On a soggy December morning, a hillside above a busy Oregon highway gave way, and a torrent of mud, rock and trees buried the road, destroyed homes, and smashed cars. Our newspaper, The Oregonian, dutifully reported on the landslide and its immediate effects. One reporter then went further.
Michael Milstein, who covers natural resources, soon told readers that a state forestry college had clear-cut trees above the site. Engineers surmised the clear-cut set the stage for the slide.
Milstein showed readers that the newspaper was willing to probe beyond the headline of the moment and shine a light on those in authority who were accountable.
That’s watchdog reporting.
This kind of journalism remains a fundamental duty of a free press. In today’s unsettled news environment, watchdog reporting also is necessary for our survival. It sets professional journalists apart from bloggers and cell phone videographers, providing added value that readers and viewers simply can’t get anywhere else. Readers and viewers respond to watchdog stories, and we believe the stories build loyalty by helping keep journalism viable and relevant.
But reporters and editors face a growing challenge to their ability to produce watchdog reporting. It’s a matter of math. Fewer reporters keeping an eye on public and private institutions means diminished chances for discoveries such as Milstein’s.
At The Oregonian, we want to improve those chances. The newspaper’s editors targeted watchdog reporting as one emphasis to help sustain Oregon’s largest daily newspaper, both in print and online. The newspaper has a reputation for aggressive reporting. Yet many of us within the newspaper believed we weren’t doing enough watchdog work. It wasn’t for a lack of trying. As veteran investigative reporters, we had conducted a lot of in-house seminars over the years to teach fundamentals of watchdog reporting. The newspaper had also invested plenty of money to send journalists to conferences around the country.
But money for travel and conferences is disappearing from newsroom budgets, and freeing up reporters to attend training is ever more difficult. Despite the hunger and enthusiasm for our training sessions, we were never sure how much good we had done. Reporters rushed out of our training sessions all charged up about watchdog reporting, but what we preached didn’t seem to stick.
When we explored why, we discovered a few important reasons:
For starters, people had different ideas of what we meant by watchdog reporting; a lot of folks thought it had to mean big, eye-popping projects, but few had the time to tackle them.
We also found some editors and reporters lacked a shared understanding of what it took to find these stories. Despite the talk from editors, reporters were under no pressure—and often saw too little encouragement—to do more watchdog reporting and were too often on their own to deploy whatever lesson they had learned.
Watchdog reporting isn’t something you do once in awhile; it requires a continuous effort. Our short bursts of training weren’t enough for real change to endure.
How Training Works
So we sought a new idea—one mindful of cost, staff time, and effectiveness. We think we hit that trifecta with our current offer of a one-on-one coaching program of about 10 weeks to any reporter who wanted to take part. We figured five or six reporters would sign up. About 20 applied. The enthusiasm was so high for the idea that one reporter tracked us down to take part after just hearing a rumor about such a program.
We had a diverse pool apply—from suburban police reporters to seasoned veterans. In brief notes, they explained why they wanted in. A political reporter wanted help being tougher in interviews. A business reporter wanted help on pushing routine stories into watchdog stories. A transportation reporter wanted fresh skills to more closely examine state and regional agencies.
We began our work as coaches with each of us taking on four reporters (with plans to offer the same engagement with everyone else on our waiting list later this year). At first, we spent a long time with each reporter, learning about his or her work experience, beats and skills. From a list we provided, they ranked the reporting techniques they wanted to learn: hunting down public records and access to them, using and understanding documents, source development, beat development, interviewing, time management, online research, and how to better find, choose and frame stories. We made sure to include editors in the conversation.
Launching the program meant dialing back on our own reporting responsibilities, but the dividends seem worth it to us and to editors. We’re each pressing on with our own investigative projects, spending no more than a quarter of our workweek on coaching. This approach was carefully designed not to drag heavily on our time—or that of the reporters we’re coaching.
We produced an individual watchdog curriculum for each reporter. For the reporter who wants to better prepare for interviews, we help with the organization of questions, their precision and order. If help with conducting an interview is requested, we will tag along and even participate. Our intent is to show, not to tell.
It’s also helped to have a clear understanding of what we mean by watchdog reporting: journalism done to protect the health, welfare and safety of citizens, to stand up for justice and equal rights, to guard the public treasury, and scrutinize the integrity of our institutions and leaders. Watchdog reporting trains an eye on the powerful, speaks for the voiceless, challenges the conventional wisdom, and always seeks out opportunity to have an impact.
Our crucial step, though, is to show reporters how they can feather this work into the daily newspaper. This is not about project reporting. It is about the relentless deadline for tomorrow’s report. That’s what most reporters face the most often. And that’s where most of the additional watchdog reporting will develop at The Oregonian.
We’ve designed this to push reporters to put new skills to work immediately. If there is a breaking development on the transportation beat, the reporter seeking help with interviews will be guided through some specific exercises that both teach and get the story in the paper. If we don’t counsel on a story, we’ll be there the next day to engage in a probing discussion. Was there a watchdog element to the story? What could have been done to get one? What public record was used? What new source was developed? What source could have been developed?
Longer conversations will circle around the reporter’s beat, looking at how the coverage is organized and how that might change to generate more watchdog content. That will include looking at what institutions and agencies are covered—or being overlooked. The same with sources. Who’s not getting talked to? Who is best placed to point the reporter to watchdog stories?
Along the way, editors keep their control. In our role as coaches, we are neither assignment nor line editors. We’re keenly aware that good communication among the coaches, the reporters, and the editors is vital. Success in this program will mean both reporters and editors are happy with the results.
How will we know success? In the short run, we’re looking for stories that demonstrate the use of more questioning and probing reporting. Over time, though, we want to see more reporters sustain their watchdog approach to their beats. This effort doesn’t seek to turn every staffer into an investigative reporter. But we think it will give more reporters the tools they need to provide compelling news coverage that no other information source can match.
Les Zaitz and Brent Walth, a 2006 Nieman Fellow, are reporters at The Oregonian, who now are serving as watchdog coaches in the paper’s newsroom. They continue their assignments on the newspaper’s investigative team, where Zaitz shared the 2006 George Polk Award for National Reporting, and Walth shared the 2001 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service reporting with colleagues at the newspaper.