On February 13, the Charleston Post & Courier published an investigative project that examined what happens to South Carolina communities where no viable local media still exist. Not coincidentally, the next day the paper announced a fund drive to raise $100,000 in 100 days to help pay for their own investigative journalism, which, as Executive Editor Mitch Pugh explained to readers, “is incredibly expensive work.”
By early May, with days to go before their deadline, they had $475,000 in individual, mostly local donations. The project, called Uncovered, “captivated a lot of people,” says Pugh. Subsequent webinars around their investigative work drew as many as 400 people — and early data on converting those attendees to subscribers is promising, says Pugh.
Most local newsrooms have struggled with the fact that long-term projects that cost considerable time and money often have a disappointing return on investment. “My real estate writer pays for himself three or four times over” because of high readership for real estate stories, but investigative stories likely “are not going to pay for themselves,” Pugh says. But they still have to be pursued. “It’s really about tying it back to the vital role that a well-functioning newspaper can play” in helping to create a healthy democracy, says Pugh.
To help broaden the scope and potentially the readership for investigative work, the entire staff of the Post & Courier along with its five-person investigations team can pitch story ideas at any time, making their case through a two-page pitch form. Up to about 40 pitches per year are considered and about a half-dozen are selected, Pugh says. The stories can be written by any staff member, possibly paired with one of the experienced investigative reporters — who also have recently worked alongside reporters in other South Carolina newsrooms to help publish accountability projects in those communities. That side-by-side work is designed to help all reporters improve their investigative skills and close what Pugh calls “the curiosity gap” among new or less experienced reporters.
Everyone wants to be an investigative reporter or “thinks they are,” Pugh says, but there’s a deficit “in understanding the core function of what a journalist does and the mindset you have to have and the rigor it takes to do the job well.” In some college journalism programs, he says, “I don’t think that’s fully understood or taught.”
Other promising efforts, suggestions and ideas:
If there were any silver linings to the pandemic lockdown, for journalists it might be the free access to the popular workshops like those held by Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE). Travel costs and registration fees often put IRE sessions out of reach for local newsrooms, but over the past year, the organization offered 17 virtual workshops at no charge. About 7,800 people registered, says Denise Malan, IRE’s deputy executive director. In addition, the organization offered 189 paid fellowships to IRE’s national conference and 55 fellowships to the NICAR conference this year. (Both of those conferences broke attendance records.) IRE also obtained funding to hold a free virtual bootcamp for educators. “We hope that it will increase the capacity of educators to be able to do deep dives into investigative training in their classrooms,” says IRE’s Executive Director Diane Fuentes.
Those efforts are important, says Fuentes, to address deficits in investigative skills among newer reporters. “Having been in the business more than 30 years now, it does feel like the younger reporters are coming in less prepared.” Local newsrooms’ financial struggles have led to fewer editors, cutbacks in time-consuming journalism like investigations and internships to help train college journalists. “We need better journalists to come to us,” says Fuentes, “and organizations like IRE are in a position to help.” In April, IRE and JournalismMentors announced a partnership to provide mentors to journalists working on investigations — “a need that rose out of the pandemic,” says Malan. Journalists can choose mentors and sign up for sessions directly on the site, which is run by volunteers. The program also is aimed at matching young female journalists of color with experienced mentors of color. “Getting young women of color into the pipeline is one thing and then keeping them in the industry is quite another thing,” says Malan.
The best investigative journalism is worthless if no one reads it, and newsrooms are finding ways to get their investigations in front of audiences that might not typically see it. More news organizations are posting their deep dives on Instagram, including the Dallas Morning News (253,000 followers) and the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (54,000 followers). A Canadian media company switched its newsletter content from a daily roundup to long-form investigative stories — and was so successful that it’s launching 50 new outlets and hiring 250 new journalists.
Consider whether your local audience understands or appreciates “watchdog” and “investigative” journalism — two terms with a notably aggressive connotation. Is there a different way to frame it? A recent study from the Media Insight Project noted this: “People who most emphasize care or fairness, for instance, were more motivated by a message that highlighted the outlet’s commitment to protecting the most vulnerable through their news coverage. People who emphasized authority and loyalty preferred a message about the outlet’s long-term service to the local community.” At the Post & Courier, the preferred term is “public service journalism.”