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IRE Conference first-timer

By Mikel Schaefer
WVUE-TV New Orleans

Following the conclusion of the Boston IRE Conference, I felt compelled to share my experience as an IRE Conference first-timer, especially since I was a fairly rare species at the event. Unlike most attending the three-day conference, I was not an investigative reporter, but one of a handful of television news directors. Of the nearly 1,200 who attended, only several of us charged with running television news rooms were there. In these days of shrinking budgets, departments and employees, coupled with the increasing demand on our time, all I could think was I understand why others in my position have to miss out, but what a shame.

All journalists need to develop and grow. Most of the development happens on the job, or on our own time, squeezed in between our professions and family lives. It’s clear we don’t have enough time for professional development. Most of us managers not only have to “feed the beast,” but hopefully impart our years of experience and wisdom to our staffs. We all know how difficult it is to do this; often our staffs don’t get the teaching and coaching we all would like to give and get.

 I was invited to speak on a panel.  This puzzled and humbled me because I sat there thinking, “What in the heck can I share with any of these investigative reporters?” I’ve done just about every job you can imagine in a TV station, but my experience with investigating reporting is not something I would have considered IRE-panel worthy.  Especially since I was sharing the panel with KNTV Assistant News Director Matt Goldberg, who’s spent years as an investigative producer.

I didn’t know what to expect at the conference, but I quickly found out it was more than I could have expected. What was evident from the first moment of the first panel was this would not be a conference of fun and frivolity but one of reflection and discovery. There was a genuine thirst by attendees to soak up as much knowledge as possible in dozens of panels crammed into three days. Hundreds of the smartest, hardest-working journalists floated in and out of conference rooms, sharing­ – that’s right, sharing with each other – years of experience from some of the best in the business.

The range of topics included mind-numbing training for reporters to learn the latest advancements in CAR to in-depth discussions of how to cover government pensions, poverty or the police. All of this represented across the journalistic spectrum, from the most experienced in print like The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times to non-profit outfits like California Watch to television stations KNTV in San Francisco and WRC-TV in Washington, D.C. They all broke down some of their most important work, how they acquired stories and the minutiae of finding the deeply buried facts. All of this was incredibly invaluable insight to be used in not only investigative work but every day news gathering.

Some of the most important and fascinating journalism on the planet is being produced by investigative journalists. These stories form the backbone of what all of us aspire to achieve, making a difference for our viewers and readers, whether it be on TV, newspaper, mobile or the web. So many of the investigators are doing multiplatform work. It’s healthy and inspiring, and the masses are eating it up. It’s our future and at IRE it is on display in as straightforward but as grand a fashion as is being produced today.  

We need to cultivate investigative journalism, support it financially and grow it because of this simple fact: It matters. We need to take up the fight with the managers who make the financial decisions and show them the true value of the investigative report. Done correctly, you change government and people’s lives, and maybe even save lives. That’s not preachy, drink-the-Kool-Aid propaganda – it’s a fact. What’s more valuable than that in the profession we have chosen?

Is the fight hard? Absolutely. Is it impossible? For many of us, it seems that way. Should it be ignored? Not if you have any real sense of journalistic integrity and purpose. I don’t judge those who get shut down, but I do question those who give up or don’t recognize it. We all need ratings, but dumbing down news coverage is not a recipe for success.  It’s a recipe for stagnation and the status quo, especially for those who bilk the system for their own personal gain.

How shocked are we when we hear about a constable accused of letting his employees falsify time sheets and taking charity money for himself like KTRK- TV’s Wayne Dolcefino detailed in his gripping IRE-Medal-winning investigation? Not at all, but why would we allow ourselves to not pursue these people, who are in nearly every one of our backyards, thinking they can get away with it because no one is looking? IRE is that resource, that entity that strives every day to help produce these stories.  The conference is the gathering, or as I heard someone say, “the church,” where investigators seek more tools to help bring these stories to life.

The barriers are breaking down between all of us as we migrate to a multimedia world.  The days of print vs. TV is gone, guys, it’s out of here. You can fight it, but you will not win. I have always found it fascinating how print and TV journalists portray themselves at odds and put walls between each other as if we are combatants instead of comrades in search of the truth. The more time we spend with each other, the more we learn from each other.   

IRE makes this happen as well, breaking down those walls and creating the avenues where we can learn from each other and produce more stories that make our communities stronger, better and wiser. I know we live in an environment where it’s tough for more TV news directors to come to the IRE Conference and take a closer look at how dedicated journalists take on the biggest and baddest and take down the biggest and baddest.

As for my panel, which was about developing an investigative culture in the newsroom, I think I represented fairly well and thoroughly enjoyed sharing the experience with Matt. I spoke about my experience in building that culture in our newsroom. We started an investigative unit, a consumer investigative unit and partnered with a non-profit investigative unit.  This institutional change helped us produce important and unique content. I was humbled by the reactions I received when people realized I was a news director, and how appreciative they were of my being there and participating in something they work so hard on and feel so passionate about. I realized I knew a bit more than I thought, but I learned so much as well.  This will make me a better news manager. I assure you, news directors who have never attended IRE, especially those who value investigative reporting, it will be a rich and rewarding experience and one of the best investments you can make for yourself and your newsroom.

Mikel Schaefer is a news director at WVUE-TV Fox 8 New Orleans.

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