Investigative local reporting has a future—but it won’t look like the past

Illustration: AP

Over the course of the last two weeks, New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan has gone in search of local investigative reporting. As many newspapers continue to cut back, Sullivan asked where the capacity for local investigative reporting that holds leaders and institutions accountable will come from. “Clearly, local investigative journalism can’t be allowed to die out, even as local newspapers struggle to survive,” she wrote in one column. “The mission is far too important.”

Sullivan found signs of hope in daily papers that are reinvesting in their investigative staff, public radio stations that are doubling down on local news, and nonprofit newsrooms that have emerged to focus solely on accountability reporting. We find hope in these examples, too—but we also think there is more to this story.

The future of investigative reporting at the local level will not look like its past. We are in what Chris Anderson, Emily Bell, and Clay Shirky have dubbed a “post-industrial” age for journalism. We’ll never be able to replace the institutions we long relied on to afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted. What we may be able to do, however, is build something new and different.

A networked approach to investigative reporting

In New Jersey, through our work at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation, we’ve been talking about the future of local news not as a series of distinct institutions, but as a network of public media, nonprofit news, for-profit publishers, hyperlocal newsrooms, citizen journalists, and universities that make up our media ecosystem.

To see what that looks like in action, check out the “Dirty Little Secrets” investigation that went live in this month. This project is a massive year-long collaboration investigating New Jersey’s toxic legacy. Participating news partners include New Jersey Public Radio/WNYC, WHYY, NJTV, NJ Spotlight, Jersey Shore Hurricane News, WBGO, New Brunswick Today, and the Rutgers Department of Journalism and Media Studies. The collaboration is being facilitated by The Center for Investigative Reporting, which is taking the story national, with help from the Center for Cooperative Media at Montclair State.

That is a huge number of organizations, coming together to lend their strengths and share their work in service of local communities. But what is important about this project is not just who is doing the journalism but how they are doing it. Throughout the year journalists will be partnering with artists, theaters, poets, and others to bring important information about New Jersey’s environmental issues to people in new ways. Today journalism can be, and should be, more than just words on a screen or broadcast over the air. It can be a play, a traveling exhibit, or a comedy show.

As media has become unbundled—and audience attention has shifted away from local news—we have to find novel ways to bring critical civic news and information into people’s lives. To do that, we’ll need to use all the tools at our disposal, and probably create a few new ones along the way. This kind of work is time intensive. But drawing on the diverse strengths of a network makes it possible—and the results can be powerful.

The Dodge Foundation helped establish the Center for Cooperative Media and its NJ News Commons—which now has more than 130 news and civic organizations as members—because we believe this kind of multi-faceted, multimedia partnership is a key part of the future of local journalism and investigative reporting.

Strength in numbers

This collaboration is just one example of a growing list of experiments happening in the Garden State. Partnerships between the state-wide policy reporting project NJ Spotlight and New Jersey Public Radio/WNYC have uncovered errors and mismanagement in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. The scrappy hyperlocal for-profit start-up New Brunswick Today, a partner in several network experiments, publishes online and in print with stories in English and Spanish. Their reporting on surveillance software and online learning at Rutgers was picked up by the New York Times, their investigation of Rutgers University police included an important open records request and lawsuit, and they broke a major story about the city’s water utility. Finally, we have citizen journalists like Justin Auciello, who has built a community-driven newsroom on Facebook with more than 220,000 contributors helping him report and cover their communities together. They are doing more together than they ever could have done alone.

It is not just New Jersey. In just the last year or so we have seen local journalism networks like this emerge in Boston, Detroit, Philly, and North Carolina. Nationally, networks like the Institute for Nonprofit News, the Media Consortium, Radiotopia/PRX, and the Association of Independents in Radio are leading the way.

Of course, investigative reporting capacity is not just about the number of journalists you have on staff; it is also about having the muscle and resilience to take on society’s most entrenched institutions. For many small newsrooms this is still a pressing challenge, but it’s a challenge these new networks are trying to address through shared services like legal support, access to technology, and even group insurance rates.

Many of these experiments are still early, and most are still stumbling towards sustainability. But while the challenges are very real, the early results are also very promising. As journalists collaborate, not only with other newsrooms, but also with their community, we are beginning to see the outlines of new models for investigative reporting that don’t replace the old models, but complement them.

We still need regional newspapers and metro dailies to take on big investigations—and in New Jersey, we’ve seen some great stories come out of those newsrooms recently—but we also need to support and develop new networks of journalists who can leverage their unique skills and community connections to expose corruption and hold leaders accountable. This approach emphasizes that very different models of local news each have an important role to play, and it reminds us that a diversity of approaches can make us stronger.

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Molly de Aguiar and Josh Stearns are staff members at the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation. You can follow them on Twitter @MollydeAguiar and@jcstearns and sign up for their newsletter on local news sustainability and community engagement at tinyletter.com/localfix.