News from a new generation

Walter Robinson, who won a Pulitzer Prize
at the Globe, heads the investigative
reporting program at Northeastern University.

A decade is a long time. But advocates for senior citizens have been trying to drum up support on Beacon Hill for guardianship reform for at least that long. Seniors without relatives or close companions can end up, and hundreds do, under the care of court-appointed guardians who get carte blanche over their medical and legal decisions. Judges often issue snap judgments on these cases, usually without a detailed review of the status of these “unbefriended elders.”

So when a recent Boston Sunday Globe Page One investigation described this little-known controversy, the story struck a real nerve. “The writers did an excellent job describing the challenges of the guardian system,” read one Brookline woman’s letter to the editor. Elder Affairs Secretary Michael Festa called the article an “exclamation point” on a systemic problem. Most important, a hearing held by the Legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary on bills addressing guardianship concerns drew a far larger turnout of judges, registrars of probate, and lawyers than in past years. “There was definitely a big ripple,” says Wynn Gerhard, managing attorney for the Greater Boston Legal Services’ elder law unit.

The Globe had some hat-tipping of its own to do. The eight reporters who worked on the story weren’t staff writers, but students in a graduate seminar in investigative reporting at Northeastern University. Most of them had some prior reporting experience, but they were still learning the ropes, which made the front-page piece even more unusual.

Investigative journalism has traditionally been the province of a news outlet’s most experienced reporters, veterans with skills in gathering the information that public officials often try to keep hidden. But with shrinking budgets at newspapers and television stations, news executives are experimenting with new models for investigative journalism. Some are enlisting graduate and undergraduate students, others are considering joint projects with media competitors, and still others are exploring a nonprofit model. These symbiotic relationships are transforming the media landscape, changing not only the way investigations get done, but who does them.

Mark Jurkowitz, associate director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism and a former media writer for the Globe and The Boston Phoenix, says the budget cuts have forced most media outlets to scale back or eliminate ambitious investigative reporting. “That’s why you see the scrambling for this new kind of economic model,” he says.

Nationally, several approaches are being pursued. For example, there are independent, stand-alone reporting groups such as the Center for Public Integrity, in Washington, DC — which recently published a report documenting 935 false statements made by the Bush administration about the national security threat posed by Iraq in the two years after September 11. And the Center for Investigative Reporting, in Berkeley, California, teamed up with The New York Times, the public TV series Frontline, and the Canadian Broadcasting Company in 2003 to examine deaths and injuries at one of the largest iron pipe foundries in North America. Both organizations are nonprofits, funded by journalism foundations or philanthropists.

Northeastern graduate student Jesse Nankin

The most ambitious entrant in this field is ProPublica, founded and funded in part by Herbert and Marion Sandler, former heads of the California–based Golden West Financial Corp. The Sandlers have committed $10 million per year to the center, which opened in Manhattan in January. Headed by Paul Steiger, the Wall Street Journal’s former managing editor, ProPublica plans to have about 25 full-time investigative reporters on staff. Their reports would be made available for free on the group’s website and distributed to major news organizations.

Partnerships with universities also are gaining traction. The Carnegie and Knight Foundations launched News21 in 2005 as one part of their joint Initiative on the Future of Journalism Education. The project gives students at five schools — Columbia, Northwestern, the University of California at Berkeley, the University of Southern California, and Harvard’s Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics, and Public Policy at the Kennedy School of Government — the opportunity to work on investigations that are distributed through traditional and online media. In 2006, Northwestern students wrote reports on the federal government’s abuses of personal data in homeland security probes. Their stories appeared in a variety of media, including The Washington Post and The Los Angeles Times, and on the project’s own website. The foundations are now discussing an expansion of the program to seven more schools.

Some investigative reporting collaborations have been driven by unique circumstances. Nearly 20 media organizations in the San Francisco Bay area, including local newspapers, television network affiliates, radio outlets, professional journalism associations, and area universities are conducting a joint investigation into the murder of Chauncey Bailey, the editor of the weekly Oakland Post, who was probing a local Black Muslim business when he was shot to death.

But in Massachusetts, experimentation with new investigative reporting models has been mostly confined to area colleges. Most of the initiatives rely on student manpower under the tutelage of a big-foot former investigative reporter who carries clout with local media outlets. David Protess, a journalism professor at Chicago’s Northwestern University, is considered the godfather of this model, but now a number of local journalists are following in his tracks.

Boston University’s College of Communication was the first area school to regularly offer an investigative reporting class that provides students with opportunities to have their work published in local media outlets. Led by Dick Lehr and Mitchell Zuckoff, former Globe investigative reporters, teams of BU students are currently working with WBZ-TV (Channel 4) in Boston on several projects.

Northeastern’s School of Journalism also offers two investigative reporting courses, both taught by Walter Robinson, a longtime political and investigative reporter at the Globe who won a Pulitzer Prize for leading the paper’s coverage of the Catholic Church sexual-abuse scandal. Before moving to Northeastern last year, Robinson put together an informal arrangement with Globe editor Marty Baron to have his students report and write investigative stories. (Robinson, who is now a paid consultant for the Globe, headed the paper’s Spotlight Team of investigative reporters for six of his 34 years on Morrissey Boulevard.) The students’ Page One probes have covered such topics as loan interest rates at pawnshops, health code violations at upscale Boston restaurants, and tax-free disability pensions for Boston firefighters.

And Emerson College, which offers its investigative journalism course on a periodic basis, plans a fall class incorporating print, broadcast and multimedia components.

There’s also the Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism at Brandeis University, which probes miscarriages of justice and bills itself as the country’s first independent reporting center based at a university. Founding director Florence Graves, who helped break the 1992 story of sexual misconduct involving US Sen. Robert Packwood of Oregon, sees the institute functioning much like ProPublica or the Center for Public Integrity. She and a Post staff writer recently investigated a dispute between the aerospace manufacturer Boeing and whistleblowers over suspect parts in the 737 line of jets.

Joe Bergantino, who has been with WBZ-TV’s I-Team for more than 20 years, says there is a “desperate need” for more investigative work in the region. For him, it’s essential to hold the powerful accountable and give the public in-depth information on critical issues that’s unavailable elsewhere. “What’s so important is that we ensure the survival of this type of reporting,” Bergantino says.

Pulling in more resources

Fretting over the state of investigative reporting isn’t just inside baseball for media types. Investigative reporting provides the deepest level of accountability for our institutional powers that be, according to Ellen Hume, research director for MIT’s Center for Future Civic Media. Many journalists say that exposing public- or private-sector abuses or wrongdoing that galvanizes the public to demand change — and pressures policymakers to act — is some of the most demanding and expensive work in journalism.

“History has demonstrated that investigative journalism has done more for the public good, in my eyes, than all of the [nongovernmental organizations] and the government watchdogs and the inspectors general put together,” says BU’s Zuckoff.

Although newsrooms have always been a fertile training ground for reporters, investigative reporting has traditionally been a world apart, the domain of journalists with years of experience who do nothing else but dig deep into a single issue for weeks at a time. The Globe’s Spotlight Team has an editor and three reporters who spent eight months working on its recent prison suicide series. Past projects have taken even longer.

But in the decades since Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward’s Watergate reporting inspired a generation of investigative journalists, the traditional advertising-dependent business model has fallen on hard times, particularly at newspapers. Where there were once family-run, community-centered news outlets, there are now multimillion dollar media conglomerates obsessed with the bottom line. In the belt-tightening that has followed, newsrooms staffs have been decimated.

The New York Times, Frontline, and a few other places still have enough money and enough boots on the ground to pursue major investigations. Elsewhere, the landscape is bleak. A 2005 survey of editors and reporters at the country’s 100 largest newspapers, conducted by Arizona State journalism students, found that 42 percent of reporters and senior editors have keen interest in investigative reporting. Yet 61 of the newspapers had no investigative or special projects team. Sixteen had once fielded teams but had since dismantled them.

“The equation, the formula, the methodology of journalism has completely been blown up, and it’s in the process of being put [back] together,” says Robert Rosenthal, a former Globe reporter who is currently executive director of the Center for Investigative Reporting.

The strains are especially evident at smaller local and regional papers like The Eagle-Tribune. Editor Al White says it’s been “a while” since they had reporters deployed to work exclusively on investigations. The paper occasionally springs reporters from their regular beats to work on major projects — such as a 2004 series on auto insurance fraud in Lawrence and a recent look into the misuse of federal grant money by the Methuen Police Department — but White says that with fewer reporters it may take a little longer to weave all the threads together.

In many respects, the Globe and WBZ-TV, which have had investigative units since the 1970s, are the exceptions. Although both outlets have been hard-hit by recent staff cutbacks (and the Globe recently announced another round of downsizing), they have managed to preserve their investigative teams. And Globe editor Baron characterizes student work as a way to get more investigative reporting in the paper, not to replace anything the professionals do. He says he isn’t going to turn Spotlight investigations, some of the most challenging and sensitive reporting the newspaper does, over to university students under any circumstances.

“Just because we found another source of good investigations from time to time doesn’t even come close to suggesting that we would rely on that in lieu of the resources that already exist within the Globe,” says Baron.

Still, the arrangements with colleges let students learn the nuts and bolts of news gathering and gain marketable skills, while media outlets get eager newbies ready to take on tough stories. Lou Ureneck, chairman of the BU journalism department, says the share of actual investigative work that now comes out of universities is minuscule, and the impact on the journalism business is negligible. He says the impact on journalism education, however, is huge: “It really deepens the education that journalism students get, and it turns them on to the business by giving them early success.”

Digging through the files

Robinson decided to have his Northeastern students take a broad look at the senior guardianship system after a lawyer with relevant cases contacted him. That information propelled students into the bureaucracy of the Suffolk Probate Court, and they learned fast that there’s nothing glamorous about spending hours trolling through electronic records or boxes of bulging files. However, that kind of digging takes up a good chunk of any investigative journalist’s time and provides what Robinson calls “the skeleton of a story.”

Careful prospecting can yield great finds. To get a sense of how many people were losing their rights, graduate student Jeff Kelly and his classmates studied five years of guardianship cases last fall to find out if a lawyer had been appointed to represent an elder or not, if the proper medical and financial paperwork had been filed, and other factors. Kelly, who works a day job as a news editor for a, and two others were tapped to write the report.

Depending on the quality of the work submitted, Robinson rewrites or edits the story and forwards it to the Globe. There, it goes through another layer of editors and, if necessary, lawyers. (New York Times lawyers vetted the courts story before it was published.)

“The [elder guardianship] story that was done by the Globe and Northeastern is a very good example of work that is a win-win for both the university and the newsroom,” says Ralph Whitehead Jr., a journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts–Amherst.

Lou Ureneck, chairman of Boston
University’s journalism department

Yet journalism students can’t count on being published every time. “Not every case is going to be this blockbuster story,” says Newton Tab assistant editor Leslie Friday, who received her master’s degree in print journalism from BU. Her class’s probe into federal sentencing guidelines never panned out, for example, since none of the targeted outlets would bite.

And it’s not uncommon for journalism students to run into people who simply don’t take them seriously. “Soon as they hear you that you are a student, they just brush you off,” Friday says.

When pros talk, students listen. Five young men and women sit in Robinson’s comfortable office to hear guest speaker Stephen Kurkjian. Dressed from head to toe in shades of denim blue, the former Globe reporter fills the air with expansive hand gestures as he regales the undergraduates with behind-the-scenes stories from Woodstock to Chappaquiddick. But if there is a single point the one-time head of the Spotlight Team wants to drive home, it’s this: There’s little margin for error in investigative journalism. The stakes are high and reputations are on the line — both yours and your subject’s. The bigger the story, the more responsibility. “That’s the ice that’s cracking all the time when you’re writing,” he says.

So eyebrows may furrow at the thought of mere students doing investigative journalism. But their track record is nothing to sneer at. Northwestern’s Protess decided in the 1990s that college seniors were more than up to taking a second look at complex criminal cases in Illinois. As of this writing, the students in his Medill Innocence Project have helped exonerate 11 wrongfully convicted people, five on death row. One man, Anthony Porter, was two days from execution. Their work persuaded Gov. George Ryan to place a moratorium on the death penalty in 2000. Three years later, Ryan commuted the sentences of all death row inmates.

Early on, Protess was a skeptic. He doubted the ability of 22-year-olds to make a difference in cases with life-and-death stakes. However, the longer he worked with students, the more he realized that students had an edge over veterans like himself in certain respects. In the field, Protess discovered, they bring a disarming charm to interviews that can get reluctant sources to open up, such as those in African-American neighborhoods.

The Medill Innocence Project handles up to six cases a year out of roughly 1,500 requests for assistance. Rather than labor over writing mechanics, the students concentrate on digging for evidence. Full-time journalists then collaborate with the students to bring “the fruits of their reporting to life.” Protess believes this last step is essential in reaching policymakers, especially in law enforcement. “Our class is concerned about making a difference in society,” he says, “and exposés by news organizations facilitate that goal more effectively than a story written by college students.”

Graves, founding director of Brandeis’s Schuster Institute, also stops short of having students dive in the deep end. She recruits 10 to 12 students each semester and then puts them to work as paid researchers. (Student journalists at Northeastern and Boston University earn academic credits only.) But she believes it wouldn’t be prudent to allow students who have not had sufficient journalism experience to actually write investigative reports, explaining, “The most important thing is being right.”

Northeastern University’s Walter
Robinson (center) with graduate
students Nikki Glouderman
and Jesse Nankin

Although influenced by Protess’s work, Lehr and Zuckoff took a different tack at BU. Their students research and report on a wide range of issues and are required to write their own stories, so that they have the experience of interacting with news professionals. Those relationships have paid off. For example, a series of articles by BU students detailing a gay Pittsfield child care worker’s questionable child abuse conviction ran in the Boston Phoenix in 2004. Not only did it help raise the profile of that case, it won that year’s Society of Professional Journalists student journalism award for in-depth newspaper reporting. (In 2006, a judge released the man and ordered a new trial, but the Berkshire County District Attorney’s office is still fighting that decision before the state Appeals Court.)

Given the realities of the news business today and his desire to nurture quality journalism, Northeastern’s Robinson sees few issues with advanced students writing reports. “If a university program like this can produce high-quality, relevant, high-impact stories that are well-vetted and stories that are important to the public discourse, there is no argument I can see against that,” he says.

Teaching philosophies aside, there is broad agreement that a student investigative team must be supervised by a well-regarded veteran journalist. “You have got to know what they are capable of doing, what they’re not capable of doing, and, somewhere in the middle, you’ve got to make a decision when they come in and tell you something [that] could be true,” says James Tansey, director and chief investigator for the House Post Audit and Oversight Committee, a former reporter. Jurkowitz, of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, agrees. “You’ve still got the pros at both ends.”

Media professionals interviewed for this article were unanimous in pointing to Robinson’s stewardship as the decisive factor in the caliber of work produced by Northeastern students. Baron admits that without a person in whom the paper had enormous confidence, “I’m not sure that we would agree to do this.”

The professionals who work at nonprofit centers also have to grapple with reservations about how their work is perceived. The jury is still out on whether they can resist outside pressure, particularly from individual funders, if a discovery makes waves and affects their business or political interests. Last year, Elaine and Gerald Schuster, who, like the Sandlers of ProPublica, are active in Democratic Party circles, made a $5 million gift to their namesake center. Graves insists there are no strings attached.

“They have never suggested a story or said this is what you ought to do. Ever,” she says. “The institute needs to be independent to be effective.”

Meet the Author

Gabrielle Gurley

Senior Associate Editor, CommonWealth

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

About Gabrielle Gurley

Gabrielle covers several beats, including mass transit, municipal government, child welfare, and energy and the environment. Her recent articles have explored municipal hiring practices in Pittsfield, public defender pay, and medical marijuana, and she has won several national journalism awards for her work. Prior to coming to CommonWealth in 2005, Gabrielle wrote for the State House News Service, The Boston Globe, and other publications. She launched her media career in broadcast journalism with C-SPAN in Washington, DC. The Philadelphia native holds degrees from Boston College and Georgetown University.

Have university officials expressed concerns that students could unearth something that could be awkward for their own educational institutions? That question has never come up, according to journalism administrators at both Northeastern and BU. “We don’t tell our students that it is OK to report about some things and not others,” says Ureneck, the BU journalism department chairman. “The idea is, anything is fair game.”

Meanwhile, the Northeastern investigative journalists-in-training have forced lawmakers and the public to sit up and take notice of the senior guardianship appointment process. “We’ve never had this much interest and this much visibility for the problems,” says Gerhard, the elder affairs lawyer. “So I’m hoping that makes a difference.”