Good news: Investigative reporting is alive and well
Marshall Helmberger

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.

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43 comments on this item

And then there are those readers who continue to ignore the fine work done by these journalists and rely on the likes of FOX NEWS

FOX News, your trusted source for news...fair and balanced. Gaining market share each day. jt, you are a dinosaur. Get with the program.

Look ... found one already (although only a great creation by another one who comments ... well done bonfire)

jt doesn't watch FOX News. Therefore, she fits the following old adage: "The less one knows, the stronger one believes".

I must apologize for continuing to take candy from the baby.

(p.s. - should somebody tell him ... ?)

Great news today. Gallup polling reports FOX News is America's #1 source for news, all sources both electronic and print. Put that in your pipes and smoke it jt and bonfire.

Reminds me of some of the polls in Germany in the late 30's. ("Source" for news vs. supplier of verifiable information!!! Hmmmm? Well, some folks are easily satisfied.

Now, back to the gummy bears!. Oh so yummy.

(did I see anything which supported the claim?)

oc, bless your heart, it's hardly surprising that you have not yet figured out that any US cable or network self-lableled news shows don't actually deliver news.

with accolades to Doonesbury today ...

bonfire: I was just wondering? Does that include Minnesota, Wisconsin and National Public Radio and television? Please advise this unenlightened soul.

finally appropriately self-labeled (although he has none)

oc, why, of course if you are talking about news or money programs. Increasingly, NPR and other public radio stations are funded by corporate sponsors: insurance companies, natural gas, gas corps, financial groups, etc. For instance, Planet Money has a big financial group sponsor. Then there are foundations and the people who make up their boards and who and what groups those folks are closely associated with. Hefty corporate money can and does control how the topic is treated....gloss over or avoid awkward/controversial issues while at the same time draw a happy face on that issue.

btw, NPR isn't the liberals' sacred cow that you think it is. Many have stopped listening to certain shows or hosts in recent years as it became more evident how much they were leaving out of the stories.

I do love "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me" and other shows that are either entertainment or are actually educational. There's still a lot I like to listen to on public radio.

bf: where did I state NPR was the liberal's sacred cow. You must quit throwing spears, you are starting to sound like jt, with no facts behind comments.

I watch NPR, PBS and I listen to public radio. There are, for a fact, a lot of Wellstone Wackos on those programs.

Never the less, FOX has hired Juan Williams, who was fired by NPR, and regularly hosts Mara Liasson, NPR columnist on panels. Sorry jt, time to eat crow.

Wasn't I who called you an "unenlightened soul"!!!

(dang but why is it impossible to get thru to this fellow ... he who is the master of "comments withoutt facts")

jt, you have a problem getting through to a lot of people because you have a closed mind.

oc, you scamp with your wide-eyed innocent routine pretending you don't know Fox would never, ever hire people who aren't sham "liberals" more than willing to regurgitate the Fox spin for the regular paycheck. Who knew you had a somewhat wry even if opaque sense of humor!

Continuing to enjoy the candy from the baby!

bf: Are you asserting that the "liberal" point of view is the only accurate point of view?

I prefer facts and accuracy backed up with real stats wherever one can find them. Realism vs feelings. A point of view is a whole 'nuther animal. Realism: "Interest in or concern for the actual or real, as distinguished from the abstract, the speculative, etc."

You didn't notice that the words "accurate" and "point of view" used together is a bit contradictory?

No I don't. It's possible to have an accurate point of view, supported by facts. FOX impresses me as the leader in investigative research, backed by verifiable facts. The other networks come across as fluff in contrast.

Juan Williams was fired by NPR for appearing as a liberal voice on several panels on the FOX News network. He is now an employee of FOX and as I understand it, his contract includes a provision he can make other appearances as he sees fit. I have established a personal relationship with Juan, and we communicate with each other from time to time. While don't always agree, we agree to understand how we arrive at our conclusions. We have mutual respect for each other. Get that, jt?

jt continues to enjoy his gummy bears ... and does hope (but doubts) that he who loveth Fox has been as eager to read and enjoy Doonesbury this past week ... and follow that reading with a full and detailed study as to how, when, and why D might have come up with his "point of view".

But as stated ... "doubts". No ... is very sure!

Putty in the hands ... soft putty

Coming from one who gets their news from the comic pages.

which often beats the bejabbers out of Fox ... I do wish you could understand the conversation better, but seemingly impossible.

Maybe if I can get FOX to do a special!!!

No ... it is the opposite of their mission statement

Marshall ... you and your colleagues must go into guffaws ... or serious tears ... when you read all these comments.

This op-ed alone is so into it. Again thanks for your fine efforts ... and my apologies for the inanity that I throw in.

I guess I can take blame for the landslide on this one with my first comment.

Ah well ... candy from the baby

jt: Why don't you tell us what FOX News mission statement is? Just asking for facts and justifiable comments from you. Can you comply, or are you still playing with your kiddie bow and arrow, with the rubber tipped arrows?

Let's look at the current FOX News line-up. Most recently, we had Howard Kurtz leave CNN after more than 20 years, Ed Henry, who also left CNN after many years, John Roberts, who left ABC after many years, Martha MacCallum, who left CNBC after many years, Stuart Varney, who left CNN and CNBC, Greta VanSustren, who left CNN, Patti Ann Browne, who left PMSNBC, Neil Cavato, who left CNBC. John Gibson, who left PMSNBC, Brit Hume, who left ABC after 23 years, Chris Wallace, who left ABC, and Lou Dobbs, who left CNN after many years. I'm sure I am missing some others, but these come immediately to mind.

Question for bf and jt. Why would all this recognized talent leave the losers to join FOX? In your weak minds, do you consider this line-up irrelevant?

"recognized talent"??????

YES

Why don't you put up your sad credentials to match this stellar team? You always want others to provide fact, detail, etc., but little girl, you are a hypocrite and never provide anything except crying to Marshall. He isn't going to bail you out, you worthless piece of human excrement. He's in the business of selling newspapers, and while he may not agree with me, he would be a fool to censor me, since the Timberjay is on a roll right now. I'm sure he sees you as nothing more than a rabble-rouser and a cry baby.

Go back in your hole in the Arizona desert, read your comic strips and horoscopes to enlighten your life.

While or country (not sure he has one) can babble no more babble expletives ... and still struggles with sex determinations (perhaps a characteristic of FOX viewers who do not search beyond) and continues with this love affair with FOX, I, at least can fulfill the wishes ...

Statement of Purpose

The Fox Nation was created for people who believe in the United States of America and its ideals, as expressed in the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and the Emancipation Proclamation. It is a community that believes in the American Dream: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. One that believes being an American is an honor, as well as a great responsibility – and a wonderful adventure.

This is a place for people who believe we live in a great country, a welcoming refuge for legal immigrants who want to contribute their talents and abilities to make our way of life even greater. We believe we should enjoy the company and support of each other, delighting in the creativity, ingenuity, and work ethic of one and all, while observing the rules of civility and mutual respect and, most importantly, strengthening our diverse society by striving for unity.

"The Fox Nation is committed to the core principles of tolerance, open debate, civil discourse, and fair and balanced coverage of the news. It is for those opposed to intolerance, excessive government control of our lives, and attempts to monopolize opinion or suppress freedom of thought, expression, and worship."

As in a book, a bibliography usually accompany quotes. Please let the readers know the source of your research, in the spirit of open debate and civil discourse.

jt, Fox recognizes the best in yellow journalistic talent when they see it.

bonfire - amen to that

oar country - google (which normally is about as reliable ... or less so ... than FOX NEWS)

FOX News, rated America's #1 source for news according to the Gallup Poll. FOX--fair and balanced. We report, you decide.

and the screetchy sound of the broken record goes on ... and on ... and on ...

Is this the poll to which you refer ...

http://www.nydailynews.com/entertainment/tv-movies/fox-news-viewers-informed-current-events-don-watch-news-study-finds-article-1.981257

(so combine poll A with poll B and what do we learn!!!)

and the funny papers girl keeps whining, whining and whining. Go buy another bag of gummy worms, and enjoy your day down in the hole. Opps, I forgot. You are a transvestite, but you never provided readers with evidence of your gender. Guess we'll never know.

The true sign of one who debates ... argues ... discusses, that they can carry their arguments no further (aka "give up") is in name calling ... negative labeling.

(also helps to add evidence in support of the FD survey mentioned above!!!)

Therefore past time to move on beyond the inane.

And in retrospect, ditto to your comments about me. Go back in the archives, readers.

Roger Ailies, CEO of FOX News for News Corp, parent company of FOX, has an extraordinary eye for news talent and has built the leader in news with his skills in a short period of time. bf, who likes to use colors to describe news journalists, never mentions the "pinko" personalities on PMSNBC or PBS or NPR. They are "pinkos", aren't they, bf?

Tit for tat, as much as it hurts you "pinkos"!

The other two names who left their network to join FOX were Liz Clayman, who left CNBC to join FOX Business Network and John Stossel, who left ABC to join FOX News as an investigative journalist. Geraldo Rivera left CNBC to join FOX News as an investigative reporter and hosts a weekend program on the network.

There are certainly more, but these are the ones that I remember by watching brand X networks years ago.

Also, Erin Andrews, sports babe and college basketball analyst, left ESPN (a unit of ABC) to join FOX Sports. FOX Sports will be launching a total sports network in August. Stay tuned as Roger Ailies plucks the best talent from the networks working their way to the rear to staff the new sports network.

Within 5 years, FOX will completely dominate the news, business news and sports scene due to superb talent, clear crisp graphics and the best presentation in the business. Let's check back 5 years from now, if I'm still alive.

Screeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeee

Gee. Maybe you should see your doctor and get some Seroquel or Xanax to ease your anxiety. I don't recommend you use them unsupervised, only under strict doctor's care. Must be hard to live from day to day in your condition...jt.

and round and round he goes, and where he'll stop ... everybody knows.

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