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Investigative reporting: Will it die with newspapers or can online journalists pull up their socks and fill the watchdog role?

Posted on: May 21, 2009

By Jean Latz Griffin

A front page story in the New York Times on Thursday pointed out that opponents of the death penalty are having trouble getting DNA tests done on convicts they believe to be innocent, in part because newspapers have cut back on investigative reporters to save money.

The reporters’ shoe-leather reporting has been necessary to find witnesses, dig into courtroom errors and uncover the other facts that lawyers need to fight these cases, according to the Innocence Project in New York, which is affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.

This is seen by most as one more example of how serious journalism will be diminished if newspapers disappear. Others, however, contend that it isn’t the paper and delivery method that is necessary for that kind of watchdog reporting, but well-trained journalists who understand the role of a free press in keeping a democracy healthy.

Well, yes. It’s hard to argue that it’s the physical paper and ink that does it. And certainly some online publications have produced good work. PolitiFact‘s Pulitzer this year is proof of that.

But there is also a good argument that much of what gets picked up online originates in newspapers. Many also question whether most online journalists have enough training in investigative reporting or desire to fill the watchdog role of a free press if those doing that level of reporting for print retire or leave the field.

To start an exploration into this subject, late Thursday afternoon I went looking  for who online had picked up the DNA story so far and how they had handled it.

A Google search of the blogosphere (full disclosure: I own stock), turned up 18 places where the story had landed. None showed any original reporting.

Most of them reprinted a few grafs of the article with attribution and links to the original. These included newspaper blogs, activist blogs and general blogs. One blog from India mixed paraphrased sections with direct quotes, but gave no indication where it had come from.

Two blogs expressed an opinion on the story. 5280 Denver’s Magazine, ran two grafs of the original article with a link and the headline, “Don’t think the decline of American newspapers is a matter of life and death? Think again.”

One of Gawker‘s blogs, Consequences, took another tack. Now I suppose I should give blogger Hamilton Nolan the benefit of the doubt that this is satire, but I sort of think he really means what he says:

What’s the worst part of the decline of newspapers? Oh maybe it’s all the innocent people who will DIE. Every time you don’t buy a paper you practically slip the noose around a condemned man’s neck!
… Anyhow, file this away with the other consequences of the decline of newspapers: fewer staffers to put some real thought into writing up your wedding announcement; fewer full-time Pet Beat reporters to cover kittens, and their cuteness; and the increasing chance that the reporter that lives next door to you may have to relocate to a cheaper house, meaning nobody will be there to alert you when your house catches afire as you sleep, and you burn up.

See, it’s putting a piece about the cuteness of kittens on the same level with an investigation into DNA tests for potentially innocent people that gives one pause.

And it doesn’t help when Gawker founder and chief Nick Denton tells Ad Age that he’s fine with online journalism taking a pass on a civic role. And yet, to be fair, Denton does suggest a solution that is gaining traction. He says:

People — particularly if they’re under 40 — have news priorities other than those of the editors of The New York Times or producers of the “NBC Nightly News.” A new tablet from Apple — or last night’s episode of “Gossip Girl” or the adventures of the hipster grifter — is a bigger deal than the latest petty scandal in Albany. You think that’s a damning indictment of modern society and a recipe for idiocracy? Fine. Start a nonprofit to cover all the local-government news you think a healthy society needs. But don’t expect advertisers — or commercially-minded publishers or readers, for that matter — to share your interests.

Two separate questions are raised in this juxtaposition of a NYT article and a Gawker blog on the same topic and the comments of Denton, chief of what has been called one of the Web’s most successful and influential blog networks.

  • Can online reporting pull up its socks and do good investigative work?
  • Does the nonprofit sector have a role in saving print newspapers?

Comments and poll answers welcome.

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