Managers: Making the Investigative Commitment and Building the Team

By CHRISTOPHER D. KIRKPATRICK
Detroit Free Press Business Editor

BOSTON – When building a specialized investigations team inside a newsroom there are effective ways to quell the resentment and turf battles that often develop, said Mark Katches, editorial director for the Center for Investigative Reporting.

The strategies help create newsrooms where the investigative mindset becomes the norm, said Katches, who has built several newsroom I-teams over the years.

For example, he always has two skilled GA reporters on his team so they can take over the work of any beat reporter who has a project-worthy idea and needs some time to work on it.

“You don’t let the beat be exposed … and everybody is happy in the end,” he said. “It’s not just some investigative team off in the corner and nobody else gets to play in the sandbox.”

Katches was part of an IRE panel Friday that offered advice for building investigations teams and developing a commitment to watchdog journalism inside news organizations.

He said young journalists or others without the experience should start small and comb through the city budget or review conflict of interest statements of local elected officials, for example.

“The basic low-hanging fruit; let them taste success,” he said And any new team is likely going to take two or three years to produce the highest quality work.

“The first story I edited at the (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel) won a Pulitzer, alright, I’ll take it,” he said. “But it does usually take time.”

Blake Morrison, an investigations editor with Reuters and a panelist, said a team “needs to permeate the newsroom with your ambition.” The successful manager also brings in other worthy reporters who haven’t worked on investigative projects before.

“Make investigative reporting safe for them,” he said. “Show them how cool it is.”

He said stories about children and the safety of their environment seem to do extremely well and are good places to start.

Valari Staab, president of NBC Owned Television Stations and one of the panelists, said story popularity seems to depend on the region.

San Francisco area viewers respond to stories about government corruption, the environment and animal rights, she said. In Texas, the weather and safety are of prime concern, she said.

As president, she has either pumped up or created from scratch 10 investigation teams during the past year at the 10 NBC stations she oversees.

She has emphasized producing stories that no other station has.

“You’ve got to be playing to win each and every day,” she said. “It never costs you money to do the right thing.”