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From AJR,   August/September 2012  issue

Investing in Investigations   

The Orange County Register, under new ownership, is adding four watchdog reporters. And there are other signs of hope on the horizon. Fri., October 12, 2012.

By Christina Mele
Christina Mele (tjune13@gmail.com) is a student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.      

One of the major casualties of the digital revolution has been investigative reporting at legacy news outlets. But apparently the new owner of the Orange County Register didn't get the memo.

The Santa Ana, California-based daily is adding four reporters to its watchdog roster.

"The new owners are investing in the paper," says Chris Knap, the Register's investigations editor. "Investigative reporting is one of the things they wanted to focus on."

In July, 2100 Trust, a Boston investment company, acquired the paper from its longtime owner. Just two months later, the Register posted three job openings for three investigative reporters, one for legal and social issues, one for computer-assisted reporting and one for education. The paper will also be hiring a business investigator.

"Investigative reporting is one of the most important roles a newspaper plays in its community," says Aaron Kushner, publisher of the Register and CEO of its parent company, Freedom Communications. "It was a very easy and straightforward decision to expand."

Kushner says his goals include significantly increasing the quality of the news the Register gives its subscribers and covering stories in more depth.

"My hope, my goal, my expectation is that we will be able to uncover more stories," he says.

Knap, who teaches journalism at California State University, Long Beach, says he was "very pleased" to find out that his squad would be expanding. "I wrote a pitch to the executive editor [Ken Brusic] to replace some of the people we've lost," he says. By chance, Kushner happened to walk in while Knap and Brusic were discussing the need for more investigative reporters. "Within a few days, he had approved the hires."

And there are other signs that after all the gloom and doom about investigative reporting over the past decade, a mini-revival may be in the offing. Mark Horvit, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, says reinvesting in watchdog reporting "is something we're seeing happen in a lot of media places. In the last 12 to 18 months, organizations have been hiring or rehiring watchdogs and investigative reporters." And, he adds, several companies, including Gannett, McClatchy, Hearst Broadcasting and NBC, have hired IRE to do watchdog training.

"I've been told by many people that their research shows that the audience wants more unique content and watchdog reporting," Horvit says.

Horvit believes distinctive news content is essential and that papers need reporters "with the skill to dig these things up. They need to provide this information for readers to want to come to their site."

Currently, Knap says, the Register's team has two full-time and four part-time investigative reporters. In addition to creating the new reporting slots, the paper will convert two of its part-time investigators to full time. The investigative team will also be taking on four interns, Kushner says.

"There's no doubt that there's a lot of pressure on investigative reporters," Knap says. "There are fewer in newsrooms. That is a problem because this is really the mission of journalism, to look out for the public's interest."

And with a growing team, Knap will be able to do more of that. "This will speed up production and allow us to work on in-depth pieces," he says.

Knap, who has been a member of the Register's investigations team since 2001, was one of three Register reporters named finalists for the 2004 Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Journalism for their report card on hospitals in the Orange County area.

Kushner isn't just hiring investigative reporters. The Register currently has more than 100 job openings in the newsroom, he says. These positions include restaurant critic, beat writer for the Los Angeles Dodgers, senior graphic artist, magazine writer, NFL reporter, local columnist and movie critic.

Why the upsurge in hiring? "They're concentrating on the paper itself," Knap says. "They're pushing to put as much quality in the print paper as possible."

Kushner believes the newspaper business as a whole is "incredibly challenged," right now, but doesn't see cutting back as the answer. "We felt very early on that investigative reporting is a very important part of what we do," he says. "It's how we add value for our subscribers."

Jeff Leen, assistant managing editor of the investigations unit at the Washington Post, says beefing up the Register's investigative firepower is a "a smart strategy." And, he adds, "This strategy has a possibility of paying off. People are going to turn to [the Register]. Investigative reporting is original content. It's guaranteed to draw eyeballs and increase the value of your brand."

The Post is also expanding its investigative unit, thanks to a $500,000 grant from the Ford Foundation for four new hires. The Post has already hired Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative journalist Mike Sallah away from the Miami Herald, "The Post has maintained a big commitment to investigative reporting," Leen says. "We've protected the mission."

Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter Deborah Nelson is pleased by the Register's investigative reporter hiring spree. "It makes my day," she says. "The news industry and the public realize we've lost something essential to our democracy. It's a recognition of the importance."

Nelson, who teaches at the University of Maryland's Philip Merrill College of Journalism, has worked as an investigative reporter or editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, the Seattle Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times.

Nelson says when financially challenged newspapers were forced to make difficult decisions in recent years, the initial reaction at many was to shrink or eliminate investigative teams. "The frontline of watchdog reporters disappeared," she says. But, she adds, "Regional, small papers have not stopped doing it. It just hasn't been noticed. There are a lot of publications that have carried the torch during the tough times. Editors who value it will find a way to do it."

One of the bright spots in recent years has been the upsurge in investigative reporting by nonprofits such as ProPublica and the Center for Investigative Reporting.

IRE's Horvit is cautiously optimistic about the future. "We're always going to come back to" investigative reporting, he says. "I don't know that we'll ever get back to where we were eight to 10 years ago. I'd like to say that five years from now, there will be more reporters doing watchdog journalism. They're going to have to see a return on their investment. The next couple years will be really important."

As for the Orange County Register, Knap says the paper's new owners are determined to make the newspaper indispensable to area readers.

"I think I can speak for almost everyone and say that most if not everyone in the newsroom has been very pleased with [Kushner's] interest in old-fashioned journalism," he says. "It's quite a departure from the norm."