November 16, 2018

Event Coverage Highlight

Beth Knobel’s Book Finds that Watchdog Journalism Is ‘Thriving’

Left to right: Beth Knobel, Steven Waldman and Kim Murphy. Photo: Chad Bouchard.

by Chad Bouchard

Despite more than two decades of turbulent times in the news business, investigative journalism is thriving. That’s a key conclusion outlined in a new book from OPC member Beth Knobel, who is an associate professor at Fordham University and a former CBS News producer. On Oct. 17, Knobel moderated a discussion at the Book Culture bookstore near Columbia University to discuss the state of watchdog reporting, and celebrate the launch of her book, The Watchdog Still Barks: How Accountability Reporting Evolved for the Digital Era.

Knobel studied the front pages of nine newspapers of varying sizes across the U.S., to paint a broad portrait of how public service journalism has changed since 1991 as the advent of the Internet transformed the industry.

“This book points to growth in accountability reporting, and that newspapers are able to dig deeper into what’s happening than ever before,” Knobel said. “Even though there have been huge job cuts at these papers.”

OPC member Kim Murphy, who formerly worked as national editor and assistant managing editor for national and foreign news at the Los Angeles Times, said she saw the Times navigate an identity crisis as the paper struggled to adapt to the digital realm. She said the paper went through a period of “some of the most inane journalism” that focused on click-bait stories and trending topics, but eventually found that investigative reporting connects most with readers.

“What we realized was that really good work, and especially really good accountability journalism, sells. And it was only a matter of time before we reinvigorated the investigative team and hired a new assistant managing editor for investigations. It’s been a process of realizing that’s what readers want.”

Murphy now works as deputy national editor for enterprise at The New York Times.

Knobel said she found that that smaller investigative staffs are actually doing more muckraking than larger staffs in the past. “In a way, what I’m seeing doesn’t really make intuitive sense.”

Steven Waldman, president and co-founder of Report for America, said that while investigative reporting desks may be thriving, a key source of local insight has still been lost.

“With newspapers’ and TV stations’ shrinking resources, they do put a descent chunk of that toward the investigative team.  But I hear over and over stories of how they used to have three people covering education, and now they have one person covering education who is also the health reporter. Beat reporting may be what’re really getting lost.”

Report for America is national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.

Waldman said the news business must get used to the idea that it needs allies in the non-profit sector to play a bigger role, including groups like Report for America and Pro Publica, but also local donors and non-profits to bolster beat reporting.

Report for America has placed 13 reporters in newsrooms across the country so far, and plans to expand to 28 next year, with a goal of 1000 reporters over the next five years. He said though that number may seem ambitious, he thinks it is attainable and would still only fulfill a tiny fraction of the need.