You can’t be a journalist and not admire the investigative reporting of the Washington Post and the New York Times. Actually, you can’t be a citizen who believes in good government and not appreciate their work, though I know some partisans disagree. The Times, at least, has seen its subscriptions soar, too.
So, why haven’t local newspapers followed suit with more tough-minded investigative reporting in their communities? In North Carolina, if they are, I haven’t seen it. Every Sunday for five years, I’ve looked at the front pages of North Carolina newspapers.
Outside of the News & Observer and the Charlotte Observer, there are few signs of investigative work. (From today’s N&O, for instance.) That’s a shame because a skeptical person — me — knows that shenanigans are going on in the state capital. The N&O and Observer do what they can, but they can’t do it all. The state’s larger newspapers –Greensboro, Fayetteville, Winston, Asheville, Wilmington — should be all over what’s happening in Raleigh and their communities. Instead, other media are filling the gap.
I understand that investigative reporting takes time and that newspaper staffs are stretched thin. But if you’re not raising hell, why are you in the business?
Four or five years ago, I said that were I able to do it over again, I would focus on investigative reporting and “good news” stories. (My friend at WFMY Bailey Pennington describes one type of “good news” stories here.) How? By eliminating other topics you write about. Newspapers spend too much time on crime, on government meetings that produce little significant news, on “stuff” that gets a reporter a byline but little readership. You’re not going to be “the paper of record” any longer. It’s clear by your subscription numbers that people don’t value that.
Smaller papers aren’t exempt. You make a difference in your community by telling people what they don’t know about issues they care about. Small town governments have corruption, graft and influence peddling, too.
You may think you have to fill the paper? Do you? Is it helpful to publish information that most people don’t care about? Does “filling the paper” serve many of the principles of journalism? If you feel you must, be creative. Get your readers to help. Use organizations and clubs to help. Curate stories from other publications.
Meanwhile, how do you start finding your own stories? Look at travel records and expense accounts. Examine who gets the building contracts and who is getting the pay raises and big salaries. Subscribe to newsletters like CJR and Local Matters and steal ideas. Steal, steal, steal. Talk to public officials. They tend to know where the bodies are buried. Be curious. Figure out what matters to your community and to your readers. If your mama says she loves you, check it out.
Newspapers were once vital institutions in their communities. Many still are. But time is running out. You can regain a measure of standing by investigating for the reader.
From Joe Neff, a reporter at the N&O: “A key point I make around the newsroom: Investigative reporting doesn’t mean months of work. It’s a mindset about obtaining original source materials. Documents. Requesting emails and memos, building sources (seeing eye dogs) who can point you to what records to request, and using said records to fashion more requests. Beat reporting with a records mentality. The public records law is one of our best tools and many reporters never use it
From Shannan Bowen Stevens of McClatchy, a link from Poynter about how thinking in print is holding newsrooms back. She also sent an insightful response from the VP News at McClatchy that lists some key questions every newsroom should ask every day.
From Steve Harrison, a FB friend: “I do daily news roundups, usually just five stories. And I try (very hard) to grab articles from dailies across the state, instead of just relying on the N&O. But I see the very same articles (not just AP stuff) at papers across the state. Not just national/international stories, but state (NC) and even regional issues. And “hometown color” pieces, but from towns in other states. It’s like a content mishmash collage put together by a middle-school kid rushing to finish an art project that’s due.”