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Investigative reporting offers hope amid economic tides

By Phil Williams, IRE Board Member

If you read the industry news about the challenges facing journalism today, it's easy to get discouraged.

Positions on investigative teams -- in some cases, whole teams -- are being cut.  Entire news organizations are closing their doors.  The list of talented journalists looking for work grows every week.

But these troubled times may also bring some glimmer of hope for the future.  That's because, instead of eliminating investigative reporting, some news organizations are refocusing on investigative journalism as a way to survive.  And that's where IRE hopes to play an important role.

A recent item in the Nieman Watchdog put it like this:

"Even as their newsrooms shrink, local and regional newspapers are falling in love with watchdog reporting all over again. Accountability journalism differentiates them, connects them with readers, and reminds people why journalism deserves some of their attention every day."

Yes, all of us know that investigative journalism is especially critical these days to the country -- in times of trillion-dollar bailouts, along with scams designed to prey upon folks who are struggling to make ends meet.

But whether you call it "investigative journalism" or "watchdog reporting," news organizations across the country are saying that what we do is also important to the survival of their businesses.

In other words, it's not just "good journalism" -- it also may be "good business."

A recent Chicago Tribune memo, obtained by Romenesko , tells journalists that they will be judged on some "newly minted goals." One of them: "Deliver on mission. Daily goals are local relevance, watchdog reporting, personal utility, consumer guidance, visual drama and compelling storytelling. Watchdog is standing up for the community, uncovering wrongs and holding the powerful accountable."

In my own city of Nashville, Tenn., the editor of The Tennessean described his newspaper's future plans in an article headlined, "Despite cutbacks, 'Tennessean' widens watchdog role."

And, around the country, there are other examples of a strengthened commitment to investigative journalism at traditional media organizations.

Fellow IRE board member Manny Garcia notes that his newspaper, The Miami Herald, has expanded its investigative team during a tough economic climate because it's a franchise that's good for the business.

In the most recent issue of The IRE Journal, former board member Mark Katches notes that "at a time when newsrooms are slashing and burning, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel built one of the largest investigative teams in the country. The investment in public service journalism has paid off."

And there are examples of television stations' steadfast commitment to investigative reporting around the country.

A general manager of a large television station tells me that his award-winning investigative team remains important to his overall business strategy because (1) it differentiates his station from his competition and (2) that station image makes it easier to recruit great journalists. As any manager will tell you, it's a lot easier to attract and negotiate with prospects who don't have to be enticed into working for your news organization.

Which brings me to my own experience.

More than a year ago, my general manager at WTVF-TV challenged me not to just suggest the expansion of our award-winning investigative unit, but to do the research and make the "business case" for my proposals. With ratings, research and company financials in hand, I did just that -- and our corporate management approved it.

That's the case that those of us who care about investigative journalism must make -- and can make -- in these tough economic times.

Does that mean that we don't have to work better, smarter, faster, more efficiently? Absolutely not. In fact, it's more important than ever.

With that in mind, I'm incredibly excited to be co-chairing the committee that's putting together IRE's upcoming annual conference in Baltimore, June 11-14. We've got big names -- inspirational figures like Bob Woodward and CNN's Jon Klein, to name just two -- who've committed to speak.  (For a full list of expected speakers, click here.)

But even more importantly, we're planning a conference that specifically responds to the demands of the day.

We'll arm conference participants with ideas for watchdogs stories that they can pursue in their own newsrooms. They can meet and pick the brains of other journalists who are successfully delivering watchdog stories on a regular basis for their own organizations. We'll hear from folks who've learned to do more with less through partnerships. We'll talk about how to deliver investigations across multiple platforms. We'll have experts to give very specific training about how to investigate banks, mortgage schemes and other financial scams.  And we'll have a greater focus than ever on new and innovative ways of distributing our investigative journalism.

Sign up here. Book early to take advantage of low-cost flights. Look for a roommate, if that helps.

Throughout the year, IRE's continuing Watchdog Workshops will also continue to carry those lessons across the country.

And, under the leadership of IRE president Cheryl Phillips of the Seattle Times, we're reviewing how we as an organization can continue to meet the needs of the nation's investigative journalism -- today and tomorrow. (Please share your comments about how we can help you.)

So while news organizations struggle against the current economic tides, IRE hopes to be a hand to which they can reach for survival.

See you in Baltimore!

Phil Williams is the chief investigative reporter for WTVF-TV, the CBS affiliate in Nashville, Tennessee. He's also member of the IRE board. He can be reached at pwilliams@newschannel5.com.

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