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Eye on the News

Conor Friedersdorf
The New Watchdogs
Can the Web drive investigative journalism in a post-newspaper era?
4 August 2011

Are newspaper reporters still necessary? When the Los Angeles Times broke the story of corruption in Bell, California, where the city manager was collecting $1.5 million in annual compensation, it felt like vindication for the institutional press and its traditional role. Before Jeff Gottlieb and Ruben Vives filed their stories, officials in the small, working-class city had long misbehaved with impunity. Wouldn’t Bell’s taxpayers be wasting more millions per annum if not for metro L.A.’s newspaper of record? Sure, the Times’s overextended staff had missed the story for years, and its editors had closed the bureau nearest Bell. But didn’t that just highlight the civic costs exacted by falling ad revenue and successive rounds of layoffs? In this telling, it’s vital that a competent beat reporter serve every city to guard against the graft and corruption that would go unnoticed in his or her absence.

But a closer look at the Bell fiasco complicates this narrative. Years before the Times made national news with the story, an anonymous blogger writing under the pseudonym Pedro Parramo alleged corruption in Bell on WatchOurCity.com, a muckraking website that once received an award from the California First Amendment Coalition for uncovering official malfeasance in another municipality. Parramo tried to obtain paperwork proving that Bell’s leaders were outlandishly compensated. But despite California’s strong public-records laws, officials stymied his requests. In its postmortem on the controversy, NPR reported that other residents suspicious of municipal leaders had made their own inquiries. “They keep giving you the runaround, they keep telling you, ‘We’ll call back,’” a 33-year-old educator named Miguel Sanchez told NPR. “No one could ever help us. No one was ever around.”

The pattern is familiar to observers of South Los Angeles. Back in 2004, Times reporter Richard Marosi broke a corruption scandal in Lynwood, California, reporting that “a majority of the City Council enjoy six-figure incomes, lavish foreign travel, and the generous use of city credit cards for meals and entertainment, including steakhouse dinners, a New York musical and a dance show in Rio de Janeiro.” Lynwood residents, meanwhile, earned an average of $9,500 per year, and the city faced a $1.3 million budget gap. As in Bell, public documents detailed the damning behavior; an alert resident spent two years alleging corruption to no avail; and the records needed to prove malfeasance were obtained only after the overextended Marosi, having been tipped off to the story, finally started pursuing it zealously.

In these instances, as in many others, the Los Angeles Times wasn’t needed to discover corruption: citizen journalists could sniff it out as capably as any watchdog. Once on the scent, however, the amateurs couldn’t dig as deep or growl as menacingly as newspaper reporters backed by a powerful regional publication. The biggest villain in Bell, city manager Robert Rizzo, knew that he could hold off local residents nosing around for salary and benefits information. Going after the same records, the Times reporter made insistent phone calls to the city clerk every day, and having been denied, said (as she later recounted to NPR): “Listen, are we getting the documents? I really don’t want to sue you, but we will, and when we go to court and we win, because we will, we’ll ask the judge to make you pay our legal bills, because that’s what the public-records statute says.”

That’s effective growling, and it was enough to make the city relent. The Times reporters soon began digging through the documents, which showed salaries every bit as jaw-dropping as the most suspicious citizens expected. The result: not allegations materializing on a low-traffic blog, but hard numbers appearing in a newspaper with a paid Sunday circulation of 1,019,388. It has since emerged that a former member of Bell’s city council, Victor Bello, tipped off the Los Angeles County District Attorney about graft in the city over a year before the Times broke its story. No one did much to put a stop to it until the newspaper stories started running.

The insight here isn’t that newspapers are irreplaceable. Whether or not that’s true, the fact is that cities like Ann Arbor, Michigan, have already seen their dailies shut down. The American Society of Newspaper Editors reports that in the last decade, “American newsrooms have lost more than 25 percent of their full-time staffers, bringing the total of full-time journalists working in daily newsrooms to 41,500, a level not seen since the mid-1970s.” Among the 19,429 municipal governments in the United States, many will go without a capable journalistic watchdog. In short, the age of the newspaper is already over in enough places that the question is not whether they can be replaced, but how to replace them.

Many of the most interesting efforts to compensate for the decline of newspapers are taking place far from the hub of American journalism—New York, the rare U.S. municipality where the old model of watchdog journalism remains relatively healthy. The MinnPost is a nonprofit that publishes stories of interest to civic-minded Minnesota residents six days a week. The Florida-based Knight Foundation provides grants that support innovative experiments in community journalism. The Harvard-based Niemen Foundation sponsors a journalism ideas lab that highlights promising projects. The New England Center for Investigative Reporting acts as a regional watchdog.

So far, however, the most fertile ground for innovation is California. The Golden State’s long-suffering newspaper industry has left many public officials unwatched and provided plenty of laid-off journalists eager to watch them. The state’s cosmopolitanism appeals to the creative professionals who tend to staff journalism startups. Efforts like Cal Watchdog—edited by Steven Greenhut, who writes regularly for City Journal—are motivated in part by alarm at dysfunction in California’s state government. And the Silicon Valley culture complements journalistic efforts: who better to spawn a new breed of watchdogs than idealistic entrepreneurs with access to money, exceptional coding skills, a libertarian political streak, and a mind-set that prizes innovation and transparency?

Every startup is trying to reinvent the newspaper in its own way. The effort that most closely resembles a traditional broadsheet is the online-only Voice of San Diego, founded when a local businessman became frustrated by the San Diego Union-Tribune and its inadequate coverage of municipal scandals. The Voice of San Diego’s website could easily be mistaken for that of a daily newspaper, except that it has no national headlines, human-interest pieces, or crossword puzzles. As the organization puts it, “There are other publications in San Diego doing work that we don’t need to chase after or replicate.” The result is an online newspaper stripped of everything save watchdog coverage—a model that requires fewer people and a smaller budget than a traditional publication would need to produce the same number of important scoops. The downside: many people subscribe to traditional newspapers largely for the crossword puzzle or the sports page. Can watchdog reporting, unbundled from box scores and supermarket coupons, attract enough readers to make an impact?

Another promising new outfit is California Watch, a creation of the country’s oldest nonprofit investigative-news organization, the Center for Investigative Reporting. When California Watch launched in 2009, it immediately counted more investigative journalists than any newspaper in the state. Its staffers sniff around for stories, do the heavy digging to unearth them, and write them up, but they often leave distribution to established newspapers with larger readerships. The focus is statewide rather than local. True, reporters recently broke a classic metro story in San Francisco: five municipal employees were running a profitable contracting business on city time. But California Watch’s ideal scoop is a regional story with local implications. For example, in the autumn of 2010, the organization broke a story about maternity wards at California hospitals. “For-profit hospitals across the state are performing cesarean sections at higher rates than nonprofit hospitals,” the California Watch analysis found. “A database compiled from state birthing records revealed that, all factors considered, women are at least 17 percent more likely to have a cesarean section at a for-profit hospital than at one that operates as a non-profit.”

Having found a scoop, dug into its details, and assembled a database with figures for hospitals all over the state, California Watch handed local newspapers an easy story to localize. An enterprising reporter at a small broadsheet in Fresno or a citizen-journalist in Eureka could look up the rates at nearby hospitals, discover how many C-sections they were performing, and determine whether digging at the local level was warranted. Of course, in a town lacking its own reporter, that local piece might never appear.

A third California-based startup worth watching is Spot.us. Like many media enterprises, it relies on freelancers to find good stories. The organization solicits pitches from journalists and tips from readers and everyday citizens, and then it provides funding to the most worthy projects. Its innovative strategy is to make this process transparent—allowing the public to fund the stories they find most important by chipping in a few dollars each. In just over two years, Spot.us has funded more than 160 stories, garnering contributions from roughly 5,000 people—an impressive record for a two-person operation. “Because we’re not an editorial site, our overhead is low,” says David Cohn, its founder. “We’re just a platform. People and organizations use us to fund-raise.” One of those people was Karen Hollish, a freelance journalist then living in Minnesota. She regularly wrote for the Twin Cities Daily Planet, a small online publication with a maxed-out budget that paid $100 at most for a reported piece. One day, her editor tipped her off to a promising story: the sheriff in Ramsey County, Minnesota, had claimed in a budget report that he was investigating 22 domestic and 11 international terrorist groups. Were there really so many terrorists in the St. Paul area? If so, what a story—or else, what a lot of unaccounted-for money was flowing into the sheriff’s department. Either way, editor and reporter agreed that it warranted an investigation.

Requiring more than $100 to undertake such time-intensive reporting, Hollis wrote a pitch for Spot.us, explaining the story idea, how she’d report it, and the specific public-record requests that she would need to make. It worked. In all, 57 individuals raised $575, making contributions as big as $50 and as small as $2.86. Organizational sponsors kicked in money too, including $132.16 from Hewlett-Packard and $73.11 from the AARP.

It took three months, countless hours of pestering, and a change of management in the sheriff’s department, but Hollis finally got her story: a department spokesman confirmed that its recently departed head had been falsifying his budget reports. Where was the money going if not to investigate terrorists? Had Hollis stayed in the Twin Cities, she could have found out. But she received a full-time job offer with a newspaper in the U.S. Virgin Islands. That’s one downside to the Spot.us model: it relies on individuals, as opposed to building or preserving traditional journalistic institutions. Unlike a freelancer or a citizen-journalist, a metro desk at a well-run newspaper can maintain an institutional memory, allowing it to follow up on promising stories even as individual reporters come and go.

In one way, the old watchdog model survives almost intact: the driving force remains journalists, whether they’re supported by a newspaper, a nonprofit publication, or a freelance platform. The problem is that few professional reporters exist relative to the number of government bodies warranting scrutiny. What are the odds that journalists, left to their own devices, can adequately cover every instance of official corruption—especially in an era when advertising revenue subsidizes less journalism?

Might it be possible to change the old model—disaggregating investigation from journalism, and tapping as watchdogs folks who behave more like detectives or auditors than like reporters? As yet, I know of no nonprofit that has undertaken this approach. But a system of civic watchdogs regularly performing checks on every government entity—rather than doing spot-checks based on tips and intuition—certainly sounds appealing, at least in theory. And funding it privately might be less costly than it at first seems, at least in states like California, where the public is empowered to request most public documents.

Imagine, then, a how-to guide setting forth the basic steps that any interested watchdog should take to scrutinize a municipality, a school district, or a redevelopment agency. It could be posted on a website that included pages for every government entity in a state. Did someone just upload the campaign-finance disclosure forms for every member of the Santa Barbara City Council? Check that box. Is there a city in South Los Angeles where public officials’ salaries have gone uninvestigated for three years? Send a roving volunteer there. Whenever nonprofit investigators or auditors uncovered corruption, eager journalists would still be just a phone call away. Call it watchdog by wiki.

Such an effort could be all-volunteer or run by a professional staff. It could fund training sessions in which investigative reporters would teach citizen-journalists how to act as watchdogs. It could partner with collegiate public-policy programs to build out the online databases of uncovered information. A higher-end version might even include an algorithm that automatically prioritized the tasks deserving immediate attention. Only one thing would be nonnegotiable: the lawyers. The nonprofit would need to acquire a reputation for suing any city that didn’t comply with its volunteers’ lawful requests.

We need journalistic watchdogs. Various nonprofits are trying to figure out how best to subsidize their work, and more power to them. But it’s worth considering that not all privately initiated government scrutiny need be conducted as journalism.

Conor Friedersdorf is an associate editor at The Atlantic. He can be reached at conor.friedersdorf@gmail.com.

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