The retrenchment is a sign of the times. Across the board, newsrooms have taken big hits as circulation and revenues plummet. Investigative reporting teams haven’t escaped the carnage.
The dramatic decline in resources creates huge challenges for newsrooms that are struggling to fulfill their role as watchdogs.
Into that growing void comes California Watch, a new investigative reporting team started this summer by the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting.
Over the past few months we have assembled the largest investigative reporting unit operating in California today. Our final batch of reporters arrived this week. We are now fully deployed with a staff of 12 reporters, editors and multimedia producers. Our first big project will land Friday. It’s about waste and misspending in the state’s homeland security grant programs. If all goes as planned, the story will be distributed to more than a dozen news organizations across the state at a minimal charge. Those newspapers, Web sites and TV stations are paying for an early jump on the story.
We’ve built this formidable new reporting team thanks to generous contributions from the James Irvine Foundation, the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Our goal is to produce scores of high-impact investigative stories each year. California Watch reporters will juggle quick-turn investigative stories and more ambitious, time-consuming projects.
And not a moment too soon. Investigative reporting resources have taken one hit after another in mainstream newsrooms up and down the state.
Consider what has happened at the Los Angeles Times, the state’s largest newspaper. When former editor John Carroll presided over the newsroom earlier this decade, the Times reached new heights, winning a string of Pulitzers. Carroll’s newsroom built two investigative reporting units – one in California and another in Washington, D.C. The combined investigative teams included about 20 journalists. Today, the Washington team is less than half the size. The Los Angeles team has shrunk to four reporters.
The Times is by no means the exception. Across the state, investigative teams are smaller than they used to be. The San Francisco Chronicle’s investigative team peaked at around six reporters and editors earlier this decade. Today, it no longer exists. The Chronicle’s last man standing, Lance Williams, came to work for California Watch a few weeks ago.
That doesn’t mean the Chronicle and the L.A Times aren’t capable of doing outstanding investigative reporting. The Times, in fact, continues to produce top-rate in-depth work. The paper won a Pulitzer last year in explanatory reporting, and reporter Paul Pringle was a finalist in the investigative reporting category. This year, the paper’s Sacramento bureau has detailed how state officials are using taxpayer funds to pay for personal travel and other perks. There have been other strong watchdog stories. Although the Times no longer has as many full-time investigative reporters, the newsroom still devotes a lot of resources to watchdog journalism, mostly from beat reporters who are given time to pursue project work. Still, a great deal of the experienced, dedicated resources are gone.
And there’s no denying that at newspapers throughout California, there has been a sharp decline in the reporting ranks. In many small and medium-sized newsrooms around the state, reporters pursuing investigations today are typically beat reporters trying to juggle breaking news and other demands. They may not have the time to fully explore stories that require deep dives. Some newsrooms buck this trend. The Sacramento Bee has actually increased its investigative reporting resources, according to editor Melanie Sill.
High-impact investigative journalism takes considerable time and resources. Story for story, it’s by far the most expensive type of journalism any newsroom will produce. I’ve been involved with stories that have taken reporters years to complete. Before joining California Watch as editorial director, for instance, I oversaw a project at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel that ran more than 22 months and cost, by my conservative estimate, close to $500,000 in salaries, news gathering and production costs. The series about the failures of federal regulators to protect the public from dangerous chemicals was worth every penny. The reporters Susanne Rust, Meg Kissinger (both mostly full time on the project) and Cary Spivak (who worked on the initial stories for about six months) generated one jaw-dropping story after another. The top editors in Milwaukee, Managing Editor George Stanley and Editor Marty Kaiser are committed to this kind of journalism, no matter the costs. Sadly, not every newsroom sees it the same way.
So what can California Watch do about an industry-wide problem?
We believe we can help other newsrooms publish important stories about critical issues with minimal expense to them. We don’t view ourselves as a competitor of other newsrooms. Far from it. With our reporting resources, we can help the state’s newsrooms that want to publish more high-impact stories but may no longer have the resources to go it alone.
In some cases, we will work side by side with newspapers, TV or radio stations, online publications or other nonprofit start-ups. In other cases, like our homeland security package, we will deliver finished stories that we complete on our own.
Ultimately, we believe our projects represent the type of journalism sorely needed – stories that spark debate and generate solutions in a state facing immense fiscal and governance challenges.