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Investigative journalists: Take credit!

March 10, 2009

I got into a brief Twitter conversation last week with Linda Thomas (@TheNewsChick) that went like this:

Linda:Why we need journalists – to uncover this [Link leads to an L.A. Times story that spun out of an investigative piece they did earlier]”

Me:@TheNewsChick I’m confused—it sounds like the LAT story came out of a meeting, not from a Times investigation”

Linda: It all stems from an LA Times investigation.

Sure enough, she was right.

I use this story to illustrate my point for the day: I think newspapers — and I use papers, not brands as I normally do, because I’m talking about traditional print media — ought to start taking more credit for the work they do. What do I mean? Well, have a look at the Times piece from a “top of the fold” view of the page:

Anything here suggest "investigative piece"?

Anything here suggest "investigative piece"?

There’s really nothing that tells me, This story exists because of some hard-fought, good old-fashioned journalism on the part of the L.A. Times. To find that, I need to read the second graf:

LAT first graf

Note: My highlighting obscured the fact that the text hyperlinked back to the original story.

Only problem was that I was reading this online (re: skimming) and the second paragraph happened to be one of those I omitted. Call me lazy or call it irresponsible reading, but as per the usual rule of thumb, if I skipped the second graf, someone else probably did, too, and it’s the L.A. Times, so even a conservative estimate of how many people don’t know about the investigation is enough to warrant this suggestion: Make your investigative work more obvious.

For print: Brand investigative reports as if they were sections unto themselves. Make a banner to run over them. A logo. Something.

For the Web: Have an “Investigative Reports” tab that runs somewhere obvious — right at the top with your sports, lifestyles, etc. sections. Group your reports there. Have blog posts or brief interviews with the reporters where they explain the work they did, how they got their information — maybe some of that “behind the scenes” information turns out to be really gripping or entertaining. Also, devote some space to explaining why you spend time and money on these investigations. Explain how much it takes to get things of these magnitudes done. Let people know how often you do this kind of thing. Have a map that shows where these investigations have happened and what areas they’ve affected. (This Seattle Times section is a great example, though I had to Google “Seattle Times Rose Bowl investigation” to find it.)

It all sounds like a lot of work and I understand the natural aversion to this type of thing out of a want to stay humble. But the rally cry from traditional print media to the public since the downfall of print started has been, “You don’t know how much you need us.”

I do know, but some (re: a lot) of the public may not (re: probably doesn’t). Show them.

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