Investigative journalism is often the stuff of drama. Exposing corruption, abuse, inequality and crimes are inherently good, juicy stories—not to mention a core competency and duty for newspapers. It wouldn’t surprise anyone in news to hear that investigative journalism is not just popular among broadcast audiences, but with people who read newspapers in print and online. After all, investigative reporting helps people; it informs communities; it changes things; and thankfully, for the news organization, it brings in revenue.
On Epstein’s Case
These days Miami Herald reporter Julie K. Brown is in hot demand. Not only is she managing the stress of her day-to-day duties as an investigative journalist for the Herald, she’s fielding requests for comment on her explosive exposé series that was published last November on Jeffrey Epstein, the financier accused of sex trafficking and sexually abusing dozens of underage girls.
It was Brown’s relentless probing that drew national attention to the case and those who orchestrated a sweetheart sentencing deal or refused to follow-up on additional allegations. The work also redirected the legal spotlight back to Epstein, who, at the time E&P spoke with Brown, was facing a litany of new charges. Epstein was found dead in his jail cell of an apparent suicide on Aug. 10.
At the Herald, Brown said investigative journalism is “driven by the reporters who have to do the legwork. This is worth telling. It bubbles up from the bottom, not the other way around…we are stretched thin, so we have to advocate our stories and show our editors, here’s why I want to tell the story, here’s why it’s important.”
One of those proving-ground stories was an investigation into Florida’s prison system. The fallout from that story saw prison guards and supervisors fired. Without hyperbole, Brown said, “We probably saved lives as a result of that project.”
“You will be surprised how readers will value exposing or making institutions more transparent and holding them accountable. That’s what people really want to read,” she said.
Brown is certainly doing her part. Her reporting on Epstein had an impact on the fiscal health of the news organization.
“When the series first launched, we had a special link buried within the story. People could click on it (and subscribe),” she said. “I can’t give you an exact number, but we got an enormous volume of subscriptions that we could trace exactly to the launch of that series…I was told that my series, more than anything else in (parent company) McClatchy newspapers last year, got the most subscriptions.”
Reader feedback is a good way to understand how stories resonate with readers. “It made me realize how much investigative journalism means to people. That’s the bottom line,” Brown said. “The message I received, above all, is that investigative journalism like this means so much to the public…I’ve never seen anything like it in my entire journalism career—a response like that, from people who not only appreciated the journalism, but also from sexual assault survivors.”
She added, “I began to notice comments from people on Twitter and hear stories of people from all over the country who had read the series and subscribed to the Miami Herald as a result. I hear it all the time from people in Seattle, Oregon, Texas, California. It’s kind of amazing.”
Our “Fundamental Responsibility”
At the Detroit Free Press, reporters need not have the designation “investigative” as part of their titles to be tasked with work of its kind. Editor and vice president Peter Bhatia has put together a dedicated investigative team; however, he said, “We also expect our beat reporters to do investigative work, as well. For example, we have an environmental reporter who has done some really good work on PFAs contamination, and probably the best example as of late is the work one of our auto reporters has done—an incredibly high-impact investigation that showed Ford put cars on the road, knowingly, with faulty transmissions. That’s evoked a huge reaction nationally.”
According to Bhatia, the coverage of Ford’s malfeasance has compelled more than a million page views, and like the layers of an unpeeled onion, the story exposed enumerable follow-up questions and allegations to investigate.
The newsroom minds how its work resonates with audiences.
“We’re journalists,” Bhatia said. “We want people to read our work, and we want them to engage with our work, so we pay attention to the metrics on how stories are doing. But the message I’ve tried to impart here is: Audience is important. We want people to read our work and act upon it, as appropriate, but that can’t be the sole reason for doing it. We’re doing that work because we have a fundamental obligation to be the eyes and ears of the public.”
Bhatia sees investigations as being the newspaper’s “fundamental responsibility,” but the value proposition—to subscribers and advertisers—has to be well-rounded.
“I’m realistic about the countless reasons why people will want our product,” he said. “We have a huge audience, for example, who wants our sports coverage. Detroit is a sports-crazy place…Depending on how you parse the data, about 40 percent of our audience is sports driven. You can’t minimize that, but the investigative work we do? There’s absolutely no doubt that it has an impact on the bottom line. Those page views? Those unique visitors? They’re being monetized.”
Understanding Investigative Audiences
Todd Lighty has been an investigative reporter for the Chicago Tribune for more than two decades and describes himself as a “generalist,” which means that he may be tasked to any number of investigative assignments, but much of his recent work has been focused on politics and sports.
One topic that consistently performs well with readers is wealth or wealth disparity. For example, he wrote a series on Illinois Gov. J. B. Pritzker’s “mansion row” on Chicago’s Gold Coast—an enclave of 10 side-by-side residences. The governor lived in one of those homes and had a rather contentious legal dispute with a contractor he’d enlisted to improve the property.
“The lawsuit got ugly, and I delved into it—not so much the dispute between the parties, but the lengths to which Pritzker went to hide his wealth. He does not want that to become public,” Lighty said. “He refused to release his tax returns, but after numerous requests, he gave us his federal returns, but only the first pages and none of the schedules that would give the public an idea of his wealth and where it is. A lot of it is offshore.”
Asked why he thought this particular story resonated with Tribune readers, Lighty suggested that many people are still struggling to recover from “the Great Recession,” making wealth inequality a timely topic. “I’m talking about much more than Robin Leach’s ‘Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.’ I’m talking about really practical matters, what it means to people…The story about the governor’s mansion did really well in Springfield (the state capital), and we know that it did really well on the Gold Coast and among Pritzker’s neighbors. I’m glad we understand the audience that way.”
Reporters and publishers also have direct, real-time feedback from readers, Lighty pointed out, but gleaning audience insight from social media or web comments may be skewed because of coordinated troll campaigns against a story, a reporter or a newspaper. Plus, social media readers usually don’t read past the headline.
“I mentioned the Pritzker mansion story because the data we looked at indicated that we picked up a number of subscriptions,” Lighty said. “I believe it was the most subscriptions we’d gotten in a week—16. That’s not a lot, but if you get 16 from one story, and 16 from another story, and you retain these subscribers, that’s great. The second thing we noticed is that the story resonated with people who were already paying for a digital subscription, so that speaks to retention.”
Lighty said churn is a bane for every newspaper today, and investigative journalism may be a way to quell it.
“The Pritzker mansion story took me about a month, but it was worth the investment,” he said. “It was heartening to know that people read it, that they were willing to pay for it, and that the people who were already paying for it also appreciated it.”
In Kansas, the public’s appetite for deep-diving information about healthcare has been insatiable, according to Stephen Wade, publisher of the Topeka Capital-Journal and senior group publisher at GateHouse Media Kansas.
“We’re a rural state, and healthcare has been a challenge,” he said.
Though Wade did not have any hard data-driven evidence that the newspapers’ reporting on the topic has converted readers into subscribers, he is certain that it’s contributing to the bottom line.
“There’s some anecdotal evidence out there from a single-copy side, but I think it’s probably difficult to nail down evidence on a home-delivery subscriber side,” he said. “We can all see that when a story breaks there are some bumps in single copy.”
The sharing of content offers some insight into audience, too.
“Today is the first of August, and we had a story that came out at the end of July—again, on the healthcare issue, which focused on Medicare, Medicaid and the Affordable Care Act,” Wade said. “That story was shared 5,500 times on Twitter since it published. From a soft-evidence side, that story is one that ran across platforms and got some serious social traction.”
Asked what role the newspaper’s investigative reporting plays in selling the value proposition to advertisers, Wade said it doesn’t hurt to demonstrate the effectiveness of the newspaper. It encourages advertisers to think not just about promoting their brands but also about supporting essential journalism.
“We had a popular governor here in Kansas—a Republican, a former U.S. Senator,” Wade said, recalling the Sam Brownback administration of 2011 to 2018. “He came in and tried to do some very significant fiscal cuts to the state budget, and he really sold the state and his constituency that this was the right path. What reporters Tim Carpenter and Sherman Smith were able to do through their investigations was to show that the things Brownback was doing at that time have been hurtful to state.”
In Topeka, the newsroom benefits from the scale and reach of the GateHouse Media organization (the company recently acquired Gannett in August). There is a lot of collaboration between the publisher’s investigative reporters and a sharing of resources. Still, the newspaper has the luxury of the two dedicated statehouse journalists, who are on that beat from January to May each year, allowing them to be assigned to other investigative pieces for the balance of the year.
“Our business right now, I would argue, is at risk,” Wade said. “If we don’t perform our jobs as the Fourth Estate, if we’re not the watchdogs, then our whole industry has a massive challenge.”
Investigative Reporting Pays Off
Christopher Davis oversees a team of investigative journalists as both the executive editor of investigations at USA Today and the vice president of investigative reporting at Gannett. The hierarchy is similar to what you may find in most newsrooms, he said, except that many of the reporters are based across the country and digitally collaborate with the central newsroom in Washington, D.C. They’re also led by three investigative editors: Amy Pyle, investigations editor; Matt Doig, network investigations editor; and John Kelly, director of data journalism.
“There is a great appetite for investigative journalism,” Davis said. “The work that my team does is generally and consistently among the most read work that we produce. We’re a pretty metrics-oriented company. Like many newsrooms, we’re looking at how our individual pieces do in real time and assessing whether we’ve produced them in ways that are engaging audiences as much as we expected. The numbers are always good when we produce a piece of investigative work.”
Regarding the “investment” in investigative journalism, Davis pointed out that there’s a misconception both in the industry and outside of it that investigative reporting is long, arduous and expensive—and it can be. However, that’s a narrow definition.
“Investigative journalism is simply about uncovering something that someone doesn’t want uncovered,” he said. “It’s about something that is at stake—people who are being disadvantaged or harmed. It’s not something that’s already known. That’s what makes investigative journalism so compelling—that there are high stakes and that it’s something readers are learning for the first time.”
Besides being a core competency, a duty and a public service, can investigative journalism be a smart investment for a newspaper in support of its bottom line? Davis thinks so.
“The way we talk about it here, there is certainly direct value in a great piece of journalism. You can see how many people read it, the engagement level. That is associated with revenue,” he said. “But the great value, again, is that you are engaging an audience, that you are showing them that you can do this level of work, that you have unique journalism that readers cannot find elsewhere, and that you are showing that you’re the watchdog for the communities you cover. There are a lot of people who appreciate that. It’s building goodwill, interest, a reputation, and all those things are very important to the business model.”