A Vigilant Pursuit: The Survival of Watchdog Journalism

May 16, 2006
Category: Archive

By Mike Levine
Executive editor, Times Herald-Record (Middletown, N.Y.)

This one, my friends, is for the small and mid-sized dailies, our ambition forever exceeding our grasp. The newspapers for whom watchdog reporting is not a pedigree show for the Pulitzer, but a stubborn mutt’s insistence on holding a town board accountable. In the watchdog pursuit of justice, we’re the junkyard hounds.

At the Times Herald-Record, we looked hard into the mirror. We saw a newsroom that had always been aggressive, but now strained under the crush of fewer resources, more junior reporters, new reader demands. Watchdog reporting could easily fade from view.

Alarm bells went off. Because where we publish, if we don’t do the story, no one will. And local government was getting more comfortable saying, “Access denied.” Like many small and mid-sized dailies, our sentry is often all that protects a living first amendment. We vowed to become more vigilant.

So with training money we didn’t have, the publisher and I went to a Poynter watchdog conference. We asked IRE to come to our newsroom and give a two-day workshop for our entire staff. Our newsroom got down to business with four quick projects, each one climbing higher on the ladder of chutzpah.

” …If we don’t do the story, no one will…” [The] first step was Project Access. We sent local college students to 55 towns to ask for the most basic of citizen information — like budgets and arrest reports. We published the disturbing litany of denials. We followed with a public meeting arming our readers with what they have a right to know and how to get it. Local government in our region is now palpably more open when it comes to access.

Next. Living in the shadow of West Point and NYC’s water supply, we called all our communities with a surprise disaster drill. Quick, what’s your disaster plan? we asked. Nearly three quarters of our 86 municipalities failed. We published the results. Last month, we asked again. The failure rate was cut in half.

And after our region was overwhelmed by flood waters, we got our hands on NYC dam reports and discovered that a NYC inspector was photocopying the same reports over and over for supposedly on-site inspections. It prompted outcries from our U.S. senators and led to state hearings.

We then launched a tenacious consumer advocate column which nails unfair practices of local businesses, some of whom were our biggest advertisers. Our columnist, Christine Young, went deeper and she nailed the local police department for racial profiling on traffic stops. Thanks to a publisher of integrity, we stood strong. Our advertisers came back and the police department changed its policies.

I can’t tell you that watchdog journalism is why our readership is growing. I can only tell you that it feels right in our bones.

Because we discovered that watchdog reporting is not a matter of can or can’t, but will or won’t.

Because we’ve become more spirited on the smallest of stories. Because we get to take readers
seriously again, not as marketing targets to be pandered to, but as citizens to be engaged.

Because there are crooks out there with smiles and suits and PR machines.

Because while newspapers are knocking their brains out trying to be slick, we discovered a new breed of journalists begging us to be noble and a new generation of Americans turning to us for justice.

Because government doesn’t want us to. Because the people do.

Because on some days, when we read yet another obituary of newspapers, watchdog reporting is all that saves us from the sin of despair.

And, finally, because watchdog reporting is an act of faith.

We look at ourselves in the mirror again and find ourselves as flawed and frazzled as ever — the same as your newsroom. But when we all stand vigilant, there is hope in our long night, so that the people we serve can fall asleep knowing that their faithful old mutt, the newspaper watchdog, will be barking on their doorstep come morning.

Bet you they invite us in.

The Times Herald-Record is based out of Middleton, N.Y. At the time this article was published, the circulation was approximately 80,640 customers daily, with roughly 88,720 Sunday subscribers.