Peter Bohan — Tales from the Trail: A Salute to Local Reporting

02 Feb 2016
Local reporting uncovers human trafficking in North Dakota

(Image CreditBenjamin Edwards Photo via Forum News Service)

In a year of continued financial turmoil for newspapers, 2015 ended with a special gift from Santa – the movie “Spotlight.” It arrived not just to general acclaim from critics but to rapturous audiences inspired by its tale of courageous journalists overcoming conspiracy, speaking truth to power and producing justice for their community.

“The reports I’m getting from friends all over the country when they go to the theater is that people applaud at the end,” the former Boston Globe editor (and current Washington Post editor)  Marty Baron told Ken Doctor of Nieman Lab at ASNE in November.

It was Baron (portrayed by Liev Schreiber in the film) who smelled a skunk at the powerful Catholic Church in Boston and drove his troops in the Spotlight investigation. It produced a tsunami of carefully documented articles that rocked the community, nation, world – and the U.S. church to its foundations.

“I do hope it sends a signal to the people getting into the field that it’s absolutely critical that we do this kind of work, and that there don’t have to be investigations to the magnitude of this particular one but that it would be holding powerful individuals and powerful entities accountable — and that someone has to do that, and if we don’t do it, quite honestly, nobody will,” Baron said.

That noble mission – being the Voice of the People, the Conscience of the Community – reminds us of what we will be missing when newspapers as we know them go away.

Newsroom staffs have been cut in half or worse in the last decade as readers young and old – especially, young – abandon print for digital. But when the local newspaper no longer casts a snoopy eye over the local community, who will?

“It needs to be done right. That’s what’s really critically important,” Baron told Doctor. “It can’t be done wrong. It needs to be done carefully. It needs to be done with responsibility and care, all of that. It has to be nailed down and airtight because if it isn’t then you have the opposite effect. You undermine people’s confidence rather than help establish it.”

If not your local newspaper, who has the time, the smarts, the staying power, tenacity, courage and independence for such work? Local TV or radio? Local universities? Local individuals? New national digital news outlets and foundations like Pew’s Stateline dip into regional and sometimes local issues. But the local implications for local communities usually lose focus when the target is national readers.

“Governments, businesses – and yes, religious organizations – that operate in secret and without scrutiny can be breeding grounds for corruption,” New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan said in a Dec. 5 column titled ‘The search for local investigative reporting’s future.’ “Clearly, local investigative journalism can’t be allowed to die out, even as local newspapers struggle to survive. The mission is far too important.”

Sullivan, a former award-winning editor at the Buffalo News, added on Dec. 12: “For the good of democracy (and their own survival) news organizations, whether start-up or legacy, must make it a high priority to keep digging – with the public’s interest at heart.”

If the audiences for Spotlight are to be believed, few would disagree with that conclusion. But, so far, that hasn’t changed the economics of newspapers. As a generation of older readers fades and younger readers embrace the brave new world of social media, the outlook for a print universe dependent on subscriptions and advertising alone continues to look bleak.

So in 2015 it was inspiring to see so many local newspapers on the same wavelength with Baron and Sullivan, driving investigative journalism for their communities in the face of budget and staff cutbacks.

Looking around Reuters America customers, I saw lots of stories last year with such impact. These shone their own spotlights on local government, businesses, schools, and institutions both in watchdog investigations and daily coverage of local issues or disasters.

The list goes on. But I did have a favorite: “Trafficked,” a seven-part series by Forum News Service based in Fargo of human trafficking  in sex workers spawned by the Oil Boom in the North Dakota shale patch.

Forum set loose two newspaper reporters and one broadcast reporter for six months, conducting more than 100 interviews in Williston, Minneapolis, Washington DC and other locations. The series, which appeared in January, spurred a raft of new laws in the North Dakota legislature “to offer more support to women who are victims of human trafficking and educate johns who have been busted on the social consequences of hiring prostitutes,”  Forum News Service editor Jeff Beach told me. Forum sponsored standing-room only town halls and showings of its documentary ‘Trafficked’ that kept a spotlight on the issue even as the Bakken oil boom’s population of oil wildcats thinned out over the year as world oil prices crashed.

Former House Speaker Tip O’Neill once said “all politics is local.” For most newspapers, “All news is local” – local news remains dominant for page A1. So kudos to all these papers – and the hundreds of others serving their communities – for keeping lit the lamp of local investigative reporting. A lot more than newspaper economics, as Baron and Sullivan agree, depends on this flame burning bright.


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