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The plight of the investigative journalist

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Much like many reporters starting out probably envision, Trent Seibert got into journalism imagining himself as a hard-hitting journalist reminiscent of Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward in “All the President’s Men.” That’s why this former traditional newspaperman left mainstream news media to launch Texas Watchdog, an investigative-based website that allows him to do the kind of aggressive watchdog journalism he’s always had a passion for.

He’s not alone in his desire to get back to investigative journalism. As traditional newsrooms have grown smaller over the past several years, it isn’t any secret that mainstream media’s focus on watchdog journalism has also dwindled. But investigative journalists certainly haven’t disappeared. Much like Seibert, they have left behind the trappings of newsroom fluff and flocked to the plethora of online news sites that base their foundation on keeping the government in check.

“I think the best organizations online that do investigative reporting steal the best people from newspapers,” Seibert said. Pretty much everyone he has hired comes from a traditional background, from papers like The Tennessean to the Austin-American Statesman, he noted.  “We do what used to be the centerpiece of the Sunday paper,” he said, noting that a lot of those Sunday enterprise stories at big newspapers have gone away.

Deb Nelson, director of the Carnegie Seminar at University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism, would tend to agree. When she left her job as leader of the investigations team at the Los Angeles Times in 2006, she had seven reporters and two researchers on her team. By 2008, they were all gone. “The mainstream media for the most part – with some notable exceptions – has treated investigative reporting as a tithe of sorts. So with shrinking profits and staffs, there has been a drop in their willingness to pay what I’d argue is their social obligation to the First Amendment,” she said in an e-mail interview.

Nelson left traditional media for the same reason she said her friend Rick Tulsky recently did. Tulsky, investigations editor at the San Jose Mercury News, was named to lead the development of a watchdog journalism initiative involving students, faculty and local organizations with Medill News. “He and I both headed for journalism schools in the hope that we can continue the investigation tradition there and light a fire in the next generation,” she said.

Despite the losses in traditional media, Nelson gives a nod to the nonprofits and online sites that have made it their mission to fill the watchdog journalism niche. “Thank God for the nonprofits! I’m a person of faith and I mean that. They have picked up what some of the mainstream media dropped,” she said. “Without them, the checks and balances of democracy would fail.”

Not only have investigative news sites carried on the watchdog mission, but the potential for investigative journalism to be done faster and more efficiently has been aided by technology, she noted. In fact, in Seibert’s opinion, investigative reporting is better than ever before because he no longer has to dig through piles of records and audits when a file can be quickly accessed electronically.

Meanwhile, an increase in partnerships between organizations like Texas Watchdog and newspapers and television stations show that traditional media hasn’t completely turned its back on investigative journalism. “I think that’s sort of where things are trending – newspapers, TV stations, are increasingly looking at online outlets like ours to beef up their reporting, particularly their investigative reporting,” he said. For instance, Texas Watchdog partnered with the Center for Public Integrity to do a story about sexual assaults on college campuses.

Other partnerships with investigative news outlets have popped up as well, supporting Seibert’s belief that this will be a continuing trend. Editor & Publisher reported that California Watch, a project of the Center for Investigative Reporting, has launched the California Watch Media Network, which provides news to member newspapers. Newspapers that opted to join include the San Francisco Chronicle, Sacramento Bee, San Diego Union Tribune, Orange County Register, Bakersfield Californian and the Fresno Bee. The partnerships, Seibert explained, are how below-the-radar investigative sites can get the news out on a larger scale. “As much as newspapers have declined, people still read them like crazy,” he said.

Although many may perceive a gap in investigative journalism, one only has to look at the myriad of sites that watchdog journalists have flocked to in pursuit of their craft to see that investigative journalism is alive and well. And through the continued existence of these sites and future partnerships with traditional media, these journalists will continue to be heard.

— Katrina M. Mendolera

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