It helps that stations know they have Belo’s support for investigative work, says Valentine, gesturing toward the sleek corporate headquarters across the street. Al Tompkins, a veteran broadcast journalist who leads the broadcast and online group at Florida’s Poynter Institute, points out that two of the six 2010 duPont-Columbia winners (PDF) for local television news—KHOU-TV in Houston and WWL-TV in New Orleans—are Belo stations. “That alone says something about what Belo thinks of investigations,” he says.

As economic pressures have increased, the role of the most successful investigative units that remain in local news has expanded deeper into the day-to-day life of the newsroom, and away from an older model of investigative journalists as an aloof elite.

“I can strive to be the best investigative reporter in the country, but there’s a lot of Pulitzer Prize-winners walking around without a job,” said John Ferrugia, an investigative reporter and news anchor at McGraw-Hill Companies’ KMGH-TV in Denver. “I have to provide value-added for my business.” His unit, which won a 2010 duPont-Columbia award, strives to be a resource for the newsroom, conducting seminars on computer-assisted reporting and looking for ways that daily news stories can be enhanced through the unit’s skills.

Phil Williams, award-winning chief investigative reporter at Landmark Media Enterprises’ WTVF-TV in Nashville, is another winner of a 2010 duPont-Columbia Award. A board member of Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), he said that he has been encouraging reporters through IRE to think of investigative work as something that can be done daily, even as they address longer pieces.

That represents a change for some investigative units, but it has long been the case with Harris and Shipp at WFAA. “A lot of these units are in their own little world and get on the air three or four times a year. These guys are out in the newsroom and on the air three or four times a week,” says reporter Jason Whitely, who came to WFAA two years ago.

Whitely’s cubicle is just feet away from identical workstations occupied by Harris and Shipp on one edge of the sprawling newsroom. The investigative reporters routinely pitch in on breaking stories when needed, and often their practiced and critical eyes discover unexpected dimensions in otherwise mundane stories.

In December 2007, for example, the quintessential local Christmastime story promised to be that of a six-year-old girl from Garland, Texas, who won airfare and tickets to a Hannah Montana event in New York with a wrenching essay about her soldier father who had been killed in Iraq. It was a heart-tugging story for most, but it bothered Harris. Having embedded with the military in 2003 during the start of the war in Iraq, he had tracked casualties from Texas ever since—and he didn’t recognize the name of the girl’s father.

That was because—as a check by Harris with the Department of Defense confirmed—no soldier of that name had been killed in Iraq. Because of what Harris calls his “legitimized skepticism,” what might have been just a sweet but phony local tale told by a less experienced reporter catapulted into a sad scandal that made the national news.

For stations with the ability and the will to allocate the resources, this may be the right time to consider investigative reporting as a way to engage viewers and, like WFAA, distinguish themselves in their market, says Hank Price, president and general manager of Hearst Corporation’s WXII-TV in Winston-Salem, N.C., and senior director of Northwestern University’s Media Management Center. “This is a great time for a station to say: What are the things we do that are important to viewers? I think people ask that question all the time but they don’t implement it because they’re not willing to say: What are we willing not to do?”

At WFAA, keeping the most reporters on the street and the investigative team working means they may not cover every car crash, house fire, or downed tree covered by all the other stations in town. “At this television station, having an investigative unit differentiates it,” says Valentine, when asked about the cost.

“I think the more pertinent question,” he says, “is what will it cost you not to have one?”

 

Lisa Anderson is a 2009-2010 Encore Fellow at CJR. She was the the New York bureau chief and a national correspondent for the Chicago Tribune until December 2008.