Q&A: Chris Davis’s plan to beef up Gannett’s investigative reporting

Editor Chris Davis addresses the Tampa Bay Times newsroom after its most recent Pulitzer win. Submitted photo.

When Gannett announced in July that investigative-reporting legend Chris Davis would be joining its team, it was a shock to the industry. In recent years, Gannett had claimed an interest in investing in ambitious reporting after suffering major hits in circulation rates, but among journalists, its persistent reputation was as a corporate cost cutter. Hiring an editor of Davis’s caliber sends a different message.

Two pieces Davis edited for the Tampa Bay Times in the past year–“Insane. Invisible. In danger,” and “Failure Factories,”–won Pulitzer Prizes. At the Times, he also edited a 2014 Pulitzer winner. While at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, another piece he edited in 2010 won a Pulitzer, and two others he worked on in 2008 and 2010 were finalists.*

What could Davis, who in August became vice president of investigative journalism at the USA Today Network–the new umbrella name for Gannett-owned papers–possibly gain from the media mega-giant? Davis spoke to CJR about why he took the job, his plans to beef up Gannett’s investigative work, and what makes for a Pulitzer-worthy investigative reporting project. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

What does your typical day look like?

It’s a little hard to judge at this point because nothing much has been typical. I’ve been spending this first month trying to get a sense of how Gannett does business. When you’re talking about 100-plus papers, getting to know what’s going on and the people can take time. I’ve spent a lot of time talking to people around the country about the stories they are working on and how they are approaching them–so a lot of meetings, and various conversations about journalism.

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Can you further explain your role as vice president of investigations, and can you talk about why this role is important to you?

The idea behind this job was to have someone to look at the great work that is going on and try to elevate it even further. Joanne Lipman [Gannett’s chief content officer], who hired me, was telling me that Gannett has so many people working on good stories, but some of their stories weren’t lifting to their true potential. So they wanted someone to really focus on that kind of in-depth reporting, to corral the resources that we have, and to organize big reporting efforts across the country. The reason I took the job was because of the unique challenge and the unique opportunity here. We have so many local papers around the country, with boots on the ground and the ability to do a breadth of reporting that most places don’t have.

 

Investigative journalism and in-depth reporting are the best chances newspapers have of weathering the current of woes that are upon us in this industry.”

 

What were your initial talks with Gannett like when they came to you with this position? What ultimately sold you?

I got a call from one of Joanne’s folks, and he described the job and made a pretty good pitch. But early on I was very happy at the Tampa Bay Times, so I wasn’t in a big hurry to leave. In the end, the more I talked to people [over two months] in the company and outside the company about what seemed to be happening at Gannett, with this emphasis on investigative reporting and the opportunity to use a huge network to do investigations, I got more and more intrigued. That led to more conversations, and here I am. The idea of getting in on the ground floor of something really exciting and really unique was the draw for me.

What do you think this new position says about Gannett’s journalistic ambitions now and in the future, especially as the company continues to refine its strategy?

To me, it’s a clear signal that the editors here are putting journalism first, particularly investigative journalism. They could have hired all sorts of people, but they wanted someone who could come in and really drive the most important kind of journalism, which is watchdog and investigative work. I think it shows a clear commitment, and it was one of the reasons I was intrigued at the outset. They want someone who is exclusively focused on investigative work to be in a top-level position. I think that says a lot.

What are some of the logistical aspects of the job–how many journalists are you overseeing, where are you based, and how do you stay connected with the people you supervise?

I’m based in Tysons Corner, which is Gannett’s corporate office right outside of DC. I oversee the USA Today I-team [Investigative team] of about 10 journalists and work directly with their editor, John Kelly. Our team is dispersed across the country and we have over 100 newspapers, so I am also working with the editors of the papers to identify the most high-impact stories they are working on and what resources they may need.

To keep in contact, it’s phone calls and email, obviously. I am in the process now of creating a system to pitch big investigations that the Gannett network will get involved in. Also, there will be some sort of discussion groups or trainings that we will do by Google Hangouts or a webinar set-up, but nothing is officially in place.  

How directly involved are you with local investigations undertaken by individual papers?  

There will certainly be many investigations that I never see. I can’t look at everything that is published in every paper, nor should I, but the way I have been talking to other editors about it is that I am a resource to them for advice or whatever help I can give. I will get more involved in more ambitious stories, by either one paper or a group of papers that are part of the network. A good example is the story the Indianapolis Star broke on the USA gymnastics policies that were allowing coaches to abuse athletes for years. The story was fully reported before I was ever hired, but they asked me to take a look at this story and talk through some ideas. I helped by bringing in some other reporters from around the country to help the Indianapolis paper’s I-team broaden some of the reporting they were able to do. So that is how I think it will work with more high-profile stories.

 

The idea that people do not want to read long stories, I don’t think that’s right. They don’t want to read dull stories. But if you give them compelling work, they’ll read it.”

 

What are some of the pros and cons of having such a huge network of newsrooms?

If you look at some of the stories that were done by the network already, there have been some really good ones, but I think there are some lessons to be learned. One lesson is that it can be really difficult to have a whole lot of reporters involved in fact-finding or news-gathering. If you have 100 different reporters go out and get bits of information to seed into a central location, that has some drawbacks, because you are dealing with people who maybe don’t fully understand the story or some that have a lot more experience doing confrontational interviews than others. It ends up causing work because you have to go back and fill in the gaps that weren’t filled in from the start. It’s great to have resources and to expand the number of reporters working on something, but at some point it gets so big that it’s unwieldy. I think we have to really be cautious of going a mile wide and an inch deep. Just because we are set up as a wide network doesn’t mean we don’t want to go very deep on an investigative story.

Are there any particular topics that you think could really benefit from a collaborative approach?

I don’t have anything specifically in mind, but some of the projects the network has already done illustrate how effective it can be. They did some stories on the lack of tracking of abusive school teachers on a national level. So this is the kind of thing a network like ours can really bring to life, because these problems are all over the country. When there is this fractured regulatory system, it can be very difficult to piece together a picture of the problem because no one resource has it at their fingertips.

With the current state of journalism, including focus shifting away from investigative journalism in many newsrooms, how do you foresee working on big projects with newsrooms that do not have equal resources?

There is no formula for it, really. Different stories and different newspapers are going to have different needs. At the most basic level, we can provide data support, we can help with video, or social. We can also encourage papers around the country to run other papers’ work if it makes sense for people in their community. When we start talking about bigger efforts or papers that already have a strong history of investigative work, like  [the Indianapolis Star] or [The Arizona Republic], then we can provide higher levels of involvement to help them. That would be getting them reporters or certain editing expertise to push the story to the next level. One of the areas we want to improve upon is our storytelling within our investigative stories. A lot of the past stories are data-driven stories and that’s great, but sometimes they are not as compelling because they lack in the storytelling department.

How will the changes you’ve seen in investigative journalism over the course of your career inform the projects you hope to take on?

The basics of investigative reporting are still the basics of investigative reporting, right? You have to be relentless, you have to ask tough questions, and you have to use records and data. That’s been true since I’ve been in investigative reporting for the past decade-plus. There are certainly more tools and data tricks now. I just want to make sure we are among the leaders in our abilities to use those tools and to keep up with all the different things that are emerging. Beyond that, I also think we want to be a leader in Web development, particularly for our big projects, to make them really pop on the Web.

What drives your passion for investigative journalism?

 Righting wrongs and uncovering bad guys. When the government or the police or whatever powerful institution in charge are not uncovering the truth, we have the ability and obligation to dig into it and show what’s going wrong. That is it at its core. I also have come to believe that investigative journalism and in-depth reporting are the best chances newspapers have of weathering the current of woes that are upon us in this industry. I don’t think commodity news and the traditional, basic, breaking, quick-turn news is going to be where we make our bones.

 

If you stop at just proving the premise and you don’t continue to report for story and find a compelling narrative, then it is not going to be as good of a read.”

 

What about beliefs that audiences don’t have the attention span or desire to read longer pieces?

I think that has been proven wrong, at least from what I’ve read and what I’ve experienced. Anything that’s badly written or badly done, doesn’t matter if it’s long or short, people are not going to read it. If you have a compelling story and you’re revealing information that people are interested in that they didn’t know before, then they’ll read it. When I was at the Tampa Bay Times and the Sarasota Herald Tribune, the stories that got the most interest and clicks online were investigative works that are done well, narrative that is done well, and there was Katy Perry. The idea that people do not want to read long stories, I don’t think that’s right. They don’t want to read dull stories. But if you give them compelling work, they’ll read it.

Do you have a standard approach for finding investigative stories? When do you know you have all the necessary pieces to publish your findings?

I could probably talk about this for 30 minutes, but I’ll just give you some basic thoughts. I think some of the key aspects of good investigative work is it has to be new; people with compelling stories have to have been harmed; and there has to be somebody to hold accountable. If so, then it is probably worth pursuing.

A couple of great editors use the phrase “the story is done when it’s done,” and I believe in that. That being said, it’s easier to come at this when a story is not ready then when it is. The thing that I see a lot of folks do is pull up short. They prove the premise that they set out to prove, they do the data work, or they uncover evidence of the problem, and then they publish the story. It makes sense intellectually, but if you stop at just proving the premise and you don’t continue to report for story and find a compelling narrative, then it is not going to be as good of a read.

What do you miss about working in a typical newsroom and being closer to your reporters?

I’ll always miss Tampa because I had such a great team there and such great editors. It’s probably too soon to really know. One thing that comes to mind is the feel of working nationally. If I’m working with the Naples Daily News or the Indianapolis Star on a story, I don’t live in these places, so for me there isn’t a direct community relationship because I’m working with newspapers all over.

What do you read? Where do you get ideas?

Well, I read newspapers. I don’t have any that I read every day. Sometimes I go through periods where I cycle through magazines, and I’ll get a subscription for a while to Wired and then I’ll switch off and read the Times. Most of the reading I do is of daily journalism. I don’t get to read books nearly as much as I would like to, but I am a Game of Thrones junkie and love those kinds of books.

Most of the ideas for projects come from beat reporters. I always encourage my investigative reporters to interact with beat reporters. Sometimes I would do formal meetings where I would sit down and go over story lists with reporters, but even just reading your own paper and seeing what reporters are working on. The two stories from the Tampa Bay Times that won the Pulitzer last year came from beat reporters. One was a story about mental hospitals that was an inquiry that began through a single story about one guy who had been seemingly unfairly kept in a mental hospital for many, many, many years. That prompted a deeper look at how our system was working there and led to “Insane. Invisible. In danger.”  

* This story has been updated to correct the number of Pulitzer nods Davis-edited projects have received: 4 wins and 2 finalists.

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Carlett Spike is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @CarlettSpike.