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Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Rise of New Investigative Reporting

Back in November the New York Times had an interesting article, the focus was on a San Diego blog--Voice of San Diego.

Writes the New York Times:
"Over the last two years, some of this city’s darkest secrets have been dragged into the light — city officials with conflicts of interest and hidden pay raises, affordable housing that was not affordable, misleading crime statistics.

Investigations ensued. The chiefs of two redevelopment agencies were forced out. One of them faces criminal charges. Yet the main revelations came not from any of San Diego’s television and radio stations or its dominant newspaper, The San Diego Union-Tribune, but from a handful of young journalists at a nonprofit Web site run out of a converted military base far from downtown’s glass towers — a site that did not exist four years ago."
Indeed in this country we have seen a trend of local newspapers going out of business, struggling financially, cutting their staffs, etc. The result has been that there are fewer and fewer investigative reports from mainstream newspapers. This has led to a huge hole in local coverage, a hole filled now by the rise of "a new kind of Web-based news operation" which is now forcing the local papers to follow the stories that they uncover.

Sound familiar?

The New York Times reports that similar operations have cropped up in New Haven, the Twin Cities, Seattle, St. Louis, and Chicago. In fact, there are many more in big and small towns.

Where this movement perhaps differs from the Vanguard is that it is being led by professional journalists rather than citizen journalism posted by unpaid amateurs.
The fledgling movement has reached a sufficient critical mass, its founders think, so they plan to form an association, angling for national advertising and foundation grants that they could not compete for singly. And hardly a week goes by without a call from journalists around the country seeking advice about starting their own online news outlets.

“Voice is doing really significant work, driving the agenda on redevelopment and some other areas, putting local politicians and businesses on the hot seat,” said Dean Nelson, director of the journalism program at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego. “I have them come into my classes, and I introduce them as, ‘This is the future of journalism.’ ”
All around the country, newspapers are struggling to survive. We learned recently that the owners of some of the largest papers in the country the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune are declaring bankruptcy. Locally reporters are being laid off because of struggling times.

The death of newspapers does not have to come, what needs to happen is that newspapers change the way they operate.
"That is a subject of hot debate among people who closely follow the newspaper industry. Publishing online means operating at half the cost of a comparable printed paper, but online advertising is not robust enough to sustain a newsroom.

And so financially, VoiceofSan Diego and its peers mimic public broadcasting, not newspapers. They are nonprofit corporations supported by foundations, wealthy donors, audience contributions and a little advertising."
This is a model that the Vanguard is likely to follow in the coming year.
But some experts question whether a large part of the news business can survive on what is essentially charity, and whether it is wise to lean too heavily on the whims of a few moneyed benefactors.

“These are some of the big questions about the future of the business,” said Robert H. Giles, curator of the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard. Nonprofit news online “has to be explored and experimented with, but it has to overcome the hurdle of proving it can support a big news staff. Even the most well-funded of these sites are a far cry in resources from a city newspaper.”

The people who run the local news sites see themselves as one future among many, and they have a complex relationship with traditional media. The say that the deterioration of those media has created an opening for new sources of news, as well as a surplus of unemployed journalists for them to hire.

“No one here welcomes the decline of newspapers,” said Andrew Donohue, one of two executive editors at VoiceofSanDiego. “We can’t be the main news source for this city, not for the foreseeable future. We only have 11 people.”
I think what we will see are more of these kinds of operations. The question is whether these kinds of entities are providing the kind of coverage that people seek.

It is worth reading the full New York Times article from November.

From a local level, one of the things the Vanguard has done in the last year has been to move to more investigative and more watch dog reporting. The local newspaper offers people a better guide to community events, but the Vanguard has the luxury of being able to focus on a single story or two a day and going much further in depth than the local paper. Thus the Vanguard was able to delve deeply into the operations of a Tahir Ahad where the local paper never really covered the story.

Investigative reporting is an issue that many local papers have gone away from. The result is that most stories scratch the surface and rely heavily on official sources. The EPA story from earlier this week represents an interesting case in point. The local activists are concerned about developments on the Superfund Site which will house the new Target. The EPA writes a letter laying out their position that the site does not pose a health risk. However, the local group is skeptical of these claims. The Vanguard actually reports the issue first and takes the side of the local group. The Enterprise reports the next day but takes the side of the EPA. That will likely be the last article you see on this subject by the Enterprise, meanwhile the Vanguard has already written a follow up.

But there is more going on in this story, and probably as soon as next week, we will have further information as the Vanguard continues to dig to get to the bottom of what is going on while the Enterprise has long since moved on and declared there is nothing to see. Perhaps the Vanguard will find something out that changes the course of the story, perhaps it won't. But the fact that the Vanguard keeps looking beyond the official word sets it apart from the rest.

Recently the New York Times had a Q&A with a numbers of their reporters and editors on their internet site. So I asked a question of Walt Bogdanich assistant editor at the New York Times Investigative desk (must be nice to work for a large paper).
In 2008, Mr. Bogdanich won the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting for the series "A Toxic Pipeline," which tracked how dangerous and poisonous pharmaceutical ingredients from China have flowed into the global market. In 2005, Mr. Bogdanich won the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting for his series "Death on the Tracks," which examined the safety record of the United States railroad industry. And in 1988, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Specialized Reporting, for his articles in The Wall Street Journal on substandard medical laboratories.
So I ask how local papers can continue investigative reporting given their limited budgets.
"There seems to be a vicious circle now in the media. Primarily that investigative reporting is not funded in all but a few papers because of the loss of revenue and profit that newspapers have brought in. But in part that is due to the declining dedication and quality of the product. How can local newspapers re-commit themselves to investigative reporting?"
Unfortunately his response missed the point:
"Yes, many newspapers have less money to spend on investigative reporting. But it is also true that investigative reporting costs less today than 20 years ago because of the Internet. Case in point: while sitting at our desks in New York, reporters were able to analyze the types of pharmaceutical ingredients that Chinese chemical companies were selling on the open market. Having a great cash flow is not a prerequisite for investigative reporting. It helps, of course. But remember, back in the days when newspapers were flush with cash, most of them did very little of it."
The point is that local newspapers are not doing investigative reporting. It may be cheaper than it used to be, but newspapers are cutting back staff.

The future of local newspapers in part will depend on their ability to figure out a way to restructure in a different economic environment. They will need to find a way to make money and provide a service that people want.

The Vanguard on a good day probably has about a quarter of the readers that the Enterprise gets on a daily basis. (The Enterprise itself only gains access into roughly one-third of the households in the city of Davis with its regular circulation.) There is a niche here to be exploited. The Vanguard has been able to do this with hardly any money used to promote itself. There is obviously a yearning in the populace for more than the bare bones news coverage that most local papers offer while at the same time the local papers provide vital information on an array of topics that the Vanguard could never even hope to try to cover.

The bottom line here is that newspapers are going to have to change if they want to survive. So far they seem reluctant to do so.

---David M. Greenwald reporting