Rutledge’s old-fashioned, solo effort contrasts with a seemingly greater number of more digitally oriented and collaborative projects, however. Take, for example, the efforts of a five-person reporting team that has been tracking down a sordid story of alleged racism and violence involving white vigilantes and police officers in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. The “Law and Disorder” project started with A.C. Thompson, a dogged investigative reporter with the non-profit news agency ProPublica, following up a tip from a historian friend doing a book on disasters. It has grown into a hybrid investigative reporting model that has brought together the resources of four diverse organizations with different outlets and audiences in print, online, and on television.
The project, a Goldsmith finalist, includes the New Orleans Times-Picayune and PBS’s Frontline (which is posting its investigation online while it puts together the pieces for broadcast documentary). Thompson started his investigation in 2007 as a freelancer under an Investigative Fund grant from the Nation Institute, and published an initial piece in The Nation in January, 2009.
Another example of an outlet taking a more “modern” approach to journalism is The Seattle Times, long known for its award-winning investigative reporting. The paper received a “special citation” from the Goldsmith judges for its breaking local news coverage of the murder of four Lakewood, Washington police officers gunned down in a coffee shop on November 29, 2009. The paper combined traditional investigative approaches, including stakeouts, with social media to do real-time reporting on the massive two-day police search for the officers’ killer.
“We did the print job and quite a bit more online that we have ever done before,” said metro editor Mark Higgins. “It had an impact we had not seen before.” Noting that Seattle was the quintessential techie town, the paper’s Tiffany Campbell said that the paper tried using Google Wave, an online real-time communication and collaboration tool, tweeting from stakeouts, I-phone photos, and video to involve the public so they could “be there and really participate in that story.”
Goldsmith finalist Greenblatt and the rest of Houston’s Channel 11 Defenders team also combined the new and old in its reporting of a one-hour television special “Under Fire: Discrimination and the Corruption in the Texas National Guard,” as well as numerous television news pieces along the way. The program, the culmination of a two-year investigation, has already won several other journalism awards, including the prestigious 2010 Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award in January.
KHOU reporter Greenblatt said it all started with a telephone tip from a concerned mother about an event at which a young female Texas Guard member was humiliated by being forced to parade around at a Guard leadership camp in a pink foam crown and plastic garbage bag cape as the “Vagisil Queen” (referring to a feminine hygiene product). The team’s follow-up reporting revealed a series of scandals involving the harassment of high-ranking female officers by the Guard’s male leadership, cover-up at high levels by male commanders, and financial fraud including embezzlement, double-billing, and funding of private businesses with Guard resources.
Greenblatt said that the team’s initial four-and-a-half-minute story on the 10 p.m. news just “snowballed from there.” He noted the “commonality” among all of the Goldsmith finalists in investigative reporting that involved considerable staff resources, time, and persistence as well as new media tools: “These are not single stories. One thing leads to another, and it evolves over time” into “substantial reporting that is memorable and leads to serving our communities.”