Here’s what we can do to help save local investigative reporting

Do we really have to wait for more communities to turn into news deserts before we take action? Join me in creating Investigative Editing Corps and help inspire the next generation of journalists in local communities across the country.

Rose Ciotta joins Olean Times Herald reporters Danielle Gamble (center) and Bob Clark (right) on June 2 as they receive an award for investigative reporting from the New York State Associated Press Association in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.

Remember how thrilling it was to win your first journalism award? To learn that a story you worked hard to report and write was recognized by your peers?

That’s what the young journalists at the Olean Times Herald are experiencing. Danielle Gamble and Bob Clark won a third place statewide award in investigative reporting for small newsrooms in the New York State Associated Press Association for their project “Olean’s Weak Anti Blight Plan Puts Stress on Rental Housing” which exposed deplorable rental housing conditions in this small city. The award is a first in investigative reporting for the Times Herald, which has a Sunday circulation of 9,000 in this Southern Tier community in rural New York State.

It’s a project made possible by Investigative Editing Corps, a pilot funded by the Jim Bettinger News Innovation Fund of the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowship at Stanford University. The fund was launched with support from the Knight Foundation and Knight fellowship alumni and friends.

The pilot tested a simple but powerful idea — to link experienced investigative editors with local newsrooms that want to do investigative reporting. This help would work best in small newsrooms where editors are too busy with daily duties to drive any investigative work and where reporters can benefit from working with an experienced mentor.

As anyone who has done investigative reporting knows, the editor plays a key leadership role to drive the work and keep the reporting on track.

What I am intending with IECorps is a new journalism collaboration that needs your support and that has already shown that it can make a difference.

I worked over a six-month period as an investigative projects editor with two local dailies: the Olean Times Herald, in Olean, N.Y. and the 15,000 circulation Beaver County Times in western Pennsylvania. My presence involved on-site visits and weekly online sessions, coaching and mentoring.

What I learned underscored what many in the industry believe — that investigative reporting is what will endear readers to their local news organizations. Citizens need to know that their local news outlet — whether it’s print, radio, digital or broadcasting — will take on important local issues and will uncover the truth regardless of who is involved.

But, do we have to wait for local media to disappear for the journalism community to react? Or is there a way, in some markets, to bolster that local outlet so they can show readers that they are worthy of their support?

We know how valuable local news is to a community. But how about the financial impact on a town that loses its newspaper? A working paper on newspaper closings between 1996 and 2015 reveals that government development costs go up when there are no watchdogs.

In Olean, the reporters heard from people in the community grateful to them for exposing the city’s failure to enforce housing codes.

My satisfaction came from knowing that I helped to inspire the next generation of journalists in these small communities and maybe, just maybe, the publishers and the communities will learn to like that kind of reporting and demand more. (Olean Reporter Tom Dinki is working on a project on the plight of shrinking rural school districts.)

As Gamble wrote in a letter supporting IECorps: “I’m no longer the same person I was — I am more capable of delivering good journalism to my town, and I am more motivated than ever to serve it.”

When I first approached her boss, Executive Editor Jim Eckstrom, he was reluctant. He knew all too well the demands on his tiny newsroom.

After the stories published, he wrote this in support of IECorps:

At a time when newsrooms are shrinking, fewer young journalists get the opportunity to take part in long-term, investigative work mentored by an experienced professional who is not harried with too many daily obligations… At a time when our industry needs all the talented, confident journalists it can nurture, supporting her efforts is a wise investment.

Rose Ciotta’s first visit to the Olean Times Herald newsroom: L to R: Jim Eckstrom, executive editor; Ciotta; Danielle Gamble, city editor/reporter; Tom Dinki, reporter; Bob Clark, reporter

The Bettinger award also gave me the opportunity to work with the journalists at The Beaver County Times in Beaver, Pennsylvania. A team of reporters, video/photo, data journalists produced a four part series on the impact of the opioid crisis in this small community of 4,500 which has had the highest rate of fentanyl overdose death in Pennsylvania. Soon after the January report, the state’s governor declared a statewide opioid disaster emergency.

Beaver County Times Managing Editor Kristen Doerschner
Daveen Rae Kurutz, Beaver County Times data specialist

While we worked on the project, Editor Lisa Micco kept the team in place despite the distractions of a sale and newsroom restructuring.

She wrote this in support of the IECorps:

“This type of editor help is critical to small newsroom operations. As quickly as our industry changes, the one constant is the need for investigative journalism. A program, such as Investigative Editing Corps, would ensure that small newsrooms could make a difference.”

Beaver County Times project staffers meet with Executive Editor Lisa Micco: L to R: Gwen Titley, videographer; Daveen Rae Kurutz, data reporter; Micco; Kristen Doerschner, managing editor; Lucy Schaly, photographer. Not in the photo: Reporters Marsha Keefer, Kate Malongowski; Kirstin Kennedy and Patti Conley.

If you are still reading, hopefully you are at least curious about how this could work. I have a short list of experienced journalists who want to help. I’d like to hear from others. You know who you are. You may be in academia, retired or pushed out of a newsroom well before you wanted to quit. You have a lot to share.

Your first step is to fill out this form showing your interest.

My hope is to create a network of editors who could work with small newsrooms around the country. These volunteers would receive a stipend to reimburse at least some of their time and expenses.

I also need to hear from small newsrooms that want to do investigative work but need help to do it. Send me your information here.

How can this project sustain itself? I am seeking funding to get us started. This could be the model: The newsroom would get editing help for the first project at no cost but may be asked to contribute toward the editor’s stipend to work on subsequent projects.

Imagine. You can add an investigative editor to your staff for a tiny fraction of the cost of hiring someone full-time. Isn’t that the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that could help small newsrooms make the transition to the day when their local communities will value what they do enough to pay for it?

By responding, you will help me show that local reporters and their editors need the help that an investigative editor can provide.

Do we really have to wait for more communities to turn into news deserts before we take action?

Please contact me with any comments or questions at invediting@gmail.com

And, please post this and share it with anyone who wants to help save local investigative reporting.

Rose Ciotta is a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative editor. She co-edited “Assault on Learning,” an investigation into violence in the Philadelphia schools that won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize Gold Medal for Public Service for The Philadelphia Inquirer. She’s won awards for her work in small and medium sized print and local television. She’s a former board member of Investigative Reporters & Editors and a John S. Knight Journalism fellow. She’s currently the Associate Editor for EdSource, an education website.