By Cassidy Craig
The Public Editor of the New York Times, Margret Sullivan, recently wrote about the challenges facing local investigative reporting.
The author highlighted how newspaper staffs in the United States are down 40 percent in the last 12 years. Martin Baron, who is the executive editor of The Washington Post, told the New York Times that the decline of local investigative reporting is “a cause for grave concern.”
So why has investigative reporting decreased in the last ten years?
Newspaper profits have been hit with a sharp decline in print advertising, resulting in budget cuts that caused many layoffs. Two out of every five reporters have disappeared, leaving local news with minimum coverage.
However, finances are not the only factor in the decline of local investigative reporting. Mr. Baron said investigative work is “considered something of a luxury that might alienate your readership or your advertisers.”
Despite the recent cuts and other challenges, industry experts argue the need for local investigative reporting is revealed in past successes.
For example in 2013, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel revealed that as a result of bureaucratic incompetence, blood tests to screen newborn babies for genetic disorders were processed so slowly that many babies were either dying or suffering from brain damage.
The paper organized a database of around three million newborn screening tests in 31 different states and reported their findings. The article led to investigations that resulted in new screening requirements for newborns.
Without the local reporting, the issue may not have been exposed at all.
Ms. Sullivan also writes the “local newspapers’ desertion of major beats and coverage of public meetings is disturbing” because that type of “reporting also feeds the best investigations.”
With the recognition that top-flight investigative reporting takes skill, time, backbone, vision — and money, Ms.Sullivan hopes work from non-traditional sources of investigative reporting will continue grow.
Nonprofit news organizations, public radio stations and digital start-ups have stepped up in the investigative arena.
In Tallahassee, non-traditional investigative reporting had an impact on issues with the Tallahassee homeless shelter.
For many years, the homeless shelter operated under questionable management practices. However, these issues were not publicized until 2013 when Renee Miller posted an online blog after she disguised herself as a homeless woman and tried to spend a night at the shelter.
As a result of Miller’s blog, a local newspaper and the police department began investigating the shelter. Traces of asbestos, misused funds, and unqualified employees were discovered as a result of the local investigation.
While the future of local reporting is in flux, Mr. Barron notes that local investigations are important because, “people don’t know of corruption unless it’s disclosed to them.”
Ms. Sullivan hopes small successes from investigative reporting in local communities will increase the public’s appetite and their support in the future.
She adds, “the need for local investigative reporting is immense because businesses, government agencies and even religious organizations can be prone to corruption when they are able to operate without investigation.”