The end of investigative journalism? Not yet

April 13, 2018
Photo: Philip Strong via Unsplash.

A group of Colorado investors is now proposing to end the long-simmering fray between the staff of The Denver Post and its hedge fund owners by buying the newspaper.  For months, reporters and editors at The Post have been pressing New York-based Alden Global Capital to sell their paper, arguing that they can no longer act as an effective watchdog over the government due to the massive staff cuts Alden has ordered.

I recently studied The Denver Post as part of a larger project on watchdog reporting at American newspapers. My new book, The Watchdog Still Barks: How Accountability Journalism Evolved for the Digital Era (published in March by Fordham University Press), assesses the content of the front pages of nine US newspapers of various sizes around the country from 1991 to 2011 to see how their enterprise reporting changed as journalism moved online and its economics changed.

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When I started my study in 2010, newspapers were under severe financial stress. The global financial crisis and the advent of digital journalism had weakened papers’ revenue streams, and most were shedding jobs. It seemed likely that as newspapers lost large portions of their staff, their ability to do the kind of reporting that holds officials accountable would fade away.

My main focus was whether the newspapers continued to turn out the kind of deeply reported accountability journalism that uncovers important stories.  I was looking for sustained digging, not the stories that could be done with just a handful of interviews.

Given how many jobs had been lost at American newspapers after 2000—at least 35,000 by one count—I expected my book would be chronicling the death of watchdog reporting. To my surprise, the front pages told a very different story.  

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It seemed counterintuitive, but the papers I studied generally had more deep accountability stories on their front pages over time, not fewer. Most of the newspapers actually expanded the amount of deep watchdog reporting in the later study years, even as their staffs became smaller. In the 1991 sample, for instance, only about 1 percent of the front-page content at the nine papers studied was what I termed “deep accountability.” By 2011, it had jumped to almost 5 percent.


Deep accountability reports as a percentage of front-page stories, ranked from highest to lowest, months of April, 1991–2011



The results of my content analysis were so unexpected that I decided to interview editors at all the papers to help me understand what I had found. The editors all gave the same explanation: that watchdog reporting not only induces people to read their papers, but also to buy them. Meaningful watchdog reporting is a key selling point for newspapers, as no other part of the media produces it in any significant quantity. So editors were dedicating all possible resources to keep such projects alive.

With declining resources, newspapers like ours are doubling down on journalism that matters and has impact,” said Gregory L. Moore, who was the editor of The Denver Post when I interviewed him for the book (and who quit in 2016 after butting heads repeatedly with management). “When we do major investigative pieces we frequently get notes from readers saying this is why they continue to support the newspaper.”

The stars of my study were the mid-sized metropolitan dailies, including The Denver Post, which remade themselves over the years into large producers of watchdog and investigative reporting.  The Denver Post went from having no deep watchdog stories at all on the 1991 front pages I examined to having more than 5 percent front-page investigative stories in 2011.  And it did this even as its staff size went down considerably.


The Denver Post went from having no watchdog stories on the 1991 front pages to having more than 5 percent front-page investigative stories in 2011.


But my research also suggests that at some point, staff cuts begin to erode even a committed newspaper’s ability to perform the watchdog role. The two smallest papers I studied for my book had a much harder time dedicating resources to accountability reporting than the larger ones.  The Denver Post’s staff and readers are correct to worry that the latest job cuts will compromise the paper’s ability to hold government and business accountable.

My study makes it clear that newspapers can both perform the watchdog role and turn a profit.  Numerous papers I studied for my book actually saw their circulation increase and their financial fortunes improve after they re-dedicated themselves to the watchdog role.  But this takes a certain level of funding and staffing to ensure reporters get the time and resources they need to dig out information.

Alden Global Capital, the owner of The Denver Post and 96 other newspapers, should take note. While newspapers have to watch the bottom line, there is much more at stake here. Nothing newspapers do is more important than keeping the powerful in check.

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Beth Knobel is a professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University in New York. She previously served as the Moscow Bureau Chief for CBS News, and reported for the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. Follow her on Twitter @bethknobel.