As Gabler points out, churning out epic investigations isn’t the only way to be an effective news organization—day-to-day reporting on crime, city politics, education and more are all “central to … having impact in the community.” But accountability reporting, at its best, is pivotal.

“This is about real people. We’re not doing this for fun,” Rutledge said. “People are struggling in the world, sometimes needlessly. If we can bring justice and make the world just a bit better, that’s important. This is the kind of work that improves people’s lives.”

That’s the optimism that the Journal Sentinel’s brand of investigative reporting hinges on: Solutions exist. To measure the impact of a story is to measure whether or not the community has moved closer to finding them.

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Anna Clark is CJR's correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania. A 2011 Fulbright fellow, Clark has written for The Guardian, Grantland, and Salon; blogs at Isak; and can be found on Twitter @annaleighclark. She lives in Detroit.