The team’s emphasis on engaging as wide an audience as possible is evident in other ways. Persistent linking on social media helps. But so does old-fashioned attention to craft—strong narrative writing, and working to find just the right real-life example to elevate a worthy investigative report into an attention-demanding story.

And there’s a rough formula for the paper’s muckraking work, which might be summarized this way: Define the problem. Point to the solution. Show people how they can help get there.

Investigative journalism can come across as a pessimistic, even cynical, practice. But Gabler said that a “compelling and engaging tale” about a problem should include “solution pieces, where we highlight places where things are working right.” In the newborn screening story, that meant highlighting Iowa’s excellent state lab, now being held up as a model.

Stories are written in a way that gives readers information about who to call, write, or question, and suggest other ways to take individual action in response to the problem. The question made explicit in the Journal Sentinel’s stories, Borowski said, is: “What are pressure points for the system to get fixed?” Online, this shows up on the paper’s “Citizen Watchdog” page: “Your one-stop center to dig deeper.”

‘Your beat is wherever your sources are’

From start to finish, reporting is at the heart of the Journal Sentinel’s work. Some local news organizations, such as South Florida’s Sun Sentinel, have had success maintaining a firewall between the watchdog team and other reporters. But the Journal Sentinel’s investigative unit—a team of about seven, which swells to 12 if you count the local PolitiFact crew and an app developer and interactive designer—is integrated with the newsroom.

The newborn screening story, for example, came out of a tip to the paper’s medical reporters, John Fauber and Mark Johnson, who share a byline on the investigation with Gabler. Raquel Rutledge got the tip that led to her Pulitzer-winning 2009 expose on fraud in the state’s childcare system while she was one of the watchdog team’s beat-style public investigators, covering day-to-day “quick hits,” with a consumer focus. (And talk about impact: her report instigated a new rating system for childcare quality in Wisconsin and saved the state more than $100 million between 2009 and 2011 by cutting off daycare providers who were stealing taxpayer money.)

“Our approach is to come off of the beats,” Borowski said. “We’re not going to say [to beat reporters], ‘Great idea, we’ll take that, you go back to the slog.’” The strategy is to pair beat reporters with someone from the investigative team to see the story through together. “The beat reporter has the contacts, the investigative reporter has the time and experience with piles of information,” Borowski said. “We get more projects done that way.”

To a person, the Journal Sentinel watchdog team argues that the best way to measure the impact of a story, and to amplify that impact, is to not stop reporting.

“We don’t drop off and move on to the next thing. Reporters track several months, or more, of fallout on the story, on top of their other work,” Borowski said. Maybe a new law is proposed, or an audit is conducted, because of the original story. The reporter will come back to evaluate how it’s working, or to see if there’s funding to back the cheery-sounding solutions. A successful investigation creates its own beat.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but this can be exhausting. “It consumes you,” Rutledge said. The fallout from her childcare fraud investigation has lasted four years and counting. “It’s hard to get away from the story once you’ve written about it. Even today I still get calls [with tips]. Oh my gosh, I’m sick of it, but I’ve got to keep on it.”

“It turns out your beat is wherever your sources are. … It’s why fraud is still on my plate,” Rutledge said.

Conversely, stories that didn’t have much impact were ones without follow-up. In 2007, Rutledge worked with a photographer on a two-part story about kids who have secondary post-traumatic stress disorder from the deployment of their parents. They traveled to Texas and put together “what I thought was a compelling story,” she said. But the story didn’t attract much attention. Rutledge was frustrated to see a much-shared piece on the same topic in Mother Jones recently, while her own story seems to have vanished in the ether.

While the Journal Sentinel’s PTSD story was more explanatory than investigative, there were still follow-up opportunities—examining how the military was or was not responding to the trauma of kids, for example—that might’ve helped it stick.

Anna Clark is CJR's correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The New York Times, The American Prospect, and Grantland. She can be found online at www.annaclark.net and on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.