America needs skeptical, curious reporters reading through boring reports to find seeds of potential stories.
That’s how Sarah Karp of Catalyst Chicago dug up the Chicago Public Schools corruption story that produced a scandal and a guilty plea to criminal charges. I won’t detail the story here, but I encourage you to read the account by Sam Levine of Huffington Post.
I’ll just make a few points that concern me about the current and future state of journalism:
- Metro daily newspapers, which for decades produced the best investigative reporting on local schools, government and corruption in cities across the country, missed this story. Including one that long proclaimed itself the “World’s Greatest Newspaper.” The Chicago Tribune (which dropped that boast in 1976) and Chicago Sun-Times have cut their reporting staffs so severely that, even when Karp flagged the story to their attention, they didn’t pounce.
- Niche organizations such as Catalyst Chicago are doing important work to fill watchdog gaps as newsrooms shrink (and to shine lights in corners newsrooms traditionally missed).
- Niche organizations face their own financial challenges. The Levine piece notes that Catalyst has cut back, too.
- Governments at all levels continue trying to limit public access to the types of records that drive this kind of watchdog journalism. We need to be vigilant in defending sunshine laws.
Somehow watchdog reporting continues. My former Digital First Media colleagues at the Torrance Daily Breeze in California won a Pulitzer Prize this year for more investigative reporting on corruption in local schools. But one of the members of the winning team, Rob Kuznia, had left the newspaper for a public-relations job by the time the prizes were announced.
The supply of investigative journalism, especially at the local level, has never been able to keep up with the demand. And I’m pretty sure we are falling further behind.
But I have boundless admiration for the journalists who continue this important work in difficult circumstances and uncertain times. We need more reporters like Sarah Karp reading those boring reports.
— Sam Levine (@srl) October 26, 2015