A new study by local media research/consulting firm AR&D and Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) reveals that investigative reporting is a big draw for consumers when it comes to media choice. Sixty-two precent said it was reason enough to follow a particular news organization, and it ranked only behind weather (54% preference) in terms of interest — and that interest is growing.
The study included media executives who, while acknowledging the draw of investigative work (76% “strongly” believe in it), noted that they don’t have the resources and support to pull off a commitment to this kind of reporting. That’s really sad, because “the news” has become a mere commodity in today’s world, and the breaking news image — and increasingly, weather — is going to Twitter and other forms of social media. Investigative is one of the big categories left, but AR&D president and CEO Jerry Gumbert says local media companies have GOT to do something in order to keep their edge.
All TV stations, regardless of size, must recalibrate their resources and adjust the editorial focus of their news operations. They must dramatically enhance the value proposition of local newscasts which requires original reporting, in-depth story\telling and investigative journalism.
Gumbert’s admonition applies to all forms of local media, and I think it especially applies to hyperlocal news sites, for original reporting — much of it investigative — is the backbone of these locally owned and operated entities. In many ways, the rules for how to function intelligently and efficiently as a news organization in the 21st Century are being written by what many lovingly refer to as “mom and pop” hyperlocal sites. If they can do it, why can’t others? There’s no magic formula; it may be something as simple as focus. However, there’s also the reality that the closer you are to the stories, the more likely you are to take them on.
Steve Southwell runs a website in Lewisville, Texas, a northwest suburb of Dallas, and built his solid journalistic reputation on peeking where local politicians prefer he wouldn’t. He has no journalism degree, nor has he worked for a traditional news company, but he knows the Freedom of Information Act better than most pros. He has jumped through hoops and danced the dance required of him in order to get what he needed. His story personifies the realities of how one person with passion can literally change life in a community for the better. He is widely regarded as THE watchdog of government in Lewisville and has made a serious dent in what many would call “the old boy network” in this small community. His site began as “whosplayin.com” and is now the Lewisville Texan Journal:
Usually when we do investigative stuff, we’re the only outlet on it, or the first outlet on it. At the hyperlocal level, the chances are that there are not the same major media eyeballs scrutinizing things, and digging in — but the stories are no less interesting, if you can get to the bottom of them. I’m an amateur, I’ll admit, but my take from doing this for as long as I have is that you walk this kind of line where you need to have the trust and friendship of local elected officials and other news makers and gatekeepers, and you don’t want to get on their bad side and cut those lines, but sometimes a story is going to cause them direct grief. My take has been that I’m the one just doing my job, and that the bridge is theirs to burn.
…What grates on my conscience all the time, as someone who essentially does this on a volunteer basis, are all the stories that I can’t cover simply because I lack the time or resources. I think I’m being conservative to say that we cover maybe 10% of the stories that are out there, and maybe 25% of the ones we hear about. So much goes on that needs to have some scrutiny and analysis — whether it’s local government, schools, businesses, groups or individuals. I think we take way too much at face value in our society, and we let politicians and pundits explain everything away with talking points, bumper sticker cliches, or ad hominem attacks.
It is frustrating to do as much work as I do, and so thoroughly source things, and attempt to get both sides — then produce a rock-solid piece of work based on actual verified facts, and have some of the same folks who read these sensationalist sites turn around and say my work doesn’t count because I’m only a blogger. I may be a blogger, but I do journalism as best I know how.
Southwell’s site is his passion. He’s an engineer by trade. But in hyperlocal media heaven — Seattle — it’s the full time job of many, including Tracy Record, editor of the award-winning West Seattle Blog. The word “investigative” has different meanings, she told me via email, but her definition includes “a whole lot of looking under rocks.”
What matters to a news organization at any level, more than ever these days, is listening to your readership/audience and understanding what they want and need. By “want,” I do NOT mean “oh, the bikini slide show is getting a ton of pageviews, so that’s clearly what people WANT, let’s give them more of it.” By “want,” I mean what your commenters and callers and emailers are telling/asking you about. Even as a micro-sized news organization, we get multiple tips/questions each and every day. It’s not hard to interpret. People want to know what’s REALLY going on. They want context, and they want to understand what otherwise seem like random events, reports, concerns, problems. So the really smart reporter immerses her/himself in the incoming stream and knows what needs to be looked into and what can wait.
We also “investigate” on a much smaller level. Every day, we have to go into local databases to try to dig up information about developments, new businesses, etc. These have yielded some bigger-picture stuff, too, such as an apartment trend called “microhousing” spreading to West Seattle after just being concentrated in neighborhoods closer to downtown – I started finding the permit applications with terminology I’d never seen before.
Here are some examples of outstanding investigative work done by the West Seattle blog.
- Port Security grant used for beach cameras.
- Commercial zipline attraction.
- Flubbed reservoir waterproofing.
- Wading pool discrimination
None of these stories, Record points out, “required a person (me) going out of the daily mix for days let alone weeks or months.”
Tracy Record and Steve Southwell are just two examples of people who focus on uncovering hidden issues and finding resolution simply by shining a light on them. This is what AR&D’s Gumbert is trying to say in addressing all media about the need to change.
Investigative reporting isn’t about setting aside resources to work days/weeks/months to develop stories, although that might be a part of it to some. Investigative reporting is plain old reporting. Period. And it begins with getting off the lazy and easy commodity news bandwagon and growing a reportorial spine.
Terry Heaton is President of Reinvent21, a consulting company specializing in business reinvention for the 21st Century. He’s an internationally-recognized creative expert on all things web-related, especially as they relate to local media.