Investigative reporting with a small staff & a small budget: It’s Possible

November 3, 2014

By Al Cross
Into the Issues

SAN ANTONIO, TX—“When you think of investigative journalism, you typically don’t think of small towns.” That’s how Tommy Thomason, director of the Texas Center for Community Journalism at Texas Christian University, started a challenging panel at the National Newspaper Association’s annual convention.

After listing the reasons behind his statement—lack of time, staff, resources, techniques, training and outside pressures—Thomason said, “You can deal with all of these pressures. … You can still do real investigative reporting.” Then he introduced panelists who proved his point.

Mark Horvit, executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, noted that large news outlets have largely pulled out of rural America, so “If you don’t do it, nobody’s going to.” Thomason called that “maybe the most important thing I’ve heard this morning.”

The need for such sales pitches was demonstrated by Marshall Helmberger, publisher of the Timberjay in northern Minnesota. He asked two questions of the crowd: Did they publish newspapers, and did they do investigative reporting? About half as many hands went up in response to the second question.

Helmberger said he got a similar response at a recent Minnesota Press Association meeting, “but the nice thing about it was, the room was packed, so what it told me was there was a lot of interest in small-town investigative reporting.”

Then why isn’t there more of it? For “a lot of them … it’s just plain fear,” Helmberger said. “It does take a stiff upper lip. … We have had boycotts.” But he said his paper also has the largest circulation of any weekly in its region, partly because of its investigative work.

“People in our region have learned that having a newspaper that takes its watchdog role seriously, though it can be an irritant at times, is a community asset.”

He added later, “You’ve got problems that could use some attention from your paper. … All it takes is one enterprising person to ask the right questions.”

The Timberjay has revealed much about the school-building scheme by Johnson Controls Inc., which Helberger said required “the largest tax increase local residents had ever seen.”

The Timberjay’s story shows the impact that investigative journalism, and the lack of it, can have. Voters in the Timberjay’s part of the geographcially bifurcated school district overwhelmingly opposed the bond issue for the plan, but were outvoted by those in the other part, which has no local paper and was persuaded by weekly Johnson Controls newsletters, Helmberger said.

Later, the paper exposed shoddy construction work on the new schools, and fended off the company’s threat of lawsuit by telling it that the paper’s defense would be truth and that it would be happy to put all its documents in front of a local jury.

“We don’t carry libel insurance,” Helmberger said, “that’s why we always make sure what we’re putting in the paper is accurate and fair.”

The personal nature of community journalism can help you be certain about what you publish, said Horvit and Samantha Swindler, whose investigation of a Kentucky sheriff when she was editor of The Times Tribune in Corbin, KY, led to a 15-year prison term for the Whitley County sheriff.

“You should never print something that you wouldn’t say to somebody’s face,” said Swindler, whose work earned her the Tom and Pat Gish Award from the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues for courage, tenacity and integrity in rural journalism.

She offered another principle to follow: Don’t be so focused on turning over rocks that you forget the more traditional civic functions of a community newspaper. “When you print the good stuff,” she said, “people will listen to you when you say something is wrong.”

Another Gish Award winner, Jonathan Austin of the now-defunct Yancey County News in North Carolina, said the availability of data on the Internet has made it easier for one person in a small town to do investigative reporting. His work showed how the county sheriff was relying on votes from the criminal community.

Swindler’s probe began after she heard her sports reporter say that if someone needed a gun they should go to the back room of the sheriff’s barbershop. After deciding to pursue the story, Swindler found that she had a reporter who “didn’t think this was the kind of story we should be doing,” and quit. She had no better luck with a fresh journalism school graduate, and finally hired a 20-year-old who had a degree in criminal justice and told him, “If you don’t do anything else, this is what you’re going to do.”

The paper made an open-records request that also sought a physical inspection of the evidence room, something that the Kentucky open-records law doesn’t mention. “Sometimes you gotta bluff ‘em,” Swindler said. It paid off.

Two days later, the sheriff staged a burglary of the evidence room and said the records Swindler had sought were also taken. That got the federal firearms bureau interested, she said: “If he had not responded to our open-records request in this crazy way, the ATF probably wouldn’t have gotten involved.”

The investigation developed slowly, but one story led to another, partly by generating tips. “We took the chunks as we had them and we printed them,” said Swindler, now the editor of the Forest Grove Leader in Oregon.

Kathy Cruz of the Hood County News in Texas said she follows the same approach, which also helps develop support from readers who may be skeptical of initial investigative efforts.

“Readers need us,” Cruz said. “They just don’t always realize … maybe it is good to have a newspaper we can trust, who can watch our backs for us.” Her paper, published by former NNA president Jerry Tidwell, has a button on its home page for readers to submit tips for investigations.

Cruz also went after her local sheriff for temporarily freeing felons, some of whom he had failed to send to state prison. She got him to admit it with a direct approach: a call to his cell phone.

“I said, are you granting weekend furloughs to convicted felons?” The sheriff hesitated a moment and said, “Yes.”

“Well, how do you know they’re not molesting kids or cooking meth?” He replied, “I guess I don’t.” At the next election, he got only 19 percent of the vote.

Cruz also exposed mismanagement of a local charity headed by powerful people. “Sometimes all you have to do is not ignore what’s put in front of you,” she said. “You have to have a strong sense of right and wrong.”

She offered this final point to the publishers in the room: “Advertising is the bread and butter of the business, but newspapers should also be in business to make a difference.”

Horvit noted that IRE and the institute give two fellowships a year to rural journalists to attend IRE’s Computer-Assisted Reporting Boot Camp.

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