Can outsiders fill newsroom gaps?

Investigative collageIf you want to be an investigative reporter, you may need to look beyond traditional newsrooms for job opportunities. Many local television stations have trimmed or dropped their I-Teams. Local newspapers like the Oregonian and Toledo Blade have cut back, too. But investigative reporting is still being done, just not the old-fashioned way.

Since we last wrote about new models for investigative journalism, the playing field has expanded. ProPublica is now well established as a non-profit news producer; their investigations have run on 60 Minutes and in major newspapers, including the the New York Times. They’re even looking to hire more reporters. And they’re not alone.

The Center for Public Integrity and the Center for Investigative Reporting have been around even longer, producing national investigations with funding mainly from foundations. But this year, CIR launched California Watch to focus on state issues. Texas Watchdog and other regional groups have launched as well: The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, the New England Center for Investigative Reporting and American University’s Investigative Reporting Center are producing original projects using students as researchers, reporters or interns.

Stories from several of these non-profit groups are getting wide distribution thanks to a deal with the Associated Press, which may be revised soon to include even more sources. The groups themselves are discussing the formation of an investigative news network to support their work.

News organizations trying to operate with fewer staffers and produce news for more platforms obviously welcome the free content. But as a special report in Editor & Publisher asks, Is this the future of investigative reporting? And if so, what will be missed?

The report finds that few top editors will admit that investigative reporting is suffering at their papers. Some say they’ve put more emphasis on investigations even as they’ve had to cut staff. But others concede they are much more selective about the investigations they pursue and expect reporters to produce more stories. At the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, for example, members of the “watchdog team” are “more tip-oriented and work sources better,” according to Managing Editor Bert Roughton Jr. “They come up with stories weekly instead of semi-annually.”

IRE president Alison Young tells E&P that what’s missing is easy to define:

It is becoming more difficult to do the longer-term, more complex investigative stories — the kind of stories that are six-month projects. The big multi-part series that requires lawsuits to get access to records, that requires travel. Those are much more difficult to do, and in some newsrooms impossible.

The non-profit investigative centers are filling some of that gap, but it’s unlikely they can do so at the local level. And while some major foundations have put a lot of money into these journalism projects lately,  it’s not unreasonable to ask how long their support will last.