Investigative Reporters Move Outside Newsrooms

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As some newspapers are going out of business and many more are shedding costs, a lot of investigative journalists who have devoted years to exposing government corruption and corporate scandals are leaving their newsrooms.

While some have been given pink slips, others left on their own steam, bailing out for corporate or political PR jobs, teaching gigs or even new careers as private investigators.

Still others are seeking fulfillment in a different kind of public service. Take, for instance, the paths of Doug Frantz and Joel Sappell, two former journalists for the Los Angeles Times.

"The issue for me has always been ... Can I find a job where I can look myself in the mirror every morning before I go to work and say, 'I'm going to do good?' " says Frantz, a former L.A. Times reporter and managing editor.

Frantz is now chief investigator for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Back in Southern California, Sappell, who spent nearly three decades as a reporter and editor for the Los Angeles Times, is now a troubleshooter for Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.

Sappell is trying to use his reportorial skills to try to figure out what's not working in county government — and how to make it better.

"There's not many days when I come into this office when I don't remember exactly who I'm working for," says Sappell. "I'm working for the people, and I love that feeling ... I like knowing I'm doing something that's a pure, unadulterated public service."

Sappell loved reporting and editing, too. On one project, he and a partner took five years to reveal secrets of the Scientology empire. It paid off, but he says it took a toll.

"We had private detectives [follow us], we were sued four times along the way, my dog was poisoned, I was falsely accused of criminal assault," Sappell recalls. "There was a lot of stuff that went on during that period." (It should be noted that although Sappell's dog was poisoned on the same day he reported being threatened by a lawyer for the Scientologists, he acknowledges there was no proof they were involved.)

Sappell worked for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and the New York Daily News before joining the L.A. Times. He held a variety of jobs — city editor, local enterprise editor, executive editor of latimes.com, and back again to reporter — before deciding to leave the newspaper.

Sappell joined Yaroslavsky's office last year and says he's found he can have a more immediate effect: His inquiries helped Human Rights Watch and other advocacy groups goad the L.A. County Sheriff's office into counting the backlog of untested rape kits and to start processing them to identify possible suspects. (California's financial problems have slowed that effort down in recent days.)

Sappell says he has respect for many editors at the L.A. Times and elsewhere who are striving to do good work, but that the paper's ambitions were diminished.

"So much of a newspaper and its mission is about its heart and its identity. What does it stand for?" Sappell asks. "I felt that it was losing its bearings."

Los Angeles Times editor Russ Stanton disputes that charge, pointing to the paper's yearlong, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation of the fires that routinely threaten Southern California. He also noted recent enterprise reporting on gangs and schools.

"We're feeling the heat of the combination of the recession and the structural changes that are rolling through our industry," Stanton says. "But throughout it — and in the past two years in particular — we've maintained an unwavering commitment to do this kind of journalism."

Stanton says that with a smaller staff, investigative pieces are more likely to come from beat reporters. But he sees such enterprise work as something that will distinguish the L.A. Times from other outlets in a crowded media landscape.

Investigative journalists are just one element of the exodus from newspapers, which have taken a series of financial blows: Many companies have stopped advertising in print publications as circulation has fallen in recent years, and the economy has been brutal to remaining advertisers. Many major newspaper companies, including McClatchy, Gannett, Tribune and Lee, are struggling to make their debt payments. (The Tribune Co., which owns the L.A. Times, is in bankruptcy, as are the parent companies of big papers in Minneapolis and Philadelphia.)

There are no firm figures quantifying how many investigative journalists have left the business in the past few years. Officials at the professional association Investigative Reporters and Editors said they did not know.

Outside the profession, the title "investigative reporter" evokes the intensity of Al Pacino as former 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman, or the glamour of Robert Redford as the Washington Post's Bob Woodward. Inside the trade, investigative reporters are often characterized as self-indulged prima donnas.

In reality, a successful investigative reporter is dedicated, focused and patient — someone who can get sources to reveal things they didn't want public; who can apply computer analyses to endless public records; who can spend months tracking down every loose end to stitch together a coherent narrative.

Doug Frantz fits that bill. He has a pretty astonishing history as an investigative reporter and editor at the St. Petersburg Times, the L.A. Times and The New York Times. At one point, he did a series on nuclear proliferation and the Pakistani nuclear program — and wrote it without a single American source.

"U.S. intelligence's reputation was in tatters because of the inability to find nonexistent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq," Frantz says. "I wanted to do this story without any sort of taint."

After brief stints at the Wall Street Journal and then Portfolio magazine, Frantz said he looked around and didn't see a lot of appealing opportunities in journalism.

Instead, Frantz agreed to work for Sen. John Kerry on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Frantz says he had been impressed by Kerry, a Democrat, in the early 1990s, when Kerry helped lead a Senate inquiry into banking wrongdoings that involved other influential Democrats.

Frantz is no longer gunning to appear on the front page of the nation's big dailies, but to have a direct impact on national policy. His first report, published in May, is on Iran's nuclear program, and is surprisingly readable for a finding by a Senate committee.

"My first and highest responsibility there was to produce something that would inform Sen. John Kerry, my boss," Frantz says. "In a sense, everything I do and write is for an audience of one."

Frantz says once-great investigative papers like the L.A. Times and even its rivals are losing many of the very people who can do work like that.

But Brant Houston, former executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, says he finds hope in an informal network of not-for-profit groups driven by the investigative muscle of former newspaper reporters.

For example, former Boston Globe reporter Walter Robinson now teaches journalism at Northeastern University; his students' stories have been published by the Globe. Three former Los Angeles Times reporters have joined Pro Publica, a new not-for-profit organization in New York City, and their work has appeared on the front page of the L.A. Times. And other, less heralded examples have sprung up around the country, and are connecting to established groups such as the Center for Investigative Reporting in California and the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C.

"This is a grass-roots effort that's happening around the country and really started to blossom last year," says Houston, now a professor at the University of Illinois.

On Wednesday, a coalition of not-for-profit media outlets — including NPR — announced the creation of what it's calling the Investigative News Network to harness this scattered energy. Among those on the new organization's board: Houston and Brian Duffy, a senior NPR editor who helps oversee enterprise reporting.

The Los Angeles Times' Stanton swears he's not outsourcing investigative reporting. But it may be that in the future, watchdog coverage is provided by a loose confederation of shrinking but still influential mainstream news outlets and more nimble newcomers.

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