Investing in Watchdog Reporting
‘… the Journal Sentinel has built a 10-person Watchdog Team with a robust Web presence called Watchdog Online.’
Journalists are trained to be skeptics, and investigative reporters ratchet up the skepticism a notch, almost to a point of paranoia. So when Milwaukee Journal Sentinel Editor Martin Kaiser and Managing Editor George Stanley hired me in November 2006 to help build one of the largest investigative teams in the United States, I encountered doubters among my peers.
Could the Journal Sentinel pull this off? The newspaper certainly had a rich tradition of explanatory and investigative reporting. But the paper had gone years without a dedicated project team. So when I started putting feelers out to a couple of people I considered hiring from other newspapers, I was met with long pauses and blank stares. We’ll believe it when we see it, they said. Their reaction was understandable given today’s climate as newsrooms mostly slash and cut.
There’s something awfully rewarding about bucking the trend. During the past 18 months, the Journal Sentinel has built a 10-person Watchdog Team with a robust Web presence called Watchdog Online. Despite rising newsprint costs, shrinking classified sections, and numerous other challenges, we’ve found new—often Web-centric—ways to invest in public service journalism while also managing two staff buyouts and dramatically boosting our online breaking news output.
Our investment in this high-impact journalism has paid dividends. The Journal Sentinel won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting for uncovering illegal pension deals that cost Milwaukee County taxpayers $50 million and a Sigma Delta Chi Award for a two-part series examining the health risks posed to the human endocrine system by bisphenol A, a hormone-mimicking compound found in numerous household products, including many used by babies and children. In June, American Journalism Review profiled our watchdog team. The next month, Editor and Publisher named the Journal Sentinel as one of “10 That Do It Right.” The Associated Press Managing Editors have also selected us as a finalist for the Innovator of the Year Award for our watchdog work in print and online.
Diversity Is Critical
In an industry beset by unprecedented challenges, our investment represents a “good news” story that began with courage and commitment from the newspaper’s top editors, Kaiser and Stanley. Next, it required us to take a multidimensional approach. Instead of emphasizing only ambitious projects that can take months, quick-hit investigations, blogs, consumer-focused watchdog stories, and searchable databases are stressed. We have launched a popular Citizen Watchdog site, a one-stop center for Wisconsin residents wanting to do their own poking around. It includes links to campaign contributions, lobbying reports, business records, government meeting agendas, and much more.
Along the way, we manage to mix in some longer-term watchdog projects. Each of our award-winning investigative projects (about pensions and chemicals) took about six months from sign-off to publication and had immediate impact. Dave Umhoefer’s pension story prompted Milwaukee County officials to turn themselves in to the IRS and launched a criminal investigation. Our “Chemical Fallout” series by Susanne Rust, Meg Kissinger, and Cary Spivak prompted Congress to hold hearings, and their reporting on potentially dangerous chemicals hidden in everyday products continues.
The investigative culture at the Journal Sentinel extends well beyond our Watchdog Team. Daily beat reporters are getting into the act—helping to brand the Journal Sentinel as the go-to Web site for hard-hitting, high-impact investigative reporting in Wisconsin. Since February 2007, we’ve published more than 50 stories under the “Journal Sentinel Watchdog Report” label. Many were produced by daily beat writers working on their own or in tandem with members of the Watchdog Team.
A few months after we launched the Watchdog Team, Kaiser decided he wanted to see more quick-hit, consumer-focused watchdog stories. To get a sense of what might be possible, we looked at other news organizations, including the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, and Florida Today. We then set out to create our model with a distinct look and feel and hired a team of two reporters. Raquel Rutledge moved from a general assignment position, and we hired Ellen Gabler just as she was finishing her master’s degree at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where she focused on investigative reporting.
With Rutledge and Gabler on board, Stanley came up with the name “Public Investigator” (P.I.) and added a motto that appears with all of our stories: “Taking tips, chasing leads, solving problems.” Rutledge and Gabler mostly write about people getting a raw deal. Inevitably, when they report one story it generates a flood of tips from a public that is clearly hungry for a place where their experiences merit attention and action. Of course, not every tip we receive turns into a newspaper story. But many of them lead to items on the P.I. Team’s blog, which is updated at least once a day.
Our experiences with blogs like this one have helped transform how we handle nuggets of reporting in the Journal Sentinel newsroom. A few years ago, if a reporter learned of a juicy news item that wasn’t quite interesting enough to merit a newspaper story, the item would remain in the notebook, either filed away in a cabinet or tossed away. Now blogs offer a perfect outlet for these little gems. This blog is used, too, for a little marketing—teasing stories that are soon to appear on the Web site or in the newspaper. And the success of the P.I. Team’s blog inspired the Watchdog Team to launch a second blog called “Dogged.”
We’ve given the P.I. Team lots of latitude. They have written about shady political dealings and problems in local schools. But their primary mission is being a watchdog for local consumers. Rutledge and Gabler often tell their stories through the experiences of a single individual, but are able to connect their experiences to larger trends and problems occurring in Wisconsin.
The P.I. Team has proven to be innovators, offering readers something we call “extras”—self-contained quick facts. These include everything from product recall announcements to spreading the word about broken streetlights that need attention. They are featured as stand-alone items on our blog and also at the bottom of our stories. One of my favorites is something we call “Tick Tock.” The reporters start a stopwatch when they enter places like a post office. They report how long it takes to get served—the type of thing that every reader can relate to. In a small way, this kind of reporting helps hold public institutions accountable.
Is the public noticing the Journal Sentinel’s watchdog additions? Thanks to Web tracking tools, we know they are. Our Public Investigator features consistently rank among our most clicked stories on our Web site and are always among our more popular watchdog stories. We’ve heard lots of anecdotal evidence from appreciative readers to back up what the data tell us and, of course, there is the e-mail box filling up with more story tips. Our other watchdog offerings also drive Web traffic. Searchable databases on our “Data on Demand” page log as many as 800,000 clicks a month, and clicks on our Watchdog Online pages—excluding our searchable databases—have shown double-digit growth nearly every month since November 2007.
The investment is most definitely paying off.
Mark Katches is the assistant managing editor for projects and investigations at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.