BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS — Watchdog New England, the website of the nonprofit Initiative for Investigative Reporting at Northeastern University, aims to revive and strengthen investigative reporting throughout New England’s six states—not as a news outlet in its own right, but as an ally to the region’s more than eighty daily newspapers and countless weeklies. For now, the site primarily exists as a compendium of links to databases, informational documents, and other online resources that inspire and fuel in-depth, hard-hitting reporting. Eventually, the site hopes to produce investigative stories in-house and syndicate them to news organizations throughout New England. Though the initiative is still in its budding stages, New England journalists will be happy to know that two of the veteran reporters behind the website are no strangers to in-depth investigations—nor the Pulitzer Prize.
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“The ultimate goal is to make it possible for smaller community news organizations—which do not have substantial resources—to do serious watchdog and investigative reporting,” says Walter V. Robinson, the website’s director, who, after a more than thirty-year career with the Boston Globe, is now a professor of journalism at Northeastern.
The site is currently partnered with two area news organizations, the online-only Cambridge Day and the print weekly Dorchester Reporter. Watchdog New England received grants from both the Knight Foundation and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation in order to help these organizations produce investigative stories. One example of the fruits of these partnerships: In May 2011, Rachel Zarrell, at the time one of Robinson’s students, teamed up with Cambridge Day editor Marc Levy to look at a wrongful termination lawsuit against the city of Cambridge that will end up costing taxpayers some $10 million in legal fees and punitive damages.
The website’s links to database resources are consolidated into categories so reporters can click on their respective New England state and check out the wide array of informational resources listed under subjects ranging from business and education to state finances and public safety. (Most of the databases linked to are government-maintained.) Reporters looking to uncover an interesting story idea or background information can freely search through Watchdog New England’s data collection for hard facts, financial irregularities, or statistical oddities.
In addition to the resources provided on its website, Watchdog New England will be hosting periodic region-wide seminars and workshops on investigative reporting for New England journalists. The workshops will be held in partnership with the New England First Amendment Center at Northeastern University, another initiative overseen by Robinson.
Watchdog New England is one year into a two-year grant from the John S. And James L. Knight Foundation and it receives non-monetary support from the Investigative News Network. A one-year grant from the Ethics & Excellence in Journalism Foundation expired mid-2011. The grant money has been instrumental in getting the website up and running under the leadership of Robinson and Stephen Kurkjian, a three-time Pulitzer Prize winner who is spearheading the initiative’s investigative reporting efforts. While Kukjian heads the investigations, freelance reporter Jesse Nankin is serving as the site’s principal editor, which entails being the site’s resident database specialist, website coordinator, and conference organizer. NEU contributes by giving Watchdog New England space in the journalism department and providing Robinson’s time. Since becoming a professor in 2007, Robinson’s undergraduate students have produced about twenty investigative pieces for the Boston Globe’s front page. Robinsons students will write articles for Watchdog New England, as will Kurkjian, Nankin, and Robinson.
Robinson, now sixty-five, famously led the Globe’s investigative reporters to a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for uncovering the clergy sexual abuse scandal in the Catholic Church. As a reporter and editor for the Globe, he worked in forty-eight states and more than thirty countries, covering everything from local news to the first Persian Gulf war.
With the reporting phase of his career now largely behind him, Robinson is dedicated to passing the proverbial torch onto fellow New England journalists. Robinson says that, both now and in the future, the goal of his site is not to build its own audience but, instead, drive readers toward other news websites and newspapers.
“The way that nonprofit investigative news agencies are now thinking is, you measure what you’re doing by the number of visitors to the sites you’re helping,” says Robinson. “I think there’s a growing recognition among major donors and local opinion leaders that the economic hit that traditional news agencies have suffered has had a negative impact on democracy. People know less about their government. The very institutions that used to get covered more aggressively are sometimes the only resource for information about themselves. In other words, all that we get are press releases and we don’t get any good, aggressive press coverage. That’s harmful to democracy, and I think people who care about that are beginning to fund efforts that redress the imbalance.”
Watchdog New England Data
Name: Watchdog New England
Principal Staff: Walter V. Robinson, director; Stephen Kurkjian, senior investigative fellow; Jesse Nankin, editor.
Affiliations: University Support: Northeastern University; Content: Cambridge Day, Dorchester Reporter; Other: Investigative News Network.
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