Regional journalists sharpen watchdog reporting skillsBy Dustin Bleizeffer and Gregory Nickerson — April 15, 2014
The small nonprofit news organization WyoFile.com filed a public records request about a Department of Energy stimulus program that allocated $10 million in taxpayer funds to a carbon sequestration characterization study in Wyoming. The subsequent investigative report raised questions that helped launch a U.S. Department of Justice inquiry into the program.
That reporting, along with regular in-depth enterprise coverage focused on policy and government accountability, has helped enhance a media landscape in Wyoming that sometimes struggles — alongside the nation’s news industry — with declining revenue. In this environment, reporters and editors across the spectrum are trying to figure out how to have more meaningful impact with limited resources. Part of the answer is arming staff with the skills and the tools used by the best in the business.
“More and more news organizations are starting to re-invest. We’re seeing that across the board — broadcast, print, online,” said Investigative Reporters & Editors executive director Mark Horvit, an associate professor at the Missouri School of Journalism. Horvit helped lead a workshop on investigative news in Laramie this past weekend.
More than two dozen reporters, editors, educators and students gathered at the University of Wyoming campus to sharpen their reporting skills in what might be considered a re-emerging interest to produce more in-depth news coverage. The 2014 Wyoming Watchdog Workshop was hosted by WyoFile.com and UW’s Communication and Journalism Department, and conducted by Investigative Reporters & Editors — a national nonprofit dedicated to improving the quality of news reporting.
“It was a two hour drive, taking a Saturday off, but it is well worth it when you have such smart people, and people in journalism,” said Eric Gorski, investigative and projects reporter at the Denver Post. “We compete with each other in some cases. We also understand that we are all in the same boat, and there is a strong collaborative nature in this business.”
Attendees represented Wyoming’s major newspapers, as well as small dailies and radio and television broadcasters throughout the Rocky Mountain Region. The group learned about a growing collection of online investigative reporting tools and databases, how to fight successful open records battles, and how to create more transparency in campaign finance in state politics. The workshop also included training in computer-assisted reporting. It’s part of IRE’s traveling Watchdog Workshop, funded with a generous donation from Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, the same foundation that has supported WyoFile.
“Market research is showing that audiences want more, and if they can’t get unique enterprise content they’re not going to come back,” Horvit told WyoFile. “So more and more places are re-investing. There are job ads all over our website now for people with investigative skills or data analysis skills — all that kind of stuff — way more than we’ve had in the past.”
In Wyoming, media outlets are placing more emphasis on education, health care and government accountability reporting — sometimes dedicating staff members to focus in specific areas such as the state’s prolific energy industry, as is the case with the Casper Star-Tribune and Wyoming Public Media. Enterprises like WyoFile.com join the ranks of dozens of nonprofit online organizations dedicated to enterprise and investigative news, often partnering with their traditional for-profit colleagues. Big players in this arena include ProPublica.org and The Texas Tribune. WyoFile.com is a member of the Investigative News Network, an association of nonpartisan nonprofit news organizations with some 80 members across North America.
“The combination of these new investigative and new online organizations where — frankly, a lot of people used to work for traditional news organizations now work, right? That’s helped fill part of the gap,” said Horvit.
“We don’t need to go and cover the county fair on Saturday to fill space in the newspaper,” said Gorski of the Denver Post. “We have to make choices. We have to develop resources (reporters and investigative efforts). This shows the public we are valuable at a time when we are under such financial pressure; ‘Look what we do. Look at the services we provide. Turn to us. Help support us.’ Whether it is buying a newspaper subscription or donating to a non-profit, we have to show people that it’s something worth investing in.”
In-depth reporting can take a variety of forms. In its 2013 awards presentation, IRE gave praise to national stories about the National Security Agency and waste in the Medicare drug prescription system. WyoFile’s reporting has drawn attention to the now defunct federal royalty-in-kind program for oil and natural gas. It revealed Wyoming’s devastating workplace safety status, and it has exposed the influence of outside interest groups such as the American Legislative Exchange Council on Wyoming lawmakers.
Wyoming’s small news organizations typically have a local focus, yet their investigative stories can play a critical role in informing the public and fostering engagement in civic matters on the state and national level.
Kristen Czaban, managing editor of the Sheridan Press, a daily newspaper, attended the Wyoming Watchdog Workshop and she brought along Sheridan Press government reporter Hannah Wiest.
“(Wiest) obviously deals with issues that can be investigated deeper,” said Czaban. “One thing that’s a struggle in Wyoming is for small newspapers to do that investigative reporting. A lot of small weeklies (in Wyoming) have a small staff. … So it is harder, but it’s extremely important that we do it.”
Jim Angell of the Wyoming Press Association said he’s seeing more small papers use computer-assisted reporting to learn valuable information about their communities. In a matter of minutes reporters can uncover and analyze data that leads to valuable investigations.
“Why is it important for Wyoming? Same reason it’s important for Chicago,” Angell said. “So that people can know what (elected officials) are doing with their money, and they can better rule themselves. It’s that’s simple.”
IRE director Mark Horvit shares his thoughts on data-driven investigative journalismProduced by Poynter.
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