AUSTIN, TX — Last week on the sprawling, sunny campus of the University of Texas at Austin, some of the most established and up-and-coming media leaders in this state came together at an event organized by CJR and the UT School of Journalism to assess the state of accountability reporting—and where it can go from here.
What ensued was a frank and open discussion about all the serious work of covering, analyzing, and investigating public institutions and figures. And while the occasional wagon was circled against criticism—more on that later—some interesting points emerged.
Among the points of discussion: first, accountability journalism can definitely be improved. Second, stronger and more formal collaboration between organizations in Texas might play a key role in unlocking the door to that improvement. Third, news organizations will need to do a better job in addressing an increasingly diverse society. Fourth, management is going to have to innovate faster and more successfully to develop sustainable business models—but there’s optimism that can be done.
Making the grade
We’ve been watching journalism in Texas very closely this year through CJR’s United States Project. Among our observations: The Dallas Morning News leads in investigation, including its continued digging into the fatal explosion that nearly leveled the town of West; and the Texas Tribune can be relied upon for both detailed policy coverage and editorial and business-side innovation. We’ve also cited Politifact Texas, run out of the Austin American-Statesman, for its factchecking of the state attorney general on the Voting Rights Act.
But, from this observer’s perspective, there are areas for improvement. Journalism with concrete impact—especially on stories that extend beyond one market or city—can be hard to find. On certain stories, particularly events in the legislature, coverage in the news pages is not always skeptical enough of what politicians have to say. The state’s substantial Spanish-language media can improve the quality of its serious policy coverage, while English-language media could stand to refocus its story selection with a diverse audience in mind. And while competition is healthy and necessary, the state of collaboration could be kicked up a notch.
Participants on one of our panels—editors Emily Ramshaw of the Tribune, Bob Mong of the Morning News and Steve Proctor of the Houston Chronicle, plus anchor Aranxta Loizaga of KWEX, Univision’s San Antonio affiliate—were pretty tough graders, too, handing out middling assessments on the state of accountability journalism in general. And as Ramshaw noted, the best efforts tend to be concentrated in a few major metropolitan markets—there are large swathes of the state that draw very little journalistic scrutiny.
At the same time, the panelists stressed their own strategies and successes . The Morning News’ Mong is a big believer in human capital—hiring right and training, not just on-the-job experience. Ramshaw is big on data in a digital environment, and urged aspiring journalists to understand the basics—if not more—of tools like data visualizations and interactives. At the Chronicle, Proctor is moving to improve the narrative storytelling of investigative reporting. His paper recently published a heart-wrenching, if horrifying, story about parents who accidentally back over their children in a car, focusing on the auto industry’s intransigence to universal on-board cameras.
Univision’s Loizaga directed some honest criticism at her own organization and the Spanish-language media about lightweight news coverage; Univision’s late weekday newscast—the market leader in San Antonio—is moving to carry more serious political and policy news, she said. And speaking on a second panel, the Houston Defender’s Sonny Jiles gave a fact-filled indictment of the persistent lack of diversity in the news business and the blind spots that can result.
It wasn’t all self-flagellation, though. Mong of the Morning News noted that for all the economic pressures on the industry—and the resulting staff cuts—his paper has as many investigative reporters as it did a decade ago. Ramshaw is particularly proud of the Tribune’s data-driven ethics project, Bidness as Usual, monitoring the business ties of Texas officials. Asked whether they had been outdone by New York-based outlets on subjects like crony capitalism and civil forfeiture, the editors got their backs up a bit, arguing that their newsrooms had led the way on those stories. (Here’s some Texas-based coverage of those issues.)
Without sugarcoating the pressures on the industry, or the real loss in reporting resources in many newsrooms, many speakers also pushed back on the “terminal decline” storyline surrounding legacy media organizations. In his remarks Glenn Frankel, the director of the UT School of Journalism and a Pulitzer Prize winner, said we shouldn’t romanticize a “golden age” of journalism—the work of a few decades ago wasn’t as good as we like to think.