Publications.
Newhouse pointed out that encouraging ambitious journalism has a significant side effect: It is, he said, "the best way to retain the best people."
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Managing Editor George Stanley agreed. "Let people do the best work they have ever done, and you have the best chance of keeping them."
The ASNE convention focused on how news outlets must evolve to survive and thrive. (Disclosure: I was a member of the program committee and moderated a panel, not the one described above.) There was much emphasis on newsroom innovation, on the need to experiment, on charging for content, on tablets and mobile devices. It seemed rich, relevant, of the moment.
The enterprise panel was an important reminder that no matter how much the platforms change, first-class journalism remains essential.