Investigative Reporters Move Outside Newsrooms As the newspaper industry shrinks, investigative reporters are taking jobs with unconventional news outlets, academia, government agencies and the corporate world.
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Investigative Reporters Move Outside Newsrooms

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Investigative Reporters Move Outside Newsrooms

Investigative Reporters Move Outside Newsrooms

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Now, the Madoff story about money, massive fraud, a once-prominent figure is just the kind of tale that gets the hearts of investigative reporters thumping. But these have been tough times in the world of journalism, and with newspapers struggling to survive and cutting their budgets, some reporters are moving on to other trades. NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik has been speaking to some of these former journalists about what they're doing now, and David joins us from our New York studio. Good morning.


GREENE: The people we're talking about today, I mean, I think of them as those classic reporters, you know, the whiskey-drinking, chain-smoking, meet-their-source-in-an-alley kind of reporters.

FOLKENFLIK: Guys that look like an unmade bed.

GREENE: Right.

FOLKENFLIK: Well, in reality, the way they think of their job is finding things out and getting people to say things that those people don't want to make public. And it can be through conversation and it can be through rigorous sifting through data. You know, a number of investigative reporters are bailing out for corporate gigs, gigs in political PR, some becoming actual private investigators.

But I spoke to two veteran investigative reporters, both guys who'd spent long stints at the Los Angeles Times, both leaving the field of journalism voluntarily to seek a new form of public service.

And I wanted to start with Joel Sappell. One of his greatest reporting projects at the Los Angeles Times took five years. He revealed secrets of the sprawling Scientology empire of the late L. Ron Hubbard, and here's what he described it felt like while he was doing that reporting.

Mr. JOEL SAPPELL (Reporter): We had private detectives. We were sued four times. I was falsely accused of criminal assault. There was a lot of stuff that went on during that period.

FOLKENFLIK: That was Joel Sappell talking about what was like to investigate the empire of the Scientologists. Sappell held other editing and reporting jobs over the years but about a year ago after struggling with the decision he left for a job with a powerful local politician, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. And here's what Sappell told me about how he feels about his new position.

Mr. SAPPELL: I'm working for the people, and I love that feeling. I like that feeling better than working at the L.A. Times. I like knowing that I'm doing something that's a pure, unadulterated public service.

GREENE: That's the voice of the former investigative reporter Joel Sappell, who spoke to NPR's David Folkenflik. And he is happy with the move away from journalism, it sounds like.

FOLKENFLIK: He loves it. He is using his reportorial skills to try to figure out what's going wrong in county government and how things might be improved. His increase on behalf of Yaroslavsky helped lead the Los Angeles County Sheriff's office to count all of its unprocessed rape kits, turned out there were thousands. And then helped to encourage the department to start to process them to identify possible suspects.

GREENE: Well, David someone like Sappell leaves the newspaper world, what do they think of the work newspapers are doing?

FOLKENFLIK: People like Joel and others who I talked to said that they have a lot of respect for reporters and editors who are still striving under terrible economic pressures to do good work. And there's a lot of good work being done. The L.A. Times itself, they've done major enterprise stories on brush fires in Los Angeles and on the gang system there, for the example. When I talked to L.A. Times editor Russ Stanton, he says, look, our commitment is unwavering to investigative and enterprise journalism, it is point of distinction for us.

Then again, I talked to a guy who had risen to the level of managing editor at the L.A. Times, named Doug Frantz. He had also been at The New York Times, St. Petersburg Times previously. Last year, Frantz said he looked around and he told me he didn't see a lot of appealing opportunities left in journalism.

Mr. DOUG FRANTZ (Managing Editor, 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?

FOLKENFLIK: Former Los Angeles Times journalist Doug Frantz. He says he's now found that chance to do good. And he is the chief investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, headed by Senator John Kerry. Now Frantz is sort off gunning not for the front page but for the direct impact on national policy. Here's what he said when I talked to him.

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

GREENE: We have been talking to NPR's David Folkenflik about several former investigative reporters and David, if folks like this have moved on out of journalism entirely who's filling that watchdog role that they used to fill?

FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think one of the most fascinating thing are the development of not for profits. There are these established larger national ones in California, the Center for Investigative Reporting in D.C., the Center for Public Integrity for public, and now a new one in New York. But there are also smaller regional and local ones often based within universities that are providing through the work of the young rising journalists and through the oversight of former newspaper investigative reporters, reports that appear on front pages of major newspapers.

Walter Robinson, a former lead investigative reporter at the Boston Globe is overseeing projects that now appear on the Globe's front pages. Several Pro Publica reporters used to be with the L.A. Times and their exposes have appeared on the front pages of the L.A. Times.

GREENE: I guess the reality of that newspapers and other old-time media has to face today.

FOLKENFLIK: I don't think anyone is doing it alone anymore.

GREENE: David, thanks a lot for bringing these voices to us.


GREENE: NPR's David Folkenflik joined us from our New York bureau. And we should note that just yesterday a coalition of non-profit news organizations including NPR announced plans to work together on investigative reporting projects.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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