National Press Club

Investigative Reporting Vital to Industry Future, Panel Says

October 9, 2008 | By Gil Klein

COLUMBIA, S.C. – Good investigative reporting is key to maintaining strong local journalism, but it is difficult to do under current economic conditions, leading South Carolina journalists said at an NPC Centennial Forum here Wednesday.

“There are few things we do that gets a more favorable response from readers than investigative reporting,” said Mark Lett, editor of the Columbia newspaper, The State.

In the past, he said, a reporter could disappear for a week or even a month and then come back with a great story because he or she had time to run down tips and make context out of the information.

But giving a reporter that kind of time now is difficult, he said, when news organizations are cutting staff while creating content for both the Web and the newspaper.

“Every day there is this tremendous push/pull, how to feed the beast, how to fill up the newspaper with local content,” Lett said.

Lett was speaking at one of forums on “The First Amendment, Freedom of the Press and the Future of Journalism” that the Club is holding around the country to mark our 100th anniversary. The Columbia forum was co-sponsored by the University of South Carolina’s College of Mass Communications and Information Studies and the World Affairs Council of Columbia.

“I have worked in two television newsrooms where the I-Team is the first thing to go when budgets had to be cut,” said Barry Ahrendt, director for marketing and programming at WIS-TV in Columbia.

“It is one of the great risks and dangers in our society that we have lost this significant resource,” he said. “I don’t see any solutions for it right now.”

Eliminating investigative reporting is short sighted, said Augie Grant, who specializes in research on new media technologies and consumer behavior at USC. With all of the news media now able to deliver the basic news at practically the same time, he said, news organizations have to produce unique copy to differentiate themselves.

“Something that our best news organizations can do is investigative reporting,” he said. “Obviously there has to be a cost/benefit ratio. But when you say, what can make one news organization different from the others, this is it.”

A businessman who saw the value of investigative reporting endowed an award the university gives for the best stories in the state each year, said Charles Bierbauer, dean of USC’s College of Mass Communications and Information Studies.

“We get a handful of entries each year,” he said. “There’s not a whole lot being done.”

But where it is being done, it has impact, Bierbauer said. Last year the award went to the Charleston Post and Courier for an investigation into a fire that cost the lives of nine firefighters.

“The story made a difference in changing the laws and regulations affecting fire departments across the state,” Bierbauer said.

The next NPC Centennial Forum will be Wednesday, Oct. 14, in Atlanta. It is sponsored by the Atlanta Press Club and will be held at Georgia Public Broadcasting.