While many stations across the country have cut back on staff and airtime devoted to in-depth, exclusive stories, others are determined to remain on the beat, saying it’s vital to their local identity and mission.
Investigative reporting has long been a way for TV stations to promote themselves, build journalistic reputations and, often, improve lives in their communities.
But many stations have been cutting back on their investigative teams or eliminating them altogether. They can no longer justify the high costs of dedicating reporters, producers and other resources to digging out and presenting good, tough news stories.
Financially troubled owners and managers are more interested in building audiences and revenue than they are reputations.
“Investigative reporting is taking a hit,” says Wally Dean, director of training for the Committee for Concerned Journalists.
No doubt about it, says Mark Horvit, executive director of the Investigative Reporters and Editors. “Nationally, there is less investigative work being done at local TV stations than there was just a few years ago.”
But both say that investigative reporting with call letters is far from extinct. “I don’t think stations are going to let it die completely,” says Dean.
And that seems to be the case. While some hard-pressed stations have jettisoned their I-Teams, others have merely trimmed them back while still others seem as committed as ever.
Allbritton’s flagship ABC affiliate in Washington, WJLA, bounced its award-winning investigative reporter Roberta Baskin last January (along with 30 other staffers) just after she had won an Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia University Award for a series on dental clinics that may be doing painful, unnecessary dental work on children from low-income families on Medicaid.
Her dismissal was all about money, says Baskin, who is now working for the inspector general of the U.S. Health and Human Services. “It takes longer to develop [investigative] stories and there’s a potential for litigation.”
Even though WJLA no longer has a designated I-Team, it still does investigative reporting, says Bill Lord, vice president and station manager.
“We do it out of the general pool of reporters,” he says. “We don’t do it as much. We don’t spend as much time on it. We are stretching people to do more with less.”
And Lord is confident that investigative reporting will see better days. “The pendulum will swing back,” he says. “I don’t think it will swing back as far as it existed in the 1990s and early 2000s, but it’s not going away.”
Investigative reporter Stuart Watson still works at WCNC, Belo’s NBC affiliate in Charlotte, N.C., but with fewer resources.
“I used to have a producer; now I have none. We used to have three photographers assigned to the unit. Now we have one who does a lot of other things. We used to have another full-time investigative reporter and now there’s just me.”
And, he adds, he has been asked to cover news that might normally be handled by a general assignment reporter.
“What I am really worried about is that television is going the way of AM radio, becoming a rip-and-read, headline service that doesn’t generate much of its own content,” he says. “Once upon a time AM radio hired reporters.”
In Cincinnati, financial pressures forced WCPO, Scripps’ ABC affiliate, to trim the size of its investigative unit, says News Director Bob Morford. Several years ago there were three full-time investigative reporters, he says. Today, there is only one with an anchor sometimes pitching in.
“Obviously the I-Team is on air less because it has fewer people working on it,” he says. “We probably lost about 40 percent of what we were doing.”
But the station is determined to hang on to what’s left. At this point, he says, WCPO is the only broadcaster in the market with a unit. “It’s important to the community to have somebody doing this type of work.”
After 22 years at CBS’s WBZ Boston, investigative reporter Joe Bergantino called it quits last year after the I-Team’s only producer was laid off, leaving him the sole member of the unit.
“More and more broadcast companies are thinking about investigative reporting as a luxury as opposed to a necessity. If they do think about it, they think about it more as a marketing tool than as a core mission of what they should be doing.”
Today, the former TV reporter is helping train investigative journalists at the New England Center for Investigative Journalism at Boston University (NECIR-BU).
Despite the growing list of cutbacks, investigative reporting continues to thrive at some stations. For instance, Belo is showing no signs of pulling back on its award-winning investigative reporting in Dallas (WFAA) and Houston (KHOU).
Earlier this year, WFAA’s “News 8 Investigates” won the station’s first Alfred I. DuPont-Columbia Gold Baton. And despite reductions in the newsroom, the investigative unit at the ABC affiliate remains untouched. It includes two reporters, a producer and a photographer
“It’s in our best interest to provide quality journalism and to do stories that significantly change communities,” says Michael Valentine, vice president of news at the ABC affiliate.
The story is the same at KHOU, an CBS affiliate. “Public service-oriented investigative reporting is just as strong as it ever was here,” says David Raziq, executive producer of KHOU’s “11News Defenders,” which also includes two reporters and a photographer/editor.
Last month, it received a News & Documentary Emmy for its ongoing investigation of the Houston Police Department’s practice of undercounting homicides.
Right now, local broadcasters are making a mistake by downsizing or breaking up their investigative teams, says Raziq. Stations need something “unique, something viewers can’t get anywhere else,” he says.
That competitive thinking is shared by Landmark’s CBS affiliate in Nashville, WTVF.
“We want to be digging up something that no one else has,” says chief investigative reporter Phil Williams.
“NewsChannel Five Investigates,” which includes three reporters, two producers/photographers and a producer, has scored with recent stories examining out-of-control spending on a proposed convention center and the reliability of common smoke detectors.
Williams, who is a member of the IRE board, believes that reports of the demise of investigative journalism at TV stations is “greatly exaggerated.”
“There are definitely some stations that have either cut back their investigative units or have started demanding that their investigative reporters do more general assignment type stories,” he says. “But what I hear on the street is that may not be a permanent thing.”
McGraw-Hill’s KMGH Denver also continues to devote considerable resources to investigative stories. Its “7News Investigates” has three reporters, two producers and a photographer.
But that kind of commitment brings some responsibility. “We have to prove our worth,” says John Ferrugia, one of the reporters. “We’d better produce material that people turn to and say ‘you are not wasting my time.’ “
The TV station captured a 2008 Peabody award for its report on domestic abuse of children and the subsequent reform of Denver’s Department of Human Services.
WFOR, the CBS O&O in Miami, is another station whose identify is wrapped up in its investigative journalism. According to News Director Adrienne Roark, the station maintains an investigative squad with an executive producer, four reporters, two photographers, a producer and an editor. And, Roark says, she hopes to hire another producer next year.
This, despite intense financial pressures, she says. “For the past year-and-a-half, we’ve gone through three rounds of layoffs. It’s been a very hard time for this station, but we made a conscious decision that we are dedicated to investigative journalism. Now more than ever you need journalists out there investigating problems and digging things up and trying to hold people accountable.”
For investigative journalism to make a full comeback in broadcasting, it may need some outside help, perhaps through partnership with independent nonprofit investigative journalists.
Bergantino’s NECIR-BU is one example. In Boston, it’s working with The Boston Globe, New England Cable News and noncommercial WMUR-FM.
Because of the association with New England Cable News, Bergantino isn’t interested in teaming with any of the other TV stations in Boston, but he would consider stations in Providence, R.I., and other New England markets.
In San Francisco, ABC O&O KGO joined forces with another nonprofit news organization, California Watch. Together they looked at how Homeland Security dollars have been spent since 9/11.
“It was a great collaborative effort,” says Kevin Keehsan, KGO’s vice president for news. “They did some heavy lifting on some document searches. We got interviews that they didn’t have. We were able to put together a great package of stories that ran on our air and on our Web site.”