An Investigative Reporter’s Plea

By: Thomas “Dennie” Williams

As an investigative reporter for over four decades for The Hartford Courant, I always thought the toughest of all tasks was getting answers from politicians, corporate heads and all varieties of scofflaws. Since November 2005, I have been an active freelance writer. After hundreds of emails to newspapers and news Internet sites soliciting investigative reporting ideas and stories, I now believe that today the news media is a tougher nut to crack than any investigative target. Why?

Try emailing or telephoning a news site with a hot news idea or an already prepared in-depth or investigative story. See what happens! Repetitive emails go unanswered for weeks. Telephone calls are routinely directed to voice mails that are frequently ignored by news editors or their assistants. Boy, I would hate to be a tipster with a heavy and significant tip needing reporting.

News sites don?t even send out automatic email answers as many businesses or individuals do to tell their contacts they will be answering the email soon. Of course, those promised answers via emails from governments and corporations are often just phony promises. But at least a sender-writer-reporter can use them to prove their original email was actually received, or to attempt to confront the corporate or government or other source with their automatic promise through a follow up email or a telephone call.

What?s the point of this complaint?

Newspapers are shedding experienced reporters by the dozens by firing, laying them off and buying them out during a downturn in the economy. Despite continuing profits, some papers have eliminated a third or more of their newsroom staffs just recently and probably half again as much in reductions within the past five years.

The Tribune Co. is in the process of eliminating scores of staff members from its newspapers nationwide, including my alma mater, The Courant, the nation?s oldest continuously published newspaper. Sam Zell, the millionaire real estate mongrel, even wants to audit the efficiency of reporters based on how much copy they produce in a given time. He and other news media owners are conveniently losing track of the value in depth and investigative reporting taking months and sometimes years to root out corruption in government and in the corporate world, a crucial ingredient of the fourth estate or the watchdog aspect of journalism.

In the meantime, the news media, including newspapers, television and Internet sites, are bemoaning this critical loss of substantial news story capability. Those complaints extend to such industry related sites as Investigative Reporters and Editors and The Center For Investigative Reporting promoting in-depth and investigative reporting.

Yet it appears that few news promoting organizations countrywide are doing anything to help freelance or investigative reporters. They promise grants and computer assistance, but little help is forthcoming. Internet or newspapers sites that very occasionally accept in-depth or investigative reporting pay nothing or several hundred dollars for reporting that can take months to investigate and write just a first draft.

But even worse: These news sites and the news industry promoters don?t encourage freelance investigative reporting.

So there we are! The news industry is shrinking; the news media now reports crime and scandals; and in-depth and investigative reporting is dying out because no one in the industry appears ready to help experienced reporters and writers create critical, time-consuming stories exposing political, corporate and other forms of corruption. Somebody somewhere in this business needs to wake up. Otherwise, the USA will become a corrupt third-world nation uncovered by its news media.

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