SPECIAL REPORT: Amid Newsroom Cutbacks Are ‘Watchdogs’ Still Awake? And Can Outsiders Fill the Gaps?

By: Joe Strupp

The Aug. 30 issue of The New York Times Magazine marked a milestone for the newspaper. It boasted an explosive cover feature probing Hurricane Katrina’s impact on one New Orleans hospital, including claims that patients were euthanized ? a piece spanning more than two years of reporting and costing an estimated $400,000 to produce. But the story’s author wasn’t a Times reporter ? it was a staffer from non-profit news outlet ProPublica.

The investigative news outlet, formed less than two years ago, has already made a name for itself by recruiting mainstream news talent and producing some of the most acclaimed investigative projects in years ? some of which have been published by the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, among others.

“There are certain kinds of things we cannot do,” says Times Magazine Editor Gerald Marzorati, who praised ProPublica’s efforts on the Katrina opus and other stories. “We are not in a position to have a reporter working full time on a story for two years.”

While ProPublica’s Sheri Fink, a physician, was not paid directly by the Times for the Katrina story, the paper did expend what Executive Editor Bill Keller calls ?substantial? resources on the piece, putting it through strenuous editing, fact-checking, and legal review, commissioning a photographer, and preparing a wide-ranging Web package. Marzorati adds that the use of such reports produced outside mainstream newspapers “is one way that long-form journalism is going to continue in the future.”

Before it ran the Katrina feature, The New York Times had used four other ProPublica stories in the previous 12 months. While the Gray Lady boasts an investigative unit of at least eight reporters and three editors, Glenn Kramon, assistant managing editor/ enterprise, admits those stories are tougher to do these days. “What has made it harder is that we are now a multimedia, 24-7 news organization,” he says. “That requires us to do a more multi-dimensional job. That makes it harder to get long- term enterprise, including investigative, done.”

ProPublica is not alone. In the past year, several non-profit outlets focusing on investigative journalism have arisen or have expanded their involvement with newspapers to fill the void for investigative work as cutbacks strip newsrooms nationwide. Alliances from New England to California are finding that newspapers are more open to joining forces on the investigative front than ever before.

“You’ve got a lot of people moving to collaboration, as opposed to competition,” says Brant Houston, Knight Foundation chair in investigative and enterprise reporting at the University of Illinois and former executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors. “They see the wisdom in doing this.”

Adds Robert Rosenthal, former managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting in Berkeley, Calif., “There is no question that as newspapers have shrunk their staffs, one of the things that has [been lost] is investigative reporting. There are newspapers that are committed to doing it and are doing it. But with fewer reporters, watchdog journalism suffers.”

Is this the future of investigative reporting? Can a handful of projects each year that utilize outside non-profits make up for the loss of countless staffers and, in some cases, entire units dedicated to in-depth reporting projects? And even if newspapers keep and in some cases expand their investigative teams ? as several claim to be doing ? will they be able to spend the kind of money on travel, legal fights and lengthy reporting needed to uncover many of these major stories, with diminished budgets?

While editors contend watchdog journalism remains a priority, with or without outside help, the reality of cutbacks and mounting workloads promises major challenges down the road. “There is still plenty of good work being done around the country,” says IRE Executive Director Mark Horvit. “But there are fewer bodies around to do it.”

Keeping up with the ProPublicas
When The Oregonian in Portland disbanded its investigations team in late 2007, the primary reason was the loss of its two top investigative editors to ProPublica. Managing News Editor Steve Engelberg and Investigations Editor Tom Detzel had overseen three investigative reporters. But when ProPublica beckoned, both jumped ship. The Oregonian reassigned the three reporters and took a new approach to investigative, says Editor Sandra Mims Rowe, who contends such projects now span the entire newspaper and are drawn from every reporting department.

“Most of our investigations come from the accountability and business teams, and other city teams,” says Rowe. “I have said that as we reduce staff, I could be leading a newsroom that is down to 20 reporters and at least 10 of them would be doing investigative news.”

With a staff of 289 in her newsroom, Rowe doesn’t have to worry about that just yet. But with cutbacks in the dozens going back a year-and-a-half, she admits fewer reporters are available ? and the lack of a dedicated investigative unit makes it harder to get investigative projects off the ground.

“There is no doubt that in the last 18 months or so, it has been more difficult to accomplish,” she says. “Newsrooms are in turmoil. Morale is not good. It is more difficult and challenging to get these stories going in the newsroom.”

Editors at several other major and mid-sized papers who have been hit with budget cuts, however, claim that no matter where else reductions are being made, whether in features, copy desk jobs or beat reporting, the quality of their investigative work remains the same or is better. But the reality is that in tighter economic times, it’s more difficult to do these projects even with the same amount of staffers ? and outside help becomes more attractive.

“We have probably done more investigative reporting in the past year than we ever have,” says Susan Goldberg, editor of The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, which is down 70 reporters since 2007 and has cut pages in the daily print edition. “We’ve still got as many people doing investigative work, if not more. … We have a smaller national report than we used to have,” she adds. “Our whole emphasis is strong local. Watchdog reporting is at the center of our mission. If we don’t do it, I don’t think anyone else will.”

Ask Jeff Leen of The Washington Post about the state of investigative reporting at his paper and he’ll tell you it’s as strong as ever. Even after more than 100 news staffers ? some of them Pulitzer-minted ? took buyouts last year, Leen, the paper’s assistant managing editor/investigations, says he still has the seven full-time reporters he’s had for the last six years. “We may get squeezed a little bit here and there, but we still have our unit and the ability to pull people from other staffs,” he says. “I think you will find that as things squeeze, people will see investigative reporting as the high ground. We have basically held the line.”

Rex Smith, editor of the Times Union in Albany, N.Y., says his four-person investigative unit remains, even after his news staff was cut from 127 to 98 this year. He trimmed other things, including the features section Monday through Wednesday, along with television listings and a handful of reporting positions and geographic beats. “We decided that investigative reporting that touches the whole community is more important than what affects a small area,” he adds, citing several recent projects including an Albany city parking ticket scandal that led to a state investigation.

“The No. 1 thing readers tell us they want is watchdog reporting,” says Randy Lovely, editor of The Arizona Republic in Phoenix, which dropped from 400 news staffers to 325 in the past year but kept its 12-person First Amendment investigative team intact. “I will not cut it. You have to see where else you can nip and tuck.”

For Lovely, that has meant fewer copy editors and some upper-management reductions: “The ratio of reporters to editors is higher than it used to be, which I don’t love, but I had to do it.”

Several of those editors have accepted some outside investigative help or, in other cases, worked with sister newspapers or outside organizations.

The Washington Post has run five ProPublica-related projects this year, while the Arizona Republic worked with Politico in 2008 on presidential campaign coverage when Sen. John McCain was the Republican nominee. The Times Union has used two ProPublica stories while also taking part in two major investigative projects this year that included at least six other Hearst papers. The first, in February, examined how the Boy Scouts of America were clearing vast acres of forest. An August package delved into avoidable deaths in hospitals.

“What I like about it is that it still bubbles up from reporting, sometimes beat reporting,” says Phil Bronstein, former editor of the San Francisco Chronicle and current editor-at-large for Hearst. “You can do it on a national level, you can take people with comprehensive skills and put them together.”

Partnering up
ProPublica has grown to 19 reporters since it launched in January 2008. In that time, the non-profit outlet ? currently funded through at least 2011, with a mix of donations ? boasts more than a dozen major projects that have been used by 37 news outlets, including 14 newspapers. Subjects range from health claims by Iraq War contractors to formaldehyde in FEMA-supplied trailers. Says ProPublica managing editor Engelberg, “One of the most remarkable things about this experiment is that after a little bit of understandable skepticism, a number of newspapers have found us to be a valuable partner.”

Although the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) has been in place since 1977, the non-profit outlet recently launched its California Watch, an 11- person project that will focus on the Golden State and provide reporting for all media, including newspapers. Like ProPublica, CIR’s new project has also drawn talent from some of the best newspaper staffs, attracting longtime investigative reporter Lance Williams of the San Francisco Chronicle and former Los Angeles Times statehouse reporter Robert Salladay.

The 20-year-old Center for Public Integrity (CPI) is likewise expanding its work to help newspapers ? and numerous journalism groups and local Web outlets have formed the Investigative News Network, which met for the first time in July and has so far raised $500,000 in funding to help its collection of news outlets provide investigative reporting. “We are building a Web site to share material,” says Bill Buzenberg, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, one of the network’s leading organizers. “We hope to raise money, share material and get paid for it.”

CPI, meanwhile, has increased its own production of investigative content, much of it used by newspapers, says Buzenberg. His 35-person staff produces about a dozen major reporting projects each year. “We want to alert papers more and more that this is coming,” Buzenberg says of his group’s content.

He cites the Associated Press recently adding his organization’s content to its member exchange site, along with ProPublica, CIR and the Investigative Reporting Workshop. He also notes that AP used a June package on Pentagon travel costs that included five years of data.

Into the void
There’s also the crop of new investigative centers that has sprung up since the beginning of this year. Among these are the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, both aligned with universities and already making their marks in local media.

“It turns out that we are really invigorating local investigative journalism,” says Andrew Hall, the Wisconsin Center’s executive director. “I think these state-focused investigative centers will play an important role in many areas of the country in replacing lost resources.”

Hall, a former 18-year reporter at the Wisconsin State Journal in Madison, has just two full-time staffers and three college interns. But the center, launched in January at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, has offered dozens of stories. Among the first projects was a collaboration with the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and a UW reporting class on a review of Gov. Jim Doyle’s travel records that ran in the Journal Sentinel on July 4. Other investigations have ranged from a look at boating safety to a controversial new $600 million in-state rail line. “I think the more profound shift will be to collaboration and away from competition,” says Hall. “Collaboration makes it easier to do these kinds of investigations.”

At Boston University, where the New England Center for Investigative Reporting launched in January, co-founder and director Joe Bergantino has also made a mark with stories in The Boston Globe. The center uses nearly a dozen interns from Boston University to aid in the reporting. “There is a major void we fill, and that is how we see our mission,” he says. “The void is at the local and regional level.”

Bergantino says funding is solid for the moment, with a $250,000 Knight Foundation grant and some in-kind donations from Boston University that include office space and legal support. His goal is to do four to six projects per year. “I see more cutbacks on the horizon in TV and newspapers across the country,” he adds.

Then there’s the Rocky Mountain Investigative News Network, the brainchild of former Rocky Mountain News reporters Laura Frank and Jerd Smith. Both say they had been planning the project since late 2008, when word of a potential Rocky sale or closing began. Frank admits that while getting funding is difficult, she hopes to raise enough money for a small staff that can both provide reporting with the help of students at the University of Colorado ? which has donated some office space ? and work with media outlets statewide on projects. “We are also looking to get into providing services such as data analysis and training,” she adds ? if they can get proper funding.

Cuts lead to outside help
But what about the papers that have lost their investigative capacity, and don’t have a local watchdog outlet to pair up with? Even if a newspaper can still staff a spotlight or I-Team unit, budget cuts can take a bite out of the expenses needed for effective shoe-leather reporting.

At The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J., which lost about one-third of its news staff to a major buyout last October, “We have had to cut back on the investigative projects,” says Editor Jim Willse. “The number of projects in the pipeline has gone down.” His paper has used about six ProPublica stories or packages. “I welcome all of these other opportunities,” he adds. “I think it is very healthy to have shared resources with other newsrooms.”

Steve Proctor, managing editor at the San Francisco Chronicle, notes that his paper had a four-person investigative team when he joined in 2003. That ended in August when the Chronicle’s only remaining investigative reporter, Lance Williams, jumped to CIR. He says the paper’s investigative work continues through its beat reporting, even though the reporting staff has gone from 430 to 175 reporters in the past six years. “It is just a question of choices. It impacts everything you do,” Proctor admits. “We have continued to do a lot of strong watchdog reporting.”

But can they? With no investigative unit and fewer beat reporters, the impact has to result in less probing journalism. “The Chronicle is under tremendous pressure,” says former reporter Williams. “As you cut your staff back, you can’t take as many shots. There’s a gap to fill.”

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, which had a four to-six-person special projects team for years, cut that unit several years ago, according to Managing Editor Bert Roughton Jr. He contends that investigations are still being done through its current nine-person watchdog team, even with a newsroom that has dropped from 235 people two years ago to about 180.

“There is a difference in its mission,” he says of the watchdog unit. “They are more tip-oriented and work sources better. They come up with stories weekly instead of semi-annually.”

He adds that “cuts have come in regional reporting, national stories and some features.” Roughton says he uses more freelancers these days, and has still been able to let a reporter work on a project for weeks: “I am seeing a much more aggressive, determined newspaper.”

Determination, or denial?
So despite the cuts that have plagued newsrooms across the country, few top editors will admit that investigative is suffering.

The Boston Globe’s Spotlight team, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for uncovering a major sex scandal involving the Catholic church, has been reduced from four staffers to three in recent years, according to Editor Martin Baron. But he says that does not diminish the paper’s investigative efforts. Even with a 35% drop in news staff since 2001, Baron says his 352-person news crew can still deliver as many scoops as ever.

“Investigative reporting is part and parcel of any beat reporting job,” he stresses. “You don’t necessarily need additional people for that.” Although Baron welcomes the outside help his paper has received, including an alliance with Northeastern University, he adds that outside non-profit groups are not a substitute for home-grown reporting: “It is a supplement.”

At The Sacramento Bee, which had an I-Team unit until about two years ago, investigative stories remain a priority, says Editor Melanie Sill ? even with a newsroom that’s been cut back from 260 to 175 in the past two years. She says the number of the paper’s investigative reports hasn’t changed. “As we have reduced staff, we have increased the emphasis on investigative. We have emphasized it on beats.”

The Charlotte (N.C.) Observer also claims to have remained tough in its investigative reporting, despite its own cutback from 250 news staffers to 170 since 2007, according to Editor Rick Thames. He says other areas have been reduced, such as “an extensive regional operation” and the design and copy desks have been consolidated into one. There has even been collaboration with its McClatchy sibling, The News & Observer in Raleigh, on copy editing and investigative stories, with the two papers sharing some projects.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, the Chauncey Bailey Project is among the best recent examples of numerous outlets converging on one investigative effort. That project, launched in 2007, included The Oakland Tribune, CIR and other newsrooms that probed the murder of Chauncey Bailey, editor of the weekly Oakland Post.

Kevin Keane, executive editor of the Bay Area News Group-East Bay, which includes the Tribune and eight other dailies, says having a part in that investigation shows the kind of results collaborative efforts can deliver. He said his papers also are glad to work with CIR and ProPublica: “You have to be selective. … We have had to adjust to the new economic models.”

Keane says he has only one reporter dedicated to investigative work among his chain, a MediaNews Group division ? but stresses that other reporters are involved in investigative projects constantly: “You always have choices to make in what you cover. And you have got to be open to these new kinds of coalitions.”

Will the non-profits survive?
Alex Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at Harvard University, says even if a newspaper still has an investigative team, cutbacks at the beat level draw power away from digging into stories by regular reporters who have cultivated beat sources.

Jones, author of the recently published Losing The News (Oxford University Press), adds, “Investigative reporting has come to be defined as these special projects teams. But that is only part of it. The real danger is the loss of muscle and bone of serious and aggressive reporters who are often the most expensive and now absent from newsrooms.”

Adds IRE President Alison Young, who also writes the weekly watchdog column for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “It is becoming more difficult to do the longer-term, more complex investigative stories ? the kind of stories that are six-month projects. The big multi-part series that requires lawsuits to get access to records, that requires travel. Those are much more difficult to do, and in some newsrooms impossible.”

In the end, can the mix of newsroom cutbacks and growing outside investigative centers keep the investigative juices flowing? Of course, much of it has yet to play out.

“There is great excitement in the journalism community for these various non-profits,” says IRE’s Young. “A number of them have done outstanding work. But they are still in the early phases. Will they be able to find a sustainable financial model?”

Adds Bronstein: “Like a lot of things starting up, there is a question: Can they be sustainable, can somebody pay for them? They do not draw a lot of ad revenue.” Or as Kramon of the Times puts it: “Will they stick around?”

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