Unleashed: Watchdog Journalism Finds New Ways to Make an Impact in Print and Online

By: Jennifer Swift

 

Can you follow the money if you don’t have money?

That’s been the challenge for newsrooms since the newspaper business was buffeted by financial headwinds roughly a decade ago. Desks emptied, never to be filled. Travel budgets cut, fact checkers, then copy desks, and editors were all purged by publishing’s retrenchment.

Often lost in the cuts was the ability to conduct watchdog/investigative reporting. The idea that a publication could commit its best reporters to a project for months seemed a mountain too tall to climb with ad revenue drying up.

From what we’ve seen this year, 2018 doesn’t seem to be reversing the trends seen in newsrooms: more buyouts, more layoffs, mergers and closings. But there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. Media companies are turning away from their heavy reliance on advertisers to fund journalism. Publishers are following the money—rather than the clicks. Now publishers are relying on reader revenue, through paywalls at print newspapers and memberships in the case of nonprofit newsrooms.

“All of this is happening against the backdrop of a shift in reliance on advertising revenue to reader revenue, and I think that’s possibly a really positive thing for investigative reporting,” said Matt DeRienzo, executive director at Local Independent Online News (LION) Publishers, who writes E&P’s Industry Insight column. “Ad revenue was all about chasing pageviews, not impact.”

And impact is what investigative journalism does well.

Pulling on the String

Shannon Mullen started at the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey 31 years ago, that’s more than 10 years before Google launched and almost 20 years before Twitter was birthed. He worked in a bureau that at the time had as many people working in the satellite office as the company employs now.

In April 2016, the veteran newsman was working a regular breaking news/weekend shift—a beat that in the past was the domain of cub reporters—when an explosion ripped through a local apartment complex.

“That day I contacted one of the fire inspectors and asked him what had happened and he told me that in this apartment building, there was a basement tenant whose apartment was so overrun with cockroaches his wife had called him at work and I guess she had really reached the breaking point,” Mullen said. “So I guess he sprayed the hell out of that apartment when he got home and those fumes ignited.”

No one was hurt (including the roaches), but as Mullen talked more with the code enforcement officer on the scene, he quickly learned the code enforcement office was in way over their head.

From there, Mullen started a five-month journey uncovering the gross-mismanagement of the New Jersey public housing. Like some of the best investigative stories, Mullen said, it’s not something he came up with as a topic, sitting around the newsroom. This was a reporter following a single story and pulling on the string until what unraveled was a tale of mismanagement and a lax government oversight.

Shannon Mullen

“When it comes organically through something in the news, there’s a more natural process of discovery, like where’s this leading, and that’s the case with this story,” Mullen said. “We thought maybe a breaking news story, then maybe a local news story that was worth following up on, then maybe a regional piece, then really a statewide story. That was the evolution.”

Mullen and his colleague, Payton Guion, worked on what would become an five-part series with more than a dozen follow-up stories titled “Renter Hell,” earning them coveted spots as finalists for awards from the Investigative Reporters and Editors, Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting competition and the American Society of News Editors, and their stories served as the impetus for proposed legislation.

Still, their investigative series didn’t relieve them of their other responsibilities. As typical in small local newsrooms, Mullen and Guion juggled their investigation along with their daily story load. And while reporters at national publications have the luxury of focusing on a single topic, like national security or criminal justice, a reporter at a paper like the Press will cover everything from parking woes to city council meetings. With so many stories coming at them from different angles, managing the workload meant Mullen had to turn down plenty of stories he would have before turned around quickly for ones with more impact.

“You almost have to have a more general assignment type approach to it looking for those good stories at the local level,” he said.

There are fewer reporters out covering small fires that could turn into series, board meetings, etc. But both Mullen and DeRienzo agree that’s not all bad.

“I think it’s a mixed bag right now,” said DeRienzo. “There are fewer reporters, but I think that people are starting to realize—including at the places that are being cut—among some of the worst that have been affected that they sort of have to be focused. Take what’s left and do what’s meaningful.”

As publishers move toward engagement and readership rather than just pageviews, they see what reporters have been headlining for decades—local investigative journalism that matters to people.

“There’s enough of a historical track record,” Mullen said. “The readers respond to it, the policy makers respond to it, and so we have the confidence to know that this is worth doing, and we can do this.”

Recently, Noah Smith wrote in a Bloomberg article that local journalism can also lead to higher engagement because doing something about what’s read seems within a reader’s realm of possibilities.

“When people learn about war in Ukraine, there’s little they can do to change things,” he wrote. “But when they learn about corruption and waste in their local government, even if it’s no more interesting to them than war in Ukraine, they’re able to do something about it.”

Supporting the Watchdogs

Even before the newspaper industry shrank to the size where it could be drowned in FOIA requests, nonprofit newsrooms have long been at the forefront of turning away from advertising to fund investigative reporting. The Center for Investigative Reporting founded in 1977 was the first nonprofit news organization dedicated to watchdog/investigative reporting. The Center for Public Integrity followed in 1989. And in recent years, nonprofit journalism has been on the rise with the Trace, Marshall Project, ProPublica, Texas Tribune, Voice of San Diego and the New Haven Independent leading the charge. The national outlets have benefitted from a bounce in donations.

Individual donors and foundations are increasing their support for investigative journalism—both locally and nationally. Last year, the Knight Foundation, MacArthur Foundation and Democracy Fund joined in to match donations made to organizations part of the Independent News Network (INN). According to Poynter, $4.8 million was raised by donors and foundations in that drive, including funds from more than 200,000 individual donors. In May, DeRienzo and LION announced the launch of “Impact-Designed Investigative Grants.” The grants were awarded to 18 local news publishers in an effort to support their hyper-local investigative efforts, and to give publishers the bandwidth and funds to begin exploring how to make investigative journalism sustainable in their outlet.

A community taking on news as something it needs to support isn’t necessarily new, but it’s still nice to see people putting their money where their mouth is, said Lynne DeLucia, the co-founder of the Connecticut Health Investigative Team. DeLucia started C-HIT eight years ago with Lisa Chedekel, a former co-worker who has since passed away.

DeLucia and Chedekel have a storied friendship that survived from newspaper to newspaper in the Connecticut area. But when they saw a hole in health and safety coverage and the upcoming newspaper shifts on the horizon, they decided to start out on their own.

“We wanted to start C-HIT because we just felt like we could fill a void in healthcare coverage,” DeLucia said. “Newspapers that are being bought by other companies were going through quite a bit of downsizing and it just seemed like an opportunity for us to launch a site with a niche, with a tight mission and to be able to fill a void in health safety and medical coverage. We wanted to do investigative reporting because we felt that it was a way to engage and inform readers.”

DeLucia continued, “Our individual donors are starting to grow for us, and that shows that there is an interest in the work that we’ve been doing. When we started, we were 100 percent foundation funded, and now we’re about 50/50.”

The rest comes from what DeLucia dubs “self-generated” funding including individual donations, ads, sponsorships and payments from media partners. DeLucia said that diversity in funding is critical for nonprofits that want to survive.

On the backdrop of a college campus that has certainly experienced the schism between “old” and “new” journalism, DeLucia and Chedekel also began a camp for high schoolers where they investigated stories for a week.

“One of the things we talked to them about is journalism is evolving,” DeLucia said. “It’s certainly not the way it was when I started in journalism back in the 1970s. The profession has certainly evolved, but there are so many opportunities.”

Now that most newspapers have eliminated their healthcare coverage and much of their investigative teams, they are still getting the stories out there by partnering with organizations like C-HIT, a model that has been duplicated at national publications. ProPublica and the Marshall Project have partnered with publications like the New York Times. ProPublica also has recently begun partnering with smaller market newspapers in states across the country on projects, offering them data and editing support, and in some cases, financial support to conduct investigations. Still, partnerships don’t supplant local journalism, DeLucia said.

According to DeLucia, the website has garnered a following by hosting events and forums throughout the state to engage with more people. By getting out in the community more, they hear the stories that are most important to the people they cover. An added benefit is that it allows the outlet to be more creative, DeLucia said. She tells the students at the high school camp that they can use their skills in a variety of ways now to produce journalism in many different ways.

The creativity doesn’t have to stop at the front page. Pactio, a for-profit co-founded by two John S. Knight Fellows, is creating new ways to help pay journalists to do the investigative reporting most important to their community.

Pactio founders: Adriano Farano, chief executive officer (left) and JulieAnn McKellogg, chief content officer

Pactio works like a crowdfunding model, where backers make contributions for a reporter. The idea behind it stemmed from a need to fill the gaps of local investigative journalism and to provide journalists with the platforms and ways to make a living. The company recently fully funded their first journalist, Molly Peterson, who is now covering the impact of climate change in Los Angeles.

“Our goal is to create a sustainable level of funding to carry them month to month or grant to grant or contract to contract as independent journalists,” said JulieAnn McKellogg, Pactio co-founder and chief content officer.

Mixing impact reporting with service journalism is a great way to engage a community to support the issues most impactful to a community. “Being as service oriented as possible is really critical to our future,” McKellogg said.

The one way street of journalists picking the stories and the people paying for them is no longer a road to prosperity for media.

“In my experience, as much as we’ve embraced this idea of audience and building audience, we’ve done very little to put ourselves face to face with readers, viewers and listeners,” McKellogg said. “We believe that by creating smaller communities of supporters, there’s a level of relationship building that can occur that isn’t occurring in local and national newsrooms right now.”

Pactio encourages members to financially support the journalists working on stories, and in return, receive direct access to them. McKellogg said in her research, she noticed people were still getting their local news and recommendations by word of mouth. Pactio is a way to tap into that “game of telephone” people are already playing in their communities.

Staying Persistent

Two years and four months after Mullen’s first “Renter Hell” story was published, he was on the beat, covering the condemnation of yet another public housing building. After the series was published, legislative bills stalled to rectify problems pointed out by the Press.

“It looked like things were going to get done, but literally nothing has changed,” he said. “The message I’ve gotten loud and clear from my editors is we’re not walking away from this right now. We want to know what happened. Why wasn’t there meaningful change that resulted from this? I don’t know the answer.”

Looking back at his initial story, Mullen also can’t figure out an answer to how those roaches in that apartment had survived the blast. But what he does know is he will be just as persistent and unrelenting in holding the people in power accountable. 

Jennifer Swift is a freelance journalist living in New York. She is the co-founder and former editor of DC Witness, a non-profit website dedicated to covering homicides in the nation’s capital. Before that, she covered state politics, policing and education for the New Haven Register and Connecticut Magazine.

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Published: August 1, 2018

One thought on “Unleashed: Watchdog Journalism Finds New Ways to Make an Impact in Print and Online

  • August 2, 2018 at 12:11 pm
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    Probably TLTR for many, but for those with determination… the payoff is well worth the trip. This is happening at all levels. For eight years I’ve independently financed and written a watchdog blog for my little community of 40,000 folks. This felt a bit like reading my own journal. Well done. Thanks.

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