Watchdogs, Not Lap Dogs: Editors at ASNE Highlight Need for Probes

By: Joe Strupp

As managing editor of The Seattle Times and president of Investigative Reporters and Editors, David Boardman is well-situated to see the inherent friction that can occur between reporters who want to dig into big investigative projects, and editors who may not have the resources.

Still, the longtime IRE leader declared that such in-depth work needs to continue and urged both those who do the writing and the ones who direct them to make such efforts feasible.

?Watchdog reporting is hard, it costs money and takes energy,? Boardman told a roomful of editors Thursday during the American Society of Newspaper Editors conference here. ?Why should we do investigative reporting? First of all, it is our responsibility.? Then, in a dig at the growing Web news outlets, he added, ?You?re not going to see Bill Gates do it or the bathrobe-wearing bloggers.?

He also cited the opportunity in this country to do such work, compared to those in more-repressed societies. ?Journalists around the world are dying for the right to do it,? he said. ?And for us not to is unconscionable.?

With that opening shot, Boardman went on to explain that investigative reporting is not only essential, but more easily done than some might think. While admitting that costs and resources can run high for some projects, he stressed that the right organizing can make them more feasible.

?Nothing gets more response from readers than investigative reporting,? Boardman contended. ?It is the future, especially for newspapers in the cacophony of content providers.? He pointed out that a newspaper with good investigative efforts can lure the best reporters who want to work on such projects. ?We don?t do it for awards, but it doesn?t hurt, especially in recruitment,? he said. ?They know about our newspaper because of the investigative reporting.?

Boardman explained that, in his newsroom, the best reporting begins with street-level beat reporters snooping for ideas, especially through public records. ?They start with questions to which they don?t have answers,? he said. ?They tell readers something that those in power don?t want them to tell.?

He then brought in three editors from newspapers that have drawn praise in the past year for a variety of news stories that resulted from extensive investigative planning and execution. Each offered their story of taking the investigative approach to different outcomes.

Mark Katches, a senior team leader of the Orange County Register, said his paper won a Pulitzer for fertility fraud in 1996, among other acclaimed probes, but decided to expand in this direction even more in 2001, creating an eight-person investigative unit. But Katches said the unit has reporters in each news department, such as business, sports, education and the environment, instead of in a separate unit.

?They are all beat-based,? said Katches. ?We didn?t go off in some room down the hall or on a different floor. They are sitting side-by-side with the beat reporters in the newsroom. That is hugely important.?

Katches said such a set-up allowed the paper to break several investigative stories. ?They key is talking about it,? Katches said. ?Even if you don?t have a big investigative team, encourage your reporters to hold brown-bag lunches to talk about the things.? He said the paper is planning to go into the community starting this summer and hold seminars aimed at teaching the public about FOI laws and urging them to pass on story ideas. ?We are going to end up with a network of tipsters,? he said.

For Shawn McIntosh, deputy managing editor at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, investigative planning in the past few years has included extensive training for every reporter in public records reviews, which included an online ?scavenger hunt? in which they were required to track down things like criminal records and mortgage data of some local notables.

The training paid off in an unusual way, McIntosh explained, when the Atlanta courthouse shooting occurred last year. Not only did the paper blanket coverage of the breaking story, but it also used its investigative planning to find inside stories on the event.

Among the things the paper dug up in the first few days after the shooting: The courthouse had suffered ?rampant? absenteeism on Fridays, the same day the shooting occurred.

McIntosh said reporters even used public information requests to get records from the courthouse?s uniform supply company, which indicated what sizes guards wore to determine how many were unfit. ?It would not surprise you that many were extra, extra large,? she said.

The editor?s point was that investigative planning and execution does not have to be limited to the long, drawn-out report or series: ?Our newspaper was thinking like a watchdog.?

Then there is Ron Royhab, executive editor of The Toledo Blade, which won a Pulitzer two years ago for uncovering evidence of the destruction of a village in Vietnam in 1967 by U.S. soldiers, and proof that it had been covered up. This past year, the paper scored another coup by exposing a rare coin investment scandal involving a prominent Republican fundraiser and the state?s workers compensation fund. That probe won the paper a Pulitzer finalist nod.

After explaining that the paper had dug up the scandal as the result of initial reporting on the investor, Tom Noe, for a simple feature story, Royhab said that the decision was made to invest the resources. ?It was a trade-off and it put a lot of pressure on the city desk,? Royhab admitted about the choice to devote six reporters to the story. ?When reporters come to you or you go to them with an idea, you have to make it happen.?

When reporters sought public records on the coin investments, state officials declined, prompting the paper to sue for access, and win. ?When a public official at any level refuses to follow Ohio?s public records law, we sue,? Royhab said. ?That is a standing rule.?

That suit resulted in 500,000 pages of documents, which the paper dove into and, eventually, uncovered numerous stories of misappropriated funds, poor management, and political pressure that led all the way to the governor. In the end, Noe was indicted on 53 counts, and Gov. Robert Taft was convicted of a misdemeanor for failing to disclose gifts he received from some of those involved.

During a question and answer session, the issue of space limitations arose, prompting editors to stress that not every investigative project has to be a week-long series of 3,000-word pieces.

?We are taking a harder look at whether we want to do a series that goes beyond three days,? Katches said. Boardman pointed to the growing Internet option that can allow unlimited space for not only stories, but photos, graphics, audio files and even documents themselves. ?It frees us up to not weigh the print product down,? he said.

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