In the last year and a half, Scripps Television has made new hires and put existing staffers through special training as part of a concerted effort to improve investigative reporting at its nine news-producing stations. “It’s about serving your community and providing them with journalism and stories they need to know about,” says Bob Sullivan, a former Scripps station news director who, after a hiatus from TV news, rejoined the company in January 2010, in part to lead the effort.
For years, local TV broadcasting has been whittling away at its ability to conduct investigative or simply in-depth reporting as owners and managers have come to see it as more of a luxury than a necessity.
But at least one station group has been bucking the trend. In the last year and a half, Scripps Television has made new hires and put existing staffers through special training as part of a concerted effort to improve investigative reporting at its nine news-producing stations, says Bob Sullivan, Scripps Television VP of content.
“For me, it’s about serving your community and providing them with journalism and stories they need to know about,” says Sullivan, a former Scripps station news director who, after a hiatus from TV news, rejoined the company in January 2010, in part to lead the effort.
Since that time, Scripps has added eight reporters dedicated to investigative stories. That doesn’t include other new investigative-specific hires such as producers and multimedia journalists.
The new staff has helped build investigative units at stations, Sullivan says. The size, scope and financial commitment varies from station to station, he says.
For example, KNXV, the ABC affiliate in Phoenix (DMA 12), which had an 11-person investigative unit in its heyday, has been able to boost its team back up to eight after being reduced to a low of just five. In Tulsa (DMA 61), NBC affiliate KJRH now has a reporter, a producer and a part-time reporter, up from just one person 18 months ago.
Scripps also is giving existing staffers a boost with training, Sullivan says.
In June, the company sent 58 TV employees — reporters, multimedia reporters and producers — and six print staffers to Orlando to the annual Investigative Reporters and Editors conference, at which Scripps hosted a day of training for its staff before the regular conference even began.
The day included sessions on investigative reporting-related issues like collecting data and legal issues, as well as a surprise keynote by ABC News investigative reporter Brian Ross, Sullivan says. Scripps even had a recruiting booth on site.
“Investigative journalism is not cheap,” Sullivan says. Investigative reporting units require a higher caliber of personnel. In addition, they don’t produce the same number of stories as reporters dedicated to daily coverage. “It’s quality over quantity.”
Mark Horvit, IRE’s executive director, says Scripps’ efforts to revive investigative journalism is one of the more dramatic he has seen recently after years of cutbacks.
“I am optimistic,” Horvit says, adding that IRE membership is up and there is an uptick in requests for training. “We’re still not where we were several years ago, and we are certainly not where we need to be, but there are positive and hopeful trends and a lot of great work being done,” he says.
Although the Scripps effort is clearly very real, Horvit says, only time will tell whether the small, but growing buzz about bringing watchdog reporting back will come to fruition. “It’s easy to say. What comes from it, of course, is the question.”
Horvit says investigative reporting is virtually gone in many smaller markets in print and broadcast.
“The problem is that in too many markets, in too many communities, there are fewer people doing that work and in some cases nobody,” Horvit says. “That’s the loss for society,” he adds. An aggressive free press is needed to keep the powers that be in check.
Hovit also believes it makes good business sense for TV stations. “When you cut back service too much you start to lose our audience as well. The only way to have an exclusive voice and stand out is to present something audiences can’t get elsewhere and, in most cases, that’s the enterprise watchdog story.”
According to Sullivan, Scripps’ effort is paying off.
In April, for example, the Phoenix police chief retired after KNXV broke the story that he may have inflated kidnapping statistics to get federal grant money. In July 2010, reports produced by WXYZ, Scripps’ ABC affiliate in Detroit (DMA 11), had a hand in that city’s police chief resigning as well, Sullivan says.
Right around that time, veteran investigative reporter Scott Lewis joined WXYZ after leaving a gig he held for 22 years at WJBK, Detroit’s Fox O&O, “because they gutted their investigative unit.”
“I felt that I had set the bar high and could no longer hit it without support,” Lewis says.
After sitting on the sidelines for six months due to a no-compete clause in his contract, Lewis went to work for WXYZ, adding that Scripps’ commitment to investigative reporting is more than just lip service.
“They want good journalism, strong ethics and stories that hold people accountable,” Lewis says. “You don’t see that much in the TV business these days. So many stations go for the ‘flash and trash’ because it’s cheaper and easier to produce.”
Although investigative reporting is “an expensive proposition,” primarily because skilled investigative reporters command higher salaries and don’t produce stories as frequently as others, Lewis says he believes Scripps’ emphasis on watchdog reporting will ultimately be good for business as well as fulfilling its mission.
“People in Detroit are tired of being the laughing stock of the nation,” he says. “They are tired of the corruption, the incompetence and waste in government. They are tired of the criminals and con men who prey on people everyday.”
“I think Detroiters have a strong hunger for good investigative reporting and that will ultimately bring many of them to Channel 7,” Lewis says.
Sullivan, however, insists there’s more than just ratings behind Scripps’ effort into enhance enterprise reporting.
“It wasn’t research that said we should do this,” Sullivan says. “It’s not about the old ratings game,” he says. Of course, being different can’t hurt. Sullivan says that having strong investigative reporting separates Scripps stations from the rest of the pack.
“They are all kind of running one way and we are running the other way,” he says. “We are not saying that we’re better than anyone else. We’re just saying this is who we are.”