Watchdog journalism: Hardly a newspaper afterthought

I’ve just helped judge a journalism contest for my alma mater, McClatchy, and have a couple of observations to report:

First, don’t believe those who argue that newspapers’ investigative reporting is so minimal that it’s easily replaced. It isn’t small, and if newspapers couldn’t do it anymore, the void would be very deep. Second, high-quality watchdog reporting isn’t simply the province of big national players doing “secret prisons” or “secret eavesdropping” stories. It’s also the heart and soul of newsrooms across the country that keep watch over their communities and regions.

I say these things not primarily to brag about the work of my former colleagues — though I’m honored to do so. I say it because the experience of reading this work of 29 McClatchy papers (covering the last half of 2008) was so at odds with the critiques I often read about newspapers today.

A press release summarizing the winners is here. But it doesn’t do justice to the depth of public-service, digging reporting that was occurring at the McClatchy newspapers.

  • The Lexington Herald-Leader discovered that the aiport’s executive director was living the life of luxury, spending more than $200,000 in travel and other expenses in just two years.The director resigned.
  • The Kansas City Star, re-examining a 20-year-old fire that killed six firefighters, caused the U.S. attorney to ask for a new review of the case that put five people in prison for life.
  • The Columbus Ledger-Enquirer revealed how a local school teacher was able to keep his job for two years even after his superiors learned that he was sexually involved with students.
  • The Charlotte Observer pulled back the curtain on an unbelievable pay and pension package given the local United Way director. The director was fired; the board chairman resigned, and the United Way apologized to the community.
  • The Raleigh News and Observer discovered a startling phenomenon: Since 2000, a total of 580 probationers had been convicted of killing in North Carolina. During that time, the state had lost track of 14,000 probationers. Initially in denial, the state is now taking remedial action.
  • Just as startling, the Miami Herald reported that the state of Florida had allowed thousands of people with criminal histories, many of them finance-related, to market home loans in the state. As a result of this 9-month investigation, Florida has moved to put an end to that practice.

I could go on. (OK, I will.The Sacramento Bee produced a powerful account of what will happen to the Sierras if global warming isn’t arrested.) You get the point. I don’t subscribe to the idea that newspapers alone can do this kind of work. It’s entirely possible that Internet-fueled networking and citizen digging will provide robust new kinds of watchdog work in years to come.

What doesn’t wash are revisionist attempts to minimize or denigrate the current work of newspaper journalists in the kind of work exemplified above. You might believe that newspapers have lost their way, or can’t figure out how to innovate, or blew it by relying on the objective model of reporting. But don’t argue that this work is somehow marginalized by newspapers’ economic decline or that papers don’t actually do watchdog reporting much because they don’t have large investigative teams. (The McClatchy entries were the work of investigative reporters, beat reporters, general assignment reporters, feature reporters.) This is powerful and abundant work that uncovers the secrets of wrongdoers and makes communities better.