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Investigative Reporting Hard Hit by Media Cutbacks

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.

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