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Investigative Reporting Hard Hit by Media Cutbacks

April 20, 2009 at 6:40 PM EST
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Two media organizations won Pulitzer Prizes Monday for investigative reporting even as news organizations are being forced to cut back on such coverage. Two media analysts examine the future for investigative journalism.
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JIM LEHRER: Now to our second journalism story. On this Pulitzer Prize day, Jeffrey Brown continues his ongoing Media Unit perusal of the shrinking American newspaper.

JEFFREY BROWN: Reporting on retired generals who worked as TV analysts while making the Pentagon’s case for war in Iraq; exposing high death rates among construction works amid lax enforcement of regulations.

Two of today’s prize-winners by reporters for the New York Times and Las Vegas Sun prove that high-level investigative journalism is still being done. But as newspapers around the country struggle to survive, this is an increasingly vulnerable area of coverage, one already hit hard by cutbacks.

We discuss the situation now with Robert Rosenthal, a long-time reporter and editor with several leading papers. He’s now executive director at the Center for Investigative Reporting, a nonprofit news service.

And Deborah Nelson, an author and winner of a 1997 Pulitzer for investigative reporting for stories on abuses in the federal government’s Indian housing program, written while she was with the Seattle Times, she now teaches journalism at the University of Maryland.

Well, Robert Rosenthal, I’ll start with you. You spoke at a recent symposium on how the watchdog role of newspapers is disappearing. Explain what you see happening.

ROBERT ROSENTHAL, Center for Investigative Reporting: Well, I think what’s happening all across the United States in every newsroom is basically newsrooms are shrinking, and some have been eviscerated. The number of journalists, you know, this year — I think last year 8,000 journalists lost their jobs.

And what that means is that on every level there’s less information, less government being covered, from the community to the state to the region. And part of what’s happening is the investigative reporting is something that’s being shoved aside in newsrooms that really sort of have to feed the beast. And it’s — I think the negative impact on all of us is drastic.

JEFFREY BROWN: Deborah Nelson, you went through something — you went through this personally. Why is the investigative section or the coverage often one of the most vulnerable?

DEBORAH NELSON, University of Maryland: Well, it’s one of the most vulnerable because it costs more. On a per-inch basis, if you’re counting, you know, costs per byline, the costs are high. And I would argue that if you’re, you know, judging it on poundage per inch, it’s a pretty good buy.

But, you know, I think that if you look at the Pulitzer winners today, you’d wonder “What crisis is there?” because it’s an outstanding list. I mean, a dozen investigative projects on it, you know, that saved lives, yes…

JEFFREY BROWN: Right, I only mentioned two, but there were many more. You’re right.

DEBORAH NELSON: If you look at the winners and the finalists, you know, saved lives, ferreted out corruption, exposed hidden health dangers to people.

But if you took a look at that same list and from this perspective, you know, this is what we have to lose if newspapers fail or if we continue to cut back at the rate we have. By a year or two from now, we won’t have this kind of investigative reporting.

Newspapers cut back on resources

JEFFREY BROWN: Robert Rosenthal, help people understand. What does it take to do good investigative reporting? What goes into it?

ROBERT ROSENTHAL: Number one, it takes extremely talented, passionate journalists, usually with many years of experience.

Sometimes the best investigative reporting comes off a beat. The beats are being eliminated. Beat means you cover City Hall. It may mean you're covering hospitals.

And I think it also takes time. And what we're talking about, really, is a commitment of time at a moment when, literally, in some newsrooms, there are story counts being ordered. And an investigative project sometimes might take months or a year or more.

And these are really difficult things to do. It takes professional journalists who know how to develop sources, know how to use documents, and most importantly know how to tell a story in a way that people can understand what's happening.

And, really, in newsrooms, where now you have a half or a third in some places of the journalists, they're just doing things that they don't have the commitment of time, and editors are under tremendous pressure to just, you know, as I said earlier, feed the beast.

The other element of this is sometimes the most talented journalists and the most highly paid are the investigative reporters with many years' experience. And what's happened in a structure where the bottom line is the most crucial thing, publishers are frequently glad to see those people leave.

And part of what's happening now is that, all around the United States, many of these people are trying to start up new ways of doing investigative reporting and finding new methods of support.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, I want to get to that, but you're saying publishers are happy to have them go precisely because they make more money than others?

ROBERT ROSENTHAL: Yes, I personally have been in situations as a top editor where, you know, there was lists and you could see the amount of money. And you were going for a goal of a dollar amount. Someone said, "Cut this amount."

And, you know, one person might literally account for two reporters, if they were highly salaried and been around for 20 years and were a Pulitzer winner. This is happening all around the United States.

JEFFREY BROWN: Deborah Nelson, what would you add to this about -- helping people understand what goes into investigative journalism?

DEBORAH NELSON: It takes time. It takes resources. It doesn't necessarily take a lot of money, but it does take time.

You know, I've done investigative projects with six-figure budgets. I've also done them when the travel budget was a, you know, roll of subway tokens. It doesn't take a lot of money, but it does take a commitment to letting reporters spend the time it takes to ferret out facts.

Investigative reporting by definition means that you go beyond the obvious information, you go beyond the official story to determine what's true, to uncover hidden facts. And there's no way around it: It takes time. It might take a few extra days; it might take a few extra months.

Experiments in new media

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, Robert Rosenthal, you started to talk about some of the newer efforts. This is something we -- as we look at what's happening in this industry, we keep talking about more and more now about alternative methods, models online, not-for-profits as a kind of thing you run. Tell us what you see in terms of where some of this investigative journalism is moving.

ROBERT ROSENTHAL: Well, I think what's happening is that the awareness level has really heightened in terms of this crisis, in terms of not only investigative reporting, but where are we going to get really vetted, accurate information in a time when there's information everywhere and the Internet in a sense makes everybody a publisher?

So you have major foundations who in the past have funded traditionally funded organizations like the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Center for Public Integrity, the National Security Archive, and other organizations who are now getting away from funding simply, say, a project or a story, but trying to fund an organizations, letting organizations try and sort of grow out of this wasteland to set up new models, new story-telling methods, taking advantage of the new technology, but at its core using the values and the standards that have been what's really stood up for the best investigative reporting.

So it's a blend, really, of traditional, maybe, you know, pounding-the-street, door-knocking, document-searching reporting, but creating it in new ways for new mediums.

And I think the core of this future is going to be around collaboration. And organizations need some time right now to see how they can really sustain that. That's the crucial question. No one has the answer. How do you financially sustain it? But even the major news organizations, the for-profit ones are wrestling with the same issue.

Finding a new business model

JEFFREY BROWN: Deborah Nelson, on the program last week, we talked about some efforts within cities that have set up online efforts. There's also big efforts like one called ProPublica, which is set up around investigative journalism. What do you see out there that is promising for the kind of work that you think should be done?

DEBORAH NELSON: Well, there are two parts to that question. One is, what's promising to keep investigative reporting going during this transition period? And the grant-funded organizations, I think, are absolutely critical, like ProPublica, Center for Public Integrity, Center for Investigative Reporting.

But, at the end of the line, at the end of the day, we need to find a new economic model. There just isn't a shovel-ready model to replace the traditional that we have.

Some of the most promising to me, though, are the local news shops that are opening up, Internet-only news shops that are opening up in Minnesota. San Diego is doing some outstanding investigative reporting. Mesa in Arizona, one has popped up there.

What I like about those is that they don't divorce investigative reporting from beat reporting. That's all done in one shop. It's more traditional in that sense, that you have reporters on beats producing investigative reporting.

And the way they're funding it is a mixture of grants, subscriptions and advertising, which I think has probably the most potential for long-term maintenance.

JEFFREY BROWN: But you still think it's an open question as to how much of a role these kind of things can play or how much of the vacuum that you see is being filled?

DEBORAH NELSON: In the long run, critically -- you know, temporarily, they're a great fix. But if you look at a lot of -- like, ProPublica relies on traditional media. They're still tethered to traditional media.

I think all of the -- ProPublica certainly has in the Investigative Reporting Workshop here in Washington, their goal is to eventually wean themselves from mainstream media, the traditional media, for disseminating the information and finding new ways to disseminate.

And that's going to be the real challenge, not only the funding, but how do we disseminate it so that we can get the information out to the public and so it has impact?

JEFFREY BROWN: OK, continuing discussion, thank you very much. Deborah Nelson and Robert Rosenthal, thanks a lot.

ROBERT ROSENTHAL: Thank you.