Is investigative reporting great again?

Screengrab from “All the President’s Men”

President Donald Trump has levied Tweet after Tweet attacking the media. He’s called CNN, The New York Times and Washington Post “fake news” and “enemies of the people.” But industry insiders believe the commander-in-chief’s attacks on the Fourth Estate coupled with corruption rumors around his campaign, may have helped popularize investigative reporting, and not just in the nation’s Capital.

Larry Parnass, the editor of the Berkshire Eagle’s Eagle Eye investigative reporting team, thinks investigative reporting has always been cool, but recognizes its recent rise in popularity.

“People are appreciating more detailed, layered reporting, and I think that’s what our times require,” Parnass said. “I think news organizations are starting to realize that it’s smart to invest in that and I think for awhile it wasn’t getting much attention at smaller and medium-sized publications.”

Last month, Northeastern University’s School of Journalism and ProPublica hosted a half-day of panel discussions focused on partisan and the financial pressures on newsrooms across the country, particularly its impact on investigative reporting.

Speaking at the event — titled “Is Trump Making Investigative Reporting Great Again?” — ProPublica Deputy Managing Editor Eric Umansky summed up the troubling reality of investigative reporting today. “There’s an enormous deficit in the financial model of journalism,” he said, “but there’s no less corruption, no fewer injustices.”

From 2005 to 2015, the workforce at newsrooms across the country decreased by 21,200 jobs, according to Harvard University’s Nieman Journalism Lab. Such staff shrinkings have forced journalists, particularly at smaller publications, to do more with less.

Matt Carroll, who worked on the four-person Boston Globe Spotlight team that blew the door open on the Catholic Church’s clergy sex abuse scandal in the early 2000s, notes that such losses, while discouraging, shouldn’t necessarily keep newsrooms away from hard-hitting investigative reporting.

“People should not be scared off by the term because it doesn’t always mean going months and months without publishing anything,” Carroll said. “It can be done where one person works really hard on something for one week and has a pretty good hit.”

The Pulitzer Prize-winning Berkshire Eagle, with a print circulation of about  22,000, is considered a great example of investigative journalism working at the small-market level. Recently, Parnass’s team uncovered a local museum’s plan to sell cherished artworks by Norman Rockwell and other artists.

“If there are enough hours in the day, you really can go deep on lots of things around you,” Parnass said. “The Berkshire Museum is one of those stories.”

Given its recent popularization, Parnass believes newsrooms should consider investing in investigative reporting to preserve long term survival.

“One of the fundamental challenges for newspapers is to be valued and indispensable. If you break news down to traffic accidents and a daily churn of commonplace daily news, there are a lot of places where you can get that or just tune it out. What really has teeth is reporting that just makes you go ‘what the hell.’  “Stuff like surprises and bombshells that have public value.”  

 

-Dylan Rossiter (@ByDylanRossiter)