State of Investigative Reporting at Newspapers, Broadcasting

    by Mark Glaser
    April 26, 2008

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    BERKELEY, CA — I am blogging live from the conference, “Crisis in News: Symposium on Investgative Reporting,” at UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism. It is perhaps the most beautiful day outside here, with glorious blue skies, but investigative journalists are like vampires, hiding out in dark spaces when it’s warm and sunny outside. So here we are in an auditorium talking about the very serious subject of what’s going to happen to investigative journalism with newspapers cutting so many jobs.

    The first panel is about newspapers and print, and includes some heavyweights: Bill Keller, New York Times executive editor; Len Downie, Washington Post executive editor; Laurie Hays, deputy managing editor at the Wall Street Journal; David Boardman, executive editor at the Seattle Times; and Clara Jeffery, co-editor of Mother Jones. Here are some highlights from the panel:


    Bill Keller: There aren’t that many people doing exclusive web stuff, there’s Josh Marshall and Smoking Gun, but you need lawyers to help you. There can be great reporting done by one great reporter on a mission. I don’t see it as a threat I see it as a good thing. We will treat them as partners.

    Larie Hays, WSJ: Our new owners are intensely interested in beating the sites and doing investigative stories. The investigative things are great, because stories can go on the Internet and newspapers don’t have to wait for the presses to run.

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    Len Downie and Bill Keller

    Len Downie: We’re getting much better at linking to outside sources, including competitors as well.

    Bill Keller: We’ve come to take journalism schools more seriously. [audience laughs] No, we used to hire people according to clips and the academic background isn’t as important. I didn’t go to journalism school, there used to be a grizzled editor who would help young reporters figure it out, but those grizzled editors are gone now so the schools are more important.

    Clara Jeffery, Mother Jones: There used to be more beginning positions at newspapers and smaller magazines have scaled down their staff jobs. All these places that feed the Pulitzer winners at bigger papers — those sources are drying up, and I find that worrisome.

    Q: How willing are people on the Internet to read long-form 7000 word pieces? How do we do these long features?

    Len Downie: Pew found that people will follow to the end of stories online. The story has to be compelling enough to get people to keep going, and we found that was the case with Walter Reed. We did a 27-part series on washingtonpost.com about how a lobbying firm operates. It wasn’t our most read piece on the web, but in the community of lobbyists it was intensely read, and people argued about them in comments. We have another experiment like that coming that will be even more read.

    You can do other things on the web, we did a series on IEDs, and it included video interviews with soldiers in Iraq, very dramatic, how you approach buildings and not get blown up.

    David Boardroom, Seattle Times: I think longer stories actually are better in print. We want people to read the story in print and then to go online to the web to read more, to read the whole thing.

    Len Downie: Getting people to go back and forth between the mediums is hard to do. We have a lot of print-only readers who resent it when we send them to the web. But we do have the opportunity to get web readers to start reading print again.

    Q: Investigative reporters have to be very enterprising. What happens when they spend a lot of time on something that doesn’t pan out. Can that continue in this day and age?

    Bill Keller: It is continuing. People who do this drill a lot of dry holes. The economic forces and dismissive attitudes about attention spans of American readers, and they hit you saying ‘Can we afford to have that staff?’

    Len Downie: It is a problem now because you need to figure out whether to keep going on a story or not. This tension was always there. I remember as a young investigative reporter in the ’60s I had to convince my editor to keep going on something.

    David Boardroom: It does require us as the leaders of newsrooms to impose more discipline. We have to pick our spots. We have a relatively small group of people who specialize in this and we make a discipline of picking the right stories.

    Clara Jeffery: We wanted to do 24/7 coverage on the web, but you might go down rabbit holes and the story might not materialize, and that was a crucial decision for us adding more staff reporters.


    Interestingly, the big newspaper editors (NYT, WaPo, WSJ) didn’t seem to think there was much of a crisis in investigative journalism at newspapers — at least in their houses. I’m not going to make it a drinking game, but Keller did throw out the first comment about there not being very much investigative journalism online. He must have missed my post yesterday with the big honking list of what’s happened online.

    Again, I’ll be one of the questioners for the web panel here, so if you have burning questions to ask, I will pass them on the panel. Drop the question in the comments below.

    Broadcasting Panel

    Up next: Broadcasting Panel, with Jeff Fager of “60 Minutes”; David Fanning of PBS Frontline; Brian Ross of ABC News; Daniel Zwerdling of NPR; and Anna Werner of KPIX in San Francisco.

    Intro for David Fanning: He won 41 Emmys among other awards. Wow.

    Google CEO Eric Schmidt is in the house? Why? He was out in the hallway talking to Bill Keller of the New York Times, bad-mouthing Microsoft, from what I overheard (and Twittered as well). I wonder if Schmidt is hoping that by being friendly with investigative types they won’t go after Google? Hmmm.

    Now the Broadcast Panel:

    Q: We’ve all heard the woes of investigative reporting. What is the biggest hurdle? Financial? Political?

    Jeff Fager, CBS: It’s amazing how many less people are doing this at other networks. There’s Brian Ross at ABC and I don’t know who’s doing it at NBC. It’s very expensive and very hard. It takes a long time and there’s not a lot of patience or money in TV news. It’s amazing how much celebrity and crime has become part of the news. We are doing less celebrity coverage now [at “60 Minutes”] because it’s being done everywhere else. A lot of broadcast investigative reporting, if it isn’t done well, it doesn’t keep the viewers. I think the risk involved is huge as well. Every network has been hit with a mistake.

    It’s amazing what happened with Lowell Bergman at CBS [with the tobacco report being smothered]. I haven’t had that experience at CBS.

    Brian Ross, ABC: The biggest obstacle for me is legal. The investigative reporting is what sets us apart and gives us value.

    Daniel Zwerdling: Investigative reporting has not been a big part of NPR, but my bosses, I’m happy to say, now want to do more investigative reporting. So far it’s been the exception to the rule. I was often in my cubicle, going off doing my projects, but there’s been pressure for me to fill the airwaves. When I was gone for a month, there was pressure building for me. Then the VP of news said he was getting rid of my position about 5 years ago, and they wanted to become the CNN of radio.

    There was a staff rebellion. They hired a new VP of news, and then he got fired, and finally, for the first time, my boss, Ellen Weiss, told me I could take off for five months. And when the stories came out, they used them to make money, it was a profit-making venture. Oh, I forgot! And then Joan Kroc gave us a quarter of a billion dollars. [audience laughs] We’re taking baby steps, but it’s an exciting time at NPR.

    It was a cultural and financial problem at NPR.

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    The audience at the symposium

    David Fanning: The difficulty for us is we haven’t been as good of an investigative unit as we could be. The commitment to do the long haul reporting in TV is very hard to do. It’s financial, and we have a reportory company and they have to turn around and do more films, so we’ve been aware that we’re reaching a crisis point and the budget for individual films has dropping. So we set up an enterprise fund so we can go drill wells [go for deep stories], and we can partner with regional newspapers who can spend a few months digging then come back and do the film.

    Jeff Fager: The tobacco story [by Lowell Bergman] was the lowest moment in the history of CBS, but I don’t see it happening now with the current ownership. No, it couldn’t happen now. We are incredibly independent. We don’t ever get a call about content. And we do tough stories about our own advertisers.

    Brian Ross, ABC: If you tell a source you will keep them confidential, you can’t really back that up. We have confidential sources and you can make the promise to keep them confidential, but you won’t be able to keep them. The Federal Shield law, now John McCain and Obama and Clinton all say they would support it, and that would be a great day if it happened.

    Q: More people get their news from local television. I looked at the top stories, and they were about UFOs, bank robberies and underaged stripper spurs national interest. [audience laughs] News directors around the country are hit with this kind of data. I know the issue is time. When you ratchet it down to 3 minutes, trying to tell a complex story, how do you get that up to 4 and a half minutes?

    Anna Werner, KPIX: It’s a process of negotiation, and you have to show that you have the goods. Fortunately our news director was the former managing editor at the SF Chronicle, so he likes real news. He likes investigation and has kept the investigative unit despite the financial pressures. You have to have a good story told well. Some stories, follow-up stories, are 2 and a half minutes, even shorter if it doesn’t merit the time.

    Q: NBC has a series called “To Catch a Predator.” What do you think about that?

    Jeff Fager, CBS: It’s disturbing on many levels. There are legal issues, and there was a case involving a suicide. I think the problem is that they are doing police work, and it would be a problem for us.

    David Fanning: It’s voyerism it’s not journalism. And they are using an outside group to do the work. The issue of predators turns out to be a tremendously exaggerated threat. The real threat to teenagers is among themselves, bullying and other things. The whole premise of the NBC show is built on a false assumption. Teenagers are the ones who say that they rarely pursue these [enticements].

    Brian Ross, ABC: NBC could not sell it, the advertisers didn’t like that. They were so close with law enforcement. The correspondent had done some good work, but he doesn’t identify himself as a reporter, he waits 15 or 20 minutes. When we watched that, we thought our people could never do that, we would identify ourselves. It was the arrangements for the raid, and who was calling the shots, and it appeared to be the correspondents as much as the local police. And NBC wanted to get the arrest done quickly so they could get out of town and lower costs.


    Check out my continuing coverage of the “Crisis in News” conference in my next blog post, “Are Veteran Media Execs the Ones Who’ll See the Future?”

    Tagged: conferences investigative reporting journalism skills logan symposium newspapers
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