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From AJR,   September 2010

Moving Forward    

A battering series of cuts, and an exciting if uncertain search for solutions

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

Taking the measure of journalism today -- amid a cataclysmic industry transformation and a punishing recession that refuses to vanish -- can be a depressing undertaking. Cutbacks at traditional news organizations have taken a severe toll.

At the same time, the ferment has had a serious upside. A spirit of innovation is in the air. Exciting new startups and new approaches are taking root across the country.

Thanks to a generous grant from the Open Society Institute, AJR has been taking an in-depth look at the state of reporting in four critical areas, all of them vital to a healthy democratic society. Our final installment, on foreign news, will appear in our Winter issue.

In our Summer issue, former Knight Ridder White House correspondent Jodi Enda scrutinized coverage of key federal departments and agencies, putting together a detailed census of who is covering each one (see "Capital Flight"). The picture she painted was not pretty. "The watchdogs have abandoned their posts," she concluded. "How that plays out in the long run for journalism, for democracy has yet to be determined. Perhaps one day, Web sites, or a future medium, will pick up where newspapers left off. In the short term, though, the dearth of in-depth government reporting is palpable."

In this issue, longtime AJR contributor and author Mary Walton reports on the state of investigative reporting (see "Investigative Shortfall," page 18) and AJR Senior Contributing Writer Mark Lisheron examines statehouse coverage (see "Reloading at the Statehouse," page 34).

Walton found that accountability reporting has taken a terrible beating from the one-two punch of profound structural change and economic collapse. "Kicked out, bought out or barely hanging on, investigative reporters are a vanishing species in the forests of dead tree media and missing in action on Action News," she writes. "I-Teams are shrinking or, more often, disappearing altogether. Assigned to cover multiple beats, multitasking back-packing reporters no longer have time to sniff out hidden stories, much less write them."

No one has a handle on the total number of investigative reporters, and even if there were one, it would tell only part of the story. So many valuable probes have been carried out over the years by beat reporters whose close coverage of their domains has led to important scoops. And the carnage of recent years means there are far fewer on the beat.

But in addition to details about shrinking investigative firepower at individual news outlets, there are numbers that tell the tale. The declining membership rolls of Investigative Reporters and Editors. Fewer entries in contests for investigative reporting. And a telling development: Three big papers that continue to emphasize investigative reporting have a stranglehold on the Pulitzer categories that honor such work, a dramatic change from a decade ago, and a sure sign that many papers across the nation are increasingly out of the game.

But all is not grim. Some major papers continue to place a premium on accountability journalism. In an era of rampant commodity news, some traditional news outlets recognize that such reporting may be the key to their futures.

And philanthropy supported investigative reporting is playing an increasingly important role. ProPublica, launched in 2008, has emerged as a significant force. The Center for Investigative Reporting and the Center for Public Integrity have expanded their operations. And locally oriented nonprofits are coming to the fore. Andy Hall, a newspaper reporter with a dream, created the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism in January 2009 (see Drop Cap, page 14). "This is a time of massive experimentation both in the editorial and the business sides of journalism," Hall told AJR's Morgan Gibson. "It's an exciting time for investigative reporting."

Of course, the flow of funds from philanthropy is dwarfed by the magnitude of the cutbacks at legacy news operations. But it is a sign of hope nonetheless.

Last year, then-AJR Managing Editor Jennifer Dorroh tallied newspaper reporters covering the nation's statehouses (see "Statehouse Exodus," April/May 2009). She found the roster had plummeted to 355, a decrease of more than 30 percent since AJR's previous count six years before.

This year, Lisheron visited hard-hit states to take a firsthand look. "There are fewer people. And the fewer people with flashlights, the more dark corners there are," Tom Martello, bureau chief for Newark's Star-Ledger, told Lisheron. "I can't predict the future, but you have to be worried."

But Lisheron found something else, an explosion of new ventures and new models. "In New Jersey and across the country," Lisheron wrote, "people are attempting to write a second act to the statehouse set piece." Gary Fineout, of the startup Florida Tribune, does a good job of summing up where we are today. "I think we all recognize that this is an evolution we're part of," he says. "We're still discussing which is the better path to take. I try not to be too optimistic or totally pessimistic... The one thing I try to do is move forward."