Like many newspapers, the St. Petersburg Times in Florida faces plummeting ad revenues and a shrinking newsroom. Still, it keeps pumping out award-winning investigative journalism, including stories about the secretive religion of Scientology. The group's spiritual headquarters is based nearby.

But now, Scientology has hired its own prize-winning reporters to investigate the Times.

As Scott Finn of member station WUSF reports, this new tactic could have a chilling effect on journalism.

SCOTT FINN: You may know about Scientology through famous members like John Travolta and Tom Cruise. And if you watched television in the '80s, you've probably heard commercials about Scientology's most famous text.

(Soundbite of commercial)

Unidentified Man: Buy and read "Dianetics" by L. Ron Hubbard.

FINN: As Scientology expanded, it drew scrutiny from its hometown newspaper, the St. Petersburg Times, which won a Pulitzer in 1980 for uncovering Scientology's inner workings. Last year, the paper accused Scientology's leader, David Miscavige, of physically beating his subordinates, based on interviews with former high-ranking Scientologists.

Church officials called that story a total lie, but instead of just complaining, church spokesman Tommy Davis says they decided to do something about it.

Mr. TOMMY DAVIS (Spokesman, Church of Scientology): To be honest, I think we just took a playbook from the media. You know, media pay reporters all the time to investigate things.

FINN: The Church of Scientology hired two big names in the world of investigative reporting, former "60 Minutes" producer Christopher Szechenyi and Pulitzer Prize-winner Russell Carollo. No one is saying how much they were paid. The two agreed to write a report about the newspaper's coverage of Scientology. As part of their investigation, they called the executive editor of the St. Petersburg Times, Neil Brown.

Mr. NEIL BROWN (Executive Editor, St. Petersburg Times): So they wanted us to participate in a study of our work paid for by the subjects of our work. It seemed odd at best.

FINN: Brown says the newspaper refused to answer the reporters' questions. He says the church had already hired three law firms to raise questions about the newspaper's work.

Mr. BROWN: When you've been threatened with lawsuits, it doesn't make sense to start to have a conversation with the subjects who are threatening you about the work. So, we ultimately just simple had to say: This isn't an independent, objective review, and we've got a lot of journalism left to do, and we're going to go forward with it.

FINN: To Davis, this reeks of hypocrisy.

Mr. DAVIS: I do think the St. Pete Times comes from the, you know, can-dish-it-out-but-can't-take-it school of thought.

FINN: Davis says Scientology church officials have no plans to release the report to the public, but that didn't stop Davis from talking about it to The Washington Post, calling it highly critical of the Times' coverage. The two reporters declined to be interviewed. In a statement, they say they acted ethically and maintained complete editorial control.

Other journalists are asking what it means when investigative reporters become private investigators for hire. Loren Ghiglione teaches media ethics at Northwestern University.

Professor LOREN GHIGLIONE (Media Ethics, Northwestern University): When do you stop being a journalist? It does raise a question when you become the employee of an organization that is essentially not a news organization by any stretch of the imagination, indeed is - may be trying to go to war with a news organization.

FINN: He says as newsrooms downsize, great reporters are having to look for other sources of funding, and Ghiglione suspects this won't be the last time that the target of an investigation seeks to turn the tables on the media.

For NPR News, I'm Scott Finn in Tampa.

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