Friday, September 3, 2010

Investigative Shortfall

By Mary Walton
From AJR

Many news outlets are doing far less accountability reporting than in the past, bad news indeed for the public. New nonprofit investigative ventures have emerged, but they can’t pick up the slack by themselves.

On her last day at Fort Lauderdale's Sun-Sentinel, Mc Nelly Torres knew another round of layoffs was in the works. She went out for coffee, came back and said a prayer. The phone rang and a familiar name flashed on the screen. It was the editor they called the "Angel of Death."

Earlier in the day, Torres learned she had won a Green Eyeshade Award in consumer reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists, her second in as many years. Now she was out of a job.

Roberta Baskin, director of the investigative team at WJLA, the ABC affiliate in Washington, D.C., was waiting to take the bus back from New York City, where she had collected her third duPont-Columbia Award. Her cell phone rang. It was her news director telling her she had been let go, along with 24 other employees.

Roberta Baskin on Investigative Reporting American Journalism Review from Merrill College - UMD on Vimeo. Video Credits: Stanton Paddock

Tom Dubocq didn't wait for the ax to fall. At the Palm Beach Post, an era of fat budgets was dissolving like lard in a hot frying pan. In a single month in 2008, the staff of roughly 300 was reduced to 170, greased by a buyout offer that included health benefits for life. Dubocq's prize-winning probes of local corruption had put three county commissioners and assorted others in jail. He had his eye on a fourth commissioner, but instead signed up for the buyout. He was, he says, making too much money. "I knew ultimately I would get laid off. It was time to make the move."

What happens, I ask Dubocq, when people like him vanish from the newsrooms of America?

"The bad guys get away with stuff."

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. I-Teams are shrinking or, more often, disappearing altogether. Assigned to cover multiple beats, multitasking backpacking reporters no longer have time to sniff out hidden stories, much less write them. In Washington, bureaus that once did probes have shrunk, closed and consolidated.

The membership of Investigative Reporters and Editors fell more than 30 percent, from 5,391 in 2003, to a 10-year low of 3,695 in 2009. (After a vigorous membership drive, this year the number climbed above 4,000.) Prize-seekers take note: Applications for Pulitzers are down more than 40 percent in some investigative categories, a drop reflected in other competitions.

"There is no question that there are fewer investigative reporters in the U.S. today than there were a few years ago, mirroring the overall loss of journalists at traditional media outlets," says IRE Executive Director Mark Horvit. While he concedes that the situation is alarming, Horvit points to positive developments. New organizations dedicated to investigative and watchdog coverage have sprung up, and some mainstream news outlets are renewing a commitment that had been lost.

In July, a major investigative project underscored the importance of journalists as watchdogs of democracy: the Washington Post series "Top Secret America," on the nation's bloated security establishment. Would that more journalists had been on duty when subprime mortgage peddlers were running amok and the federal Minerals Management Service was sitting on a potential oil disaster.

"Eternal vigilance by the people is the price of liberty," Andrew Jackson declared in his 1837 Farewell Address. But what if the people don't know what's going on? "All citizens have a right to petition the government for redress of grievances," former Newsday Editor Anthony J. Marro, a onetime investigative reporter and a champion of accountability journalism, told a gathering of the Vermont ACLU last year, "but, as simplistic as it sounds, without a strong press they often don't know what the grievances are."

Elevated to hero status after two Washington Post reporters helped bring down a corrupt U.S. president and his cronies, investigative reporters enjoyed a golden era from the late 1970s into the 2000s. In cities blessed with activist media, reporters took aim at corruption, waste, incompetence and injustice in politics, government, charities and corporations. Cameras confronted culprits. An aroused populace demanded change. People went to jail; old laws were rewritten and new ones passed. Competition for investigative prizes swelled; others came into being.

The annual conferences of IRE, organized in 1975, were like revival meetings, infusing adherents with new energy and skills, and winning converts to the craft. Big names like Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele of the Philadelphia Inquirer and My Lai hero Seymour Hersh drew rock-star crowds.

Newspapers and networks came looking for talent, and reporters came armed with résumés and clips. Free newspapers greeted early morning risers. The conference still draws well, but some of the bells and whistles are silent. At this year's conference, attended by 800, not even the host — the Las Vegas Sun — gave away copies.

Never has there been a greater need for probing coverage of the multiple ways in which the public is victimized. But as corporations sprawl across continents and government grows more complex, media resources shrink. The year 2008 was brutal for the nation's press. Some 5,900 daily print journalists dropped off the rolls, according to the annual count by the American Society of News Editors. And 2009 wasn't much better. Another 5,200 jobs disappeared. Meanwhile, in 2008 local television news shed 1,200 jobs, a 4.3 percent decline, according to a Radio Television Digital News Association survey. The slide tapered off in 2009; just 400 people lost their jobs.

In network news, however, ABC alone cut 400 jobs in March of this year; CBS had already let 70 go.

The shrinking rosters represent a two-front assault on investigative reporting. Investigations take time, lots of time. With much smaller staffs doing much more work in a multimedia era, it becomes harder to spring reporters from their day jobs to tackle important but labor-intensive probes. And with fewer reporters to go around, news outlets are much more likely to abolish investigative slots than the City Hall and police beats.

In the army of the Fourth Estate, full-time investigative reporters have always been the elite special forces. Frequently, though, investigations have been carried out by the foot soldiers — beat reporters who come across a good lead and lobby for permission to pursue it.

Decades ago at the Philadelphia Inquirer under Executive Editor Gene Roberts, when the paper was known as a prize-winning machine, only Barlett and Steele were detailed to full-time investigations. Says Roberts, "If there was anyone who came up with a good story, they had a reasonable chance of pursuing it at the Inquirer, and you did not have to be part of a team."

But fewer and fewer foot soldiers are on patrol.

See the rest of the article at

Mary Walton ( is a former reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Her most recent book, “A Woman’s Crusade: Alice Paul and the Battle for the Ballot,” was published by Palgrave Macmillan in August.

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