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Showcase: Finding positives, despite dark moments

By Steve Weinberg

With all the gloom about the future of newspapers and other mainstream media, the speakers at the showcase panel "Doing great work in tough times" at the 2009 IRE Conference provided a mostly upbeat alternate conventional wisdom.

Jill Abramson, New York Times managing editor, moderated the panel. She is bullish on the future of The New York Times, both hard copy and online. Even with a layoff reducing the news staff by 100, the newspaper still employs about 1200 journalists producing copy for the hard copy and Web versions.

At ABC-TV news and ABCnews.com, Brian Ross directs an investigative unit of 14. He has seen no diminishing of resources.

Mark Katches related how the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, a newspaper with a circulation of about 200,000, grew its projects staff from zero to 10 between 2006 and 2009. The journalists on the team include a columnist and bloggers as well as shoe-leather reporters and veteran editors.

Paul Steiger, who left the Wall Street Journal newsroom after a spectacular career there as editor, is now running ProPublica. In his mid-60s, Steiger has made the transition from for-profit national daily newspaper to not-for-profit investigative enterprise. He hired and supervises a staff of 30, overseeing collaborations with mainstream media outlets as well as Web-only enterprises. Steiger faces the challenge of expanding the revenue sources from one wealthy donor to a variety of donors, but feels confident he can do so.

Andrew Donohue at voiceofsandiego.org dispelled the notion that his staff consists mostly of refugees from mainstream media who lost their jobs or panicked that they might lose their jobs soon. In fact, the Web-only investigative enterprise began four years ago, because those contributing money wanted to diversify media outlets in the San Diego area. The staff has grown from two to 12 and is focusing on seven enterprise beats.

Lawan Williams is supervising new content, including investigative pieces for the E.W. Scripps television stations — 10 in all across the nation. She is finding positive reception among local news directors and audiences.

Abramson noted that such showcase panels used to discuss "digging in dark corners." Now the emphasis has changed to "digging in dark moments." That said, the bullish panel members seemed convinced that the dark moments will be minimized not so far into the future.

As for me, who directed IRE from 1983-1990 and have stayed involved at the fringes, I am also bullish. I don't want to minimize layoffs and closings. But those have occcurred in many cases because wealthy owners made ill-considered decisions about assuming too much debt. There is nothing sick about investigative reporting when it occurs in newsrooms with savvy owners. The evidence? The hundreds of amazing entries every year in the IRE Awards. Reading those should make anybody bullish about investigative reporting circa 2009.

Steve Weinberg is a contributing editor to The IRE Journal and teaches at the Missouri School of Journalism. His most recent book is “Taking on the Trust: The Epic Battle of Ida Tarbell and John D. Rockefeller.” (W.W. Norton).

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