The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, once employee-owned and now part of a publicly traded corporation, is not immune from industry woes ? including staff losses in the newsroom. Late last year, 55 people exited the paper in a buyout program that included about two dozen journalists.
Yet the 218,000-circulation daily employs what is perhaps the largest team of investigative reporters for a paper its size. “When I was offered this job, they told me they were building a 10-person team, which sounded amazing in this climate,” says Mark Katches, who as assistant managing editor/projects and investigations, heads up the newspaper’s Watchdog Team.
When Katches took the job in November 2006, the first person he recruited to the team from the newsroom was Dave Umhoefer ? who went on to win the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting for a series on how county employees were padding their pensions. “In these times, with the buyouts and people leaving, it just lifted the whole newsroom three feet off the ground,” says VP/ Managing Editor George Stanley.
It was the most visible payoff of the strategy adopted by Stanley and Senior VP/ Editor Marty Kaiser to extend beyond the paper’s well- regarded explanatory journalism projects (the Journal Sentinel was a finalist for those kinds of stories in 2003 and again in 2006) into more aggressive investigative reporting. “Even though we have had to face the same sort of staff reductions everyone has to face, we thought, what’s going to keep us going is the news and information they can’t get anywhere else,” Stanley says, “And we’re the only people really in the state of Wisconsin that can give readers the good, in-depth investigative journalism that really gets to the bottom of things.”
Kaiser got to know Katches, then the investigations editor for The Orange County Register, when they were judges for the Selden Ring journalism award. Attrition was shrinking the Register’s investigative team just as the Journal Sentinel was planning to bulk up its own. But Katches did not create an elite team off by itself in the newsroom. Instead, the reporters maintain beats to stay tapped into sources, and they work constantly with reporters outside the group. And they don’t lavish all their attention on projects with a capital “P,” for journalistic and career survival reasons.
“A lot of watchdog teams focus on a six-month project ? but if you just do that type of story, you run a serious risk of swinging and missing,” says Katches. “And if you swing and miss too often, when buyouts and layoffs are coming, people will look at that bloated watchdog team and say, ‘Man, they swing and miss a lot.'”
So the team also tackles quick-hit investigative pieces. They blog. They write and post on consumer protection issues on Citizen Watchdog. They create databases ? including a state salary search that is consistently among the most visited on JSOnline.com. The Watchdog team, though, works knowing that management has their back, Katches says: “It takes a lot of courage at the top, I think, to maintain a team of this size at a time when everybody’s hurting.”