Our Exposé episode called As Likely As Not is one of our strongest, not least because of how it evolved as we were working on it. It began as a story about sick U.S. nuclear workers being denied benefits they deserved. In the course of shooting it became a tragic story about one of those workers passing away before he and his family were fully compensated for his illness. Then, just as we were finishing the edit, without our ever having planned or imagined it, the story also became about a woman losing her job.

That woman is Laura Frank, an investigative reporter until recently employed by Denver's Rocky Mountain News. The Rocky went under on February 27, 2009, after having published newspapers in Colorado since 1859. Laura Frank's investigation for the Rocky, DEADLY DENIAL, became the basis for our show. Now we have commissioned her to do an Exposé original report, and it is a timely one indeed: an investigation into what some are concerned is the imminent demise of investigative journalism itself. It's a three-parter, and we're proud to present it exclusively on our site. She calls it The Withering Watchdog.

Tom Casciato
Executive Producer
Exposé: America's Investigative Reports

The Withering Watchdog, Part One
by Laura Frank

On a long, tortuous day in May, Mc Nelly Torres waited for some word.

"I knew it was coming," said the 41-year-old reporter.

It was layoff day at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, one of eight major daily newspapers owned by the bankrupt Tribune Company Torres had watched as the phones began to ring at some colleagues' desks. Before the day was over, 30 journalists would be laid off — one of every five in the newsroom.

As the day wore on, Torres had trouble concentrating on work. She took a walk around the block. She drank coffee. She read her Bible in the bathroom. As she approached her desk around 4 p.m., a colleague stopped her.

"She said 'Congratulations,'" Torres recalled. "'You're a finalist for the Green Eyeshade.'"

Mc Nelly Torres' reporting has sent crooks to jail and changed laws. She lost her job at the South Florida Sun-Sentinel in May when one of every five journalists there was laid off.
Torres' reporting had been recognized before with the prestigious Southeastern journalism award, and other awards, too. Over the years, her work at five different newspapers had sent crooks to jail and changed laws. She'd uncovered bribery on a Texas school board, deception among South Carolina environmental regulators, and failure in Oklahoma homicide investigations.

This time, the judges had selected Torres' work revealing how high temperatures, high taxes and lack of infrastructure left Floridians paying some of the highest gas prices in the nation. But the satisfaction Torres felt from the recognition was short-lived. Half an hour after learning she was a finalist for the award, Torres' phone rang. It was the Sun-Sentinel's human resources manager.

Torres' job was gone.

"I was able to make a difference in my career," Torres says now. "I'm proud of that."

Similar scenarios played out at almost every one of the nation's top 100 newspapers in the past two years. So far this year, three major daily newspapers — the Rocky Mountain News in Denver, the Seattle Post Intelligencer, and the Tuscon Citizen — have closed and five news companies face default on suffocating debt. Radio and TV news operations have been gutted, as well.

Researchers are trying to quantify exactly how many investigative reporters have been lost, but clearly the numbers are large. They include those who, like Torres, might not have carried the title on their business cards, but did the complex, time-consuming work to unravel information for the public good.

In all, more than 25,000 journalists were cut from newsrooms where they were, as Torres put it, making a difference.

Employment at U.S. Daily Newspapers, 1978-2008 58f968ce-60d1-11de-9c10-000255111976
Employment at daily newspapers in the U.S. plummeted last year to 46,700, the lowest number since 1981.

But why?

The story line has been repeated time after time: The internet is killing mainstream media, sending the Fourth Estate into record-breaking revenue declines. Online ads garner only a fraction of the dropping print revenue. When faced with cuts, investigative reporting is often the first target. Investigative journalism takes more time and more experienced journalists to produce, and it often involves legal battles. It's generally the most expensive work the news media undertakes.

But an Exposé original investigation has found there's more to the story.

The decline in investigative reporting — the in-depth stories that hold the powerful accountable in a democracy — began long before the current economic collapse. The crisis that has pundits worried about the survival of serious journalism in America began with what the journalism industry did to itself.

Brant Houston led the Investigative Reporters and Editors organization for more than a decade. His work put him in the newsrooms of almost every major media outlet in the nation. Houston says he saw the problems starting years ago.

"I was seeing first-hand that places weren't putting their resources in in-depth reporting, or training, or actually doing the things that would have ensured efficiency and quality," said Houston, now Knight Chair in investigative reporting at the University of Illinois. "Corporations came and harvested the profits."

Top Five U.S. Newspaper Companies: Average Operating Income, 1988-2008 (adjusted for inflation) 04dead46-60fc-11de-b74a-000255111976
Twenty years of profit data show that even during last year's economic collapse, the top five media companies still made more profits, when adjusted for inflation, than they'd averaged over the past two decades. Operating income is defined as revenue from business operations after operating expenses are deducted from gross income.
Exposé analyzed the financial records of the five most profitable publicly-traded newspaper companies in America. Not only was each profitable during last year's apocalyptic financial collapse — averaging nearly $294 million in profits each — but when adjusted for inflation, the profits these media giants made in 2008 were higher than their 20-year average profits.

In other words, even in the worst economy since the Great Depression, these top media companies made more profit than they had on average for the past two decades.

But they're paying a price for profit, Houston said. "They're killing themselves."

Media companies have been siphoning money from their newsroom budgets to pad profits, which many then leveraged to buy more properties in recent years. In the current recession, some are finding their financial positions may be too weak to weather the storm. Investigative stories — with their relatively high costs and potential to turn out to be dead ends — are often among the first things to get the axe.

Much of the concern about investigative reporting has focused on newspapers, whose staff size and format have been traditionally home to the most local, in-depth reporting. They are the bread and butter of investigative reporting, staffing the daily beat coverage that allows the public to keep an eye on public affairs, and marshaling forces when wrongdoing requires a closer look.

But there are some aspects of investigative reporting the public might not fully realize.

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