On our trip this past weekend to San Antonio, my wife Jodi and I were excited to see there are plenty of savvy investigative journalists out there eagerly performing their watchdog roles— breaking real and important stories that bring meaningful change in many cases to their communities.
Nearly 1,500 journalists, working for newspapers, television, radio, and magazines, turned out from around North America for the Investigative Reporters and Editors, or IRE, annual conference, held this year in that very hot, friendly, and historic Texas city. I had been asked to present at the conference as part of a four-person panel of small town journalists who have worked on big time investigations.
Our panel was organized by a true evangelist for elevating the status, quality and ambitions of small town media— Professor Tommy Thomason, who serves as director of the Texas Center for Community Journalism.
Thomason makes a strong argument for the importance of community newspapers. Of the roughly 9,400 newspapers around the U.S., only about 400 of the big name, major market daily papers are still in existence, and that number keeps dropping every year through consolidation or bankruptcy. At the same time, those big city newsrooms are regularly wracked by repeated rounds of layoffs, leaving many of these larger papers a hollow shell of their former selves.
Community papers, which include smaller market dailies and weeklies aren’t immune to these trends, but many are holding their own and even thriving by keeping their eyes on the important task of covering their communities like no other media. In most small communities, the local newspaper is still the one and only consistent and reliable source of information relevant to the day-to-day lives of residents, and that’s why they have been buffered to a significant degree from the woes of the big dailies.
Community papers are also produced each week by writers and editors who, in many cases, have lived in the communities they cover for decades. That gives them a depth of understanding and context that an outside reporter, who parachutes in for a day or two to cover a story, can’t possibly match.
Some of the very best investigative reporters understand this intuitively. Pulitzer Prize-winning investigator Lawrence Wright, who spoke of his experiences during one session of the conference we attended talked about this.
Wright is a staff writer for the New Yorker, but is probably best known as the author of “The Looming Tower, al Qaeda and the road to 9/11,” widely-considered the definitive book in this expanding genre. Wright spent years living and working a regular job in Cairo as he researched his book. It was that full immersion in Middle Eastern society that made it possible for him to write with a depth of understanding and nuance that wouldn’t have been possible for a journalist who hadn’t made that commitment.
Community journalists make that kind of commitment all the time, often without even thinking about it. And unlike Wright, they’re not writing for a mostly outside audience— they are writing for a community they know and care about.
As is true in almost every field, there are those investigative reporters who view their next big exposé more as a means of career advancement than anything else. They look to parlay big investigations into book deals, television appearances, and top jobs at major papers.
The good news is that most of the people we met were more interested in spending their careers fighting the good fight in the communities where they have sunk their roots. They work hard every day, often for too little pay, to expose abuse or neglect of the vulnerable within their communities, corruption or waste at city hall, or problems in their schools or the local justice system.
One of our fellow panel members, Samantha Swindler, who had worked at a small paper in Corbin, Kentucky, investigated a corrupt local sheriff who used his office to essentially oversee and profit from the local trade in drugs and guns. Her reporting led to threats and intimidation, but also to the sheriff’s eventual arrest and conviction of multiple felonies, and Samantha wound up featured on 60 Minutes for her efforts. She now works for a community newspaper in Oregon owned by the Portland-based newspaper, The Oregonian, which announced just this past weekend that it was laying off 35 employees, mostly from the newsroom. Samantha found out she was still employed, but the experience was just another reminder of the uncertainty inherent in working for a big newspaper these days. She is now hoping to buy a small community paper, probably closer to her native Louisiana, where she can settle in with some sense of job security and satisfaction.
Other panelists had similar stories. All had worked at much larger papers but had opted to return to their roots and ply their craft in places many journalists would consider uninteresting backwaters. If those big city journos only knew the stories just waiting to be discovered in such unlikely places, they might feel differently.
And they might take a closer look at the sorry state of the big time news media, particularly television, which remains a major news source for tens of millions of Americans. The stories we read and heard about at our sessions offered a stark contrast to the mindless stream of celebrity gossip, health fads, and pundit chatter that dominated the national television broadcasts and cable news that we watched in brief snippets while relaxing in our hotel room.
It was refreshing to learn that investigative reporting was alive and well, and being practiced every day at small newspapers, in online journals, on the radio, and even at many smaller and mid-sized television stations across the country. There’s a hunger for this kind of newsgathering and plenty of good journalists are still out there delivering it. Even as the technologies for delivering that new change, the future of quality investigative journalism looks surprisingly strong.