Government watchdogging on a budget: having fewer reporters doesn't mean you can't take on the big guys.
DURING THE LAST WEEK OF DECEMBER 2008, AFTER THE last of a series of voluntary buyouts cost him two-thirds of his employees, The Times of Trenton publisher Brian S. Malone knew he had to pacify his staff. Wracked by five months of negative news coverage that started when the paper's parent company, Advance Publications, announced that both The Times anal its sister paper The Star-Ledger in Newark were "on life support" and would be sold unless 225 non-unionized workers accepted the buyouts, Malone knew this wasn't going to be his usual state-of-the-newspaper address he gave every January. His paper already had lost some $5 million and its news staff had tumbled from 75 to 25 (including part-timers).
"Everything had changed," said Malone. "I gathered our little staff together and told them, we can still do great journalism. And I repeated those words a year later, and we did it. We've done it. We continue to try very hard to write substantive stories."
Malone's shrunken staff took webinars on how to track the federal government's stimulus money, and even though it was one of Jersey's smallest newspapers (50,000 plus circulation) it was the first in the state to tell readers which roads would be fixed and which nonprofits were going to get the cash.
Following the money is one way newspapers can keep up the role of government watchdog, even in tight economic times, said Joe Bergantino, director of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, who also led a three-day seminar for The Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., called "Investigating Local Government on a Budget." The conference was aimed at showing reporters and editors what was realistic with a small staff. To prevent research from being overwhelming, stick to one investigative area. such as looking into campaign donations or examining city expense reports.
"The best investigative reporting is done in following the dollars," said Bergantino, but added that many staffs sell themselves short. "There's a lot of computer-assisted reporting, but a lot of reporters don't know how to do it. Some newsrooms don't even understand the Freedom of Information Act ... or the power of the public records law. But this can be a manageable story in a newsroom organization. Yeah, you might have to do some work at night or on the weekends."
With newspaper staffs shrinking by 25 percent and advertising revenues falling 43 percent in the past three years, according to the Pew Research Center's Project for Excellence in Journalism, local news coverage has had to take a back seat in some areas. In its place is more general coverage, which may be one reason that for years, eight city officials in the mostly poor, immigrant city of Bell, Calif., got away with a salary scandal that the Los Angeles County district attorney called "corruption on steroids."
Eastern Group Publications, which owns bilingual newspapers across the U.S. and covers several nearby cities, wasn't paying attention and the Los Angeles Times had its hands full covering Bell and 87 other cities, not to mention a plethora of school boards, water boards, commissions, and the like. Suspicious Bell citizens wondered aloud for years why their property taxes and garbage bills were so high, but no reporters were there to hear them, and they didn't bother or know how to pursue the truth. Eventually, the story was leaked to the Times, and all eight officials were arrested in September; some charged with raking in Beverly Hills-type salaries, setting up huge pensions and other crimes. The Bell saga, which still is unfolding as of this writing, prompted newspaper staffs across the country to sit up and take notice. City government salary stories started popping up as editors wondered, "What if it's happening in our city?"
"We're in a moment," said Robert Rosenthal, executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting (CIR) in San Francisco, one of dozens of regionally based nonprofits that focus on coming up with breaking and expository journalism to share with local media. His reporters have investigative experience--Harper's Magazine, The Washington Post, Los Angeles Times--albeit many of them have been laid off from those organizations. But they can fill in where newspapers simply can't.
"The numbers tell the story--there are fewer reporters everywhere," Rosenthal said. "Beats that were once covered with the newsroom (dedicating) four to six people covering a courthouse, now they have one, if that. They can create hyperlocal or local news organizations, bur we will never get back to the numbers we had."
While CIR is the oldest nonprofit investigative center, started in 1977, others have cropped up in the last few years as newspaper staffs have dwindled. The centers range from the largest such as ProPublica, which already has a Pulitzer Prize in collaboration with The New York Times Magazine for a story about doctors who worked after Hurricane Katrina hit; and The Center for Public Integrity, which in October joined forces with the Huffington Post to produce nonpartisan journalism; to a host of smaller, but just as news-savvy centers that focus on regions around the United States. The New England Center for Investigative Reporting, run by Bergantino out of a classroom at Boston University, for instance, offers a "Public Eye" project: a series of investigative stories that newspapers can run monthly for $500 a pop. It uses two full-time employees, plus freelancers, researchers, and students.
The trend seems to be paying off. CIR launched California Watch to focus only on state issues. A recent investigation on optional C-sections in nonprofit and for-profit birthing centers had a print circulation of 2.3 million in California alone, Rosenthal said. It also was published in other newspapers, websites, and on radio and television. And the numbers ran several hundred thousand in the San Francisco Bay Area (it doesn't have official tracking data yet). The center charges for-profit news organizations from $50 to $400 for use of their data, depending on size and profit status, he said. "They understand we save them a tremendous amount of money, (they get) the research and an interactive map. Plus, they're getting a front-page story. That's one of the methods to make up for this loss of a beat."
But Rosenthal admits even CIR, which is supported by dozens of foundations and other funders, is challenged financially. In 2008, when Rosenthal took over, he had seven staffers and a budget south of $1 million. Today, he has 28 people and a budget over $4 million. "It's a big challenge for all of us to keep it going," he said. And being supported by foundations has drawn criticism from those who say the wealthy contributors dictate content, bur Rosenthal disagrees.
"Believe it or not, these are people--and I've met a lot of them--who care about the role of journalism and democracy. From our point of view, there is not any agenda. We are not being told what to cover or how to cover it."
Transparency in organization funding is critical, said Brant Houston. chair of Investigative News Network (INN), which opened last year and already has doubled the number of nonprofit news organization alliances (51 in the U.S. and Canada) it works with to provide stories to publishers. Donors range from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to Buzz Woolley, a San Diego philanthropist and founder of a successful hyperlocal site, VoiceOfSanDiego.org.
Tiny Kentucky Newspaper Brings Down Sheriff
Sometimes dogged determination is all a newspaper needs to crack an investigative story. Such is the case of a tiny rural Kentucky newspaper that brought down the town sheriff with only a part-time student writer and an overworked editor.
For the last year, Samantha Swindler, former managing editor of the Times-Tribune in Corbin, Ky., was unrelenting in her pursuit of Whitley County Sheriff Lawrence Hodge, said her former publisher, Bill Hanson. It paid off. Hodge was arrested Nov. 9 after a special grand jury handed down a 21-count indictment against him with charges that included abuse of the tax collecting process, tampering with evidence, and taking official money for personal use. Swindler, who was the photographer, page designer, and writer at the 6,000-circulation Times-Tribune, worked 70-hour weeks chasing down the story, said Hanson, now publisher of The Evening News in Jeffersonville, Ind.
"This story was one of those things that stunk to high heaven, and she just wasn't going to let it out of her teeth. It tells me that in some places, journalism is alive and well. It certainly is in Corbin, Ky. But that's not real common, that's the truth of the matter."
Hanson said Swindler (now general manager of the Tillamook Headlight-Herald in Portland, Ore.) and student Adam S. Sulfridge kept investigating the sheriff even though no other paper was on board.
"The competing weekly in town would not touch this story for anything," Hanson said. "The bigger papers weren't doing anything. We started to think, 'Dear Lord, are we doing the right thing?' But every time we turned around and found something new, it confirmed we were on the right track."
The sheriff stopped talking to the newspaper and although he was a powerful figure in town, Hanson never had to worry about how it would affect the business of the newspaper. He had support of Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., the paper's owners.
"I never had to defend us one time to our advertisers," Hanson said. "Even if we had, I would have said bye."
"There are worries that there are going to be political agendas, but the proof is in the pudding,' Houston said. "People have to know who your donors are so they can make their own decisions."
Houston said it's especially important because INN and other nonprofit newsrooms are starting to separate themselves from mainstream media even though most of the reporters come from it.
"They came from newsrooms; they grew up in it," he said. "Maybe they were laid off or they just wanted to do more investigative journalism. In the end, the community, the readers, and the people who look at the websites are better served. It can be a very robust collaboration."
In Ohio, the state's eight largest newspapers threw competition to the wind and banded together to form the Ohio News Organization and work together on investigative stories. Last year, they decided to take on the state government's pension fund policies and exposed a double-dipping salary scandal involving school superintendants and elected officials, as well as other costly problems throughout the state. The papers--The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, The Cincinnati Enquirer, The Columbus Dispatch, the Dayton Daily News, the Akron Beacon Journal, The Blade in Toledo, The Repository in Canton, and The Vindicator in Youngstown--pooled reporters and editors, with one paper agreeing to lead the project.
"What's interesting about it is that when the story hits, it's in every paper on the same day across the state," said Ben Marrison, editor of The Dispatch, which took the lead on the first pension project that ran last January. "That is so powerful. It's an attention-getter in the legislature. Unfortunately, they won't say it publically ... bur we've heard from (legislators) privately that we've made an impact ... and they are going to make changes."
The eight papers also pooled resources to pay for statewide polling, a move that would have cost each paper about $30,000 per poll if they had taken it on separately. By basing the cost to each paper on circulation percentages, the 200,O00-circulation Dispatch only had to pay $6,000 for two polls in 2010, Marrison said.
In Philadelphia, the William Penn Foundation chose 14 in-depth projects within the city and gave $5,000 to each so that news organizations could collaborate on the coverage. All deal with pressing issues in the city and are as diverse as a follow-up on the top 10 drug corners in Philly to creating a Web-based guide that will reveal the social and political connections of everyone who sits on a governmental board or commission.
Not all newspapers can pay for investigative reporting, so they simply do it the best that they can because they are all the community has. No one knows that better than Sherry Chisenhall, editor and vice president of news for The Wichita Eagle in Kansas. After three rounds of layoffs two years ago, she lost about a third of the newsroom and currently works with 24 (including part-timers). But she left the city hall beat alone, making no changes.
"Wichita is the biggest city in this area, the biggest city in Kansas. Before we might have tried to be really good at 10 different things, and now it's four things. Watchdoggang city and county government has to be one of those four."
Readers don't always understand that the coverage they counted on has been pared. As a community newspaper, The Eagle poured through housing code reports to find violations and during the recent elections did complete background checks on every candidate.
"We are the primary outlet for journalism that is going to have any depth to it," Chisenhall said. "There is a real responsibility that comes with that. We talk about this in our newsroom all the time. (We ask,) is anyone going to do this? No? Then we have to."
Eager to step in to fill the void if newspapers can't is AOL's Patch.com, which hires editors and reporters locally, as well as other non-newspaper hyperlocal sites started by whoever gets there first. The danger is one of ethics. Bergantino said.
"They are ethical landmines," he said. "And the ethics in general ... like engaging in deception in pursuit of a story. And privacy laws--investigative reporters must be fully aware of the laws. The reality is you can train most people to learn how to do journalism in a way that most people would find acceptable in terms of the verification process ... but that is not the answer. The answer is to have people and editors and newsrooms have a watchdog mentality."
Malone said when be speaks to the Rotary Clubs and other community-minded groups, people tell him they don't know what they'd do without The Times of Trenton. "Maybe they're just trying to make me feel good. but I don't think so," Malone said. "They need a good newspaper to know what's going on. We've been in this community since 1882."
And Malone knows that some of those same people aren't interested in reading the paper's online version at NJ.com. So he does his best to keep watch on Trenton and surrounding areas, by using freelancers to cover some of the government meetings in nearby counties and continuing "to do good journalism; with stories such as an expose on overblown property taxes and sky-high police salaries.
"It might take three to four months to get it done. But the point is, you can do it. If we don't, who will?"
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|Comment:||Government watchdogging on a budget: having fewer reporters doesn't mean you can't take on the big guys.|
|Author:||Nenad, Deena Higgs|
|Publication:||Editor & Publisher|
|Date:||Dec 1, 2010|
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