Even as a new year presents its own challenges, the old one shows a heightened need for investigation.
It is an understatement to say that the last two years have been tough on those who make their livelihood in what is considered traditional journalism. The decline in value of most major news companies' stock is stunning. Advertising is in a recession, following the lead of real estate, autos and retail. Across the country, thousands of journalists in print and TV have lost their jobs or have accepted buyouts, including some at this paper.
In the midst of all this change, some are losing faith in journalism.
Yet it has never been more important to fight for the core values of this profession and of this company. As we look around at the political and economic landscape at the start of 2009, it seems obvious that our communities and our readers need trained journalists (aided by the public) to stand guard as watchdogs over government and business in action, to report on the news, to inform and empower residents and citizens. I've been in journalism for more than 25 years, and I never witnessed so much outright fraud, from Tom Petters' astonishing multibillion-dollar ponzi scheme to the scores of straw buyers of houses that now have no owners. The explosion of the blogosphere has brought an infusion of opinions to the world of journalism, but they cannot take the place of journalists who will investigate how all this has happened, why it happened, and explain who might be to blame. One of our key goals for 2009 is rather old-fashioned -- to improve our investigative and accountability reporting. Or, perhaps more simply put, to spend more time muckraking. It's one way we can and should be of more service to our readers.
This paper already has a solid tradition of investigative reporting. In the last 18 months, our reporters have uncovered mortgage fraud that has landed people in jail; they've uncovered incompetence in state government that has forced government employees out of their jobs. They've called into question the cozy relationship between some doctors and medical device companies.
Reporter Dave Shaffer, for example, told readers this year how the Department of Natural Resources spent $300,000 on a conference for game wardens, resulting in the resignation of the top enforcement official in the agency (and the firing of his wife). He is the same reporter who, in 2007, uncovered the fact that the state Health Department had suppressed research showing mesothelioma was killing more miners than previously known. The health commissioner quit not long after that story ran.
Last year, we also started an experiment, the Whistleblower blog. We invited the public to send us tips of wrongdoings or problems, and we investigated many -- large and small -- and reported online and in print what we found. This was an instant success, quickly becoming one of the best-read news blogs on our website. James Eli Shiffer, the editor who runs the blog, said that the project "shows how local journalism can directly help people, by getting problems with companies and government agencies resolved. We don't turn our nose up at small problems anymore." He has investigated everything from how a park board president uses public land as a private waterfront on Cedar Lake to wedding vendors who felt they had been deceived by the producer of a never-seen reality TV show. On Election Day, he blogged all day and invited readers to report problems they found at voting sites, generating more than 50,000 page views that day.
Still, as 2008 brought one misdeed after another, it has become clear that there is much more work to do.
Perhaps the single most important thing we can do as a newsroom is to spend more time digging. This year, a second reporter will join Shiffer on the Whistleblower team investigating your tips. In addition, we plan to place investigative reporters on key beats across the newsroom, from business to health care. We are reallocating some of our resources, starting early in 2009, to make this happen. To do this well, we also need your help. We have far more readers than we have reporters on the street, and the combined intelligence of the community is greater than that of our newsroom alone. If you know of wrongdoing in the community, in business, or in local or state government, we invite you to call or phone in a tip to the whistleblowers. With your help, they'll try to get to the truth, as old-fashioned as that might sound.
The Opinion section is produced by the Editorial Department to foster discussion about key issues. The Editorial Board represents the institutional voice of the Star Tribune and operates independently of the newsroom.