Hope amidst anxiety was the dominant emotion at today’s Enlarging the Space for Watchdog Journalism conference at Columbia. Speaking on a panel about cutbacks in investigative reporting, ProPublica’s editor-in-chief Paul Steiger said that he’s not concerned about investigative work on the national level.

He’s most worried about the survival of small and mid-sized newspapers and their ability to perform the watchdog function. Steiger acknowledged the emergence of local online outlets such as Voice of San Diego and MinnPost, but he said that imagining their ability to take on a big investigative project still requires a big leap.

Collaboration is one solution to the problem, said Cheryl Phillips, data enterprise editor at the Seattle Times. The paper recently partnered with a local TV station to share the cost of securing public records, and Phillips said that such joint projects can be the way forward. She also proposed the creation of an organization that would synthesize regional investigative projects into big-picture national pieces.

There are powerful reminders that the newspaper industry needs all the help and innovation it can get: “Every Sunday you have a choice,” Steiger said. “You can buy a copy of The New York Times or you can buy a share of New York Times Co. stock.”

Katia Bachko is on staff at The New Yorker.