EL PASO, Texas — The economic gloom continues to loom over the media industry. With major U.S. media companies dealing with decline in revenue and diving into bankruptcy, news publications have been forced to cut costs to maintain profit margins.
Among the hardest hit are those staff in the newsroom, particularly those involved in public investigative and accountability reporting. During this dismal economic climate, the expense to fund a potentially lengthy, time-consuming investigative story, the reluctance to engage potential legal consequences, and their possibility to be fruitless endeavors are often the reasons why media companies are still reluctant to keep funding investigative issues, media critics say.
According to the American Society of News Editors’ annual newsroom census approximately 5,900 positions were eliminated during 2008, and 5,200 full-time newsroom positions where eliminated in 2009. This means the total employment in American print newsrooms has dropped by around 14,900 since 2000.
Although it is difficult to say how many of these full-time positions where classified exclusively as investigative journalists, The Project for Excellence in Journalism at the Pew Research Center found during it’s “State of the Media 2010” report, that all these newsroom cuts and layoffs “[are] a pronounced drop in time-consuming investigative projects and serious day-to-day local accountability reporting.”
Investigative work or watchdog journalism, although mostly romanticized, often just includes a tenacity to go in-depth on issues that hold the powerful accountable on a daily basis. The estimated 30% drop indicated by the Pew Research Center means that there are fewer reporters to cover the growing number of stories.
Former Multimedia Editor at the El Paso Times, Roy Ortega says these cuts have been detrimental to the quality and depth a newsroom is able to produce when reporters are doing twice the work and running at a fraction of the staff it once had.
During his 34 year career in the news business, Ortega has witnessed the priority placed on profits by the mainstream media companies slowly out weigh the need for solid journalism both in local and national media.
“You can’t possibly count on a quality product when you have so few resources available to you,” Ortega says.
As a result of the decline in newsroom staff around the country, there has been a large influx of laid off, experienced journalists that are still pushing to have the ability and the venue to deliver crucial information to the public eye.
Many have begun web based investigative reporting organizations such as the Center for Investigative Reporting, the Texas-Tribune, and the Pulitzer prize winning, ProPublica. Approximately 700 of these organizations have risen in correlation to the decline in newsrooms. Most of these organizations in finding community and philanthropic foundational support have chosen to embrace the 501(c) non-profit model, which makes the organization tax-exempt.
“These [organizations] are created by foundations that give them money because they feel that newspapers are not doing their job anymore of being a first amendment watchdog.” Armando V. Durazo, El Paso Times night editor says.
Though these organizations aren’t exactly groundbreaking in introducing non-profit models in the media—National Public Broadcasting has been at it for a little over a few decades—these new investigators seek to adhere to strict non-partisanship and provide online resources to advance the knowledge and transparency of public edifice information.
Non-profit news outlet’s such as ProPublica, offer tools and databases for readers to have a transparent view into everything from breakdowns of how much companies are getting from the U.S government bailout money, to tracking how long your state’s unemployment trust funds will hold up.
These new news organizations are dedicated to bringing to life Freedom of Information Act legislation by providing documents and data as resources for citizens and other investigative journalists.
“I see it expanding, I see now much more channels of communication and more tools that you can use. I see big opportunities for investigative reporting. I don’t see it as disappearing, it’s just expanding and shifting from the traditional way it has been done,” UTEP Communication Professor Eli García says.
Former El Paso Times investigative reporter, and now a staffer for the El Paso Inc, a local business niche paper, David Crowder believes that the transition to online for investigative work is “absolutely, positively in the right direction,” but he worries that although these organizations have been making huge differences nation-wide, there is a vast amount of these types of organization missing from the grassroots community level.
“ It’s kinda like they’re flying at 30,000 feet,” says Crowder, “the real stuff that impact people, their schools, where they pay their taxes, how their city government is run, where the bulk of their money goes, and the bulk of their actual concerns in life are all at the very local level.”
Crowder, along with former editor Sito Negron, ran their own hyper-local investigative and public affairs reporting web organization called Newspaper Tree for the El Paso community. NPT folded late last year due to lack of funding, and has been on hiatus ever since. It provided localized in-depth investigative work in the field of public, political and social issues around the Borderland area. In addition, like many of the other investigative websites previously mentioned, it frequently gave the user insight into various government and public source documents which were being referenced.
Since then the website has been purchased by the El Paso Community Foundation, and has spent some time becoming a 501(c) non-profit. According to the EPCF, the James L. Knight Foundation, known all across the country for the philanthropic grants to fund community journalism, (including having given $412,200.00 to the University of Texas at El Paso to start Borderzine.com an online magazine that supports the Multimedia Journalism program) has approved a grant for $200,000 toward reestablishing NPT’s service early this June. With the Knight foundations help and community support, the EPCF plans to formally announce the return sometime around Sept. Both Crowder and Negron will be returning to report.
“Our hope and expectation is that [the return] will provide localized news for El Paso… It’s all about opening up the information that people have available to them.” said Virginia Martinez, President of the EPCF.
Negron like Crowder, also hopes to “[re]fill the void in the community” of localized independent public investigative work. The only question now is, who’s going to foot the bill over time?
“That’s the $600,000 question,” laughs Negron, “it’s a question that us, like most non-profit media organizations that are new to the game are going to have to learn over time.”
The EPCF has reported that they will meet during the coming weeks with the foundation’s Board Members to discuss new revenue models to ensure the longevity of Newspaper Tree’s operations, and a steady investigative outlet in the El Paso Community.
For more information on newspaper-layoffs visit:
– Wall Street Journal’s interactive graphic report: Pressure on the Presses
– Paper Cuts’ report on newspaper layoffs for 2009