In the wake of Kitzhaber's resignation, thinking about investigative journalism

By Edward Hershey of Portland, Oregon. Edward is a retired journalist and communicator who lives in Portland, has been a juror for the George Polk Awards, the nation’s premier journalism honor devoted exclusively to investigative reporting across all media platforms, for the past 38 years. Learn more at EdwardHershey.com.

Sometimes bad news can be good news, too.

When Willamette Week reporter Nigel Jaquiss and Oregonian columnist Steve Duin pondered whether investigative reporting has a future in Oregon at an October 2013 Portland City Club Friday Forum moderated by OPB news executive Eve Epstein, each acknowledged that the emergence of the web has changed the game.

“We used to be in a 24-hour business,” Duin lamented. ”Now that we’re in a 24-minute business or, excuse me, in a 24-second business, you pay attention to a lot more things.”

“I think we’re like hamsters on a wheel and we’re continually producing,” Jaquiss added, “which means you have a lot less time to spend pursuing larger longer-term stories.”

Nonetheless both journalists, who are arguably Oregon’s two best, seemed optimistic that newshounds could continue to muckrake for the public good here and elsewhere.

I had no idea they would prove the point so emphatically starting a year later by using their craft to help bring down a sitting governor a month into his fourth four-year term, Nigel at the top of his game and Steve adding his singular brand of biting perspective to the work of colleagues like Laura Gunderson and Nick Budnick and Pamplin’s Hillary Borrud.

Yes, the O’s call for John Kitzhaber’s head was probably premature but who takes Erik Lukens’ editorials seriously anyway? The underlying truth is that details of the governor’s unethical and possibly criminal conduct would not be known today — and might never have emerged — but for the press. In retrospect it makes elements of that 2013 discussion about investigative journalism seem close to prescient.

“Here’s the good side of what’s different about the job for me over about the past 15 years,” Jaquiss said that day. “A lot of investigative reporting relies on public records in addition to shoe-leather reporting and human-source interviews and the ability to seek out and find public records is immeasurably easier. I think for a small paper like Willamette Week it’s really helped us to be able find … a lot of government documents that you used to have to go down to Salem or to a county 200 miles from here to get.”

Epstein, who supervises enterprise reporting at OPB, brought up the issue of competition. “I started working as a reporter in a two-newspaper town,” she said, ”and I know that I became a better reporter because I was aware every single day that the other reporter who covered city hall was going to beat me if I didn’t get a great story on my own.”

But when she wondered if the deeply diminished resources of both the O and WW meant that they ought to collaborate on major investigative efforts to split costs — “You’d be a great team,” she told them — Duin seemed dubious and Jaquiss positively bristled.

“Readers want to know what’s happening and why it’s happening,” he said. “They don’t want to see Steve Duin and me with our arms around each other say, ‘How can we work together?’ They want to see us beating each other’s brains out trying to get a better, faster, more interesting, more relevant story.

“I think where the media does a good job is when the Oregonian breaks a story and somebody else follows it or we break a story and they follow it. Then you have journalists rushing to advance a story. Working together you take away all the immediacy and all the tension. And all the fear of being beaten, that can have bad outcomes, those fears and that tension, but I think more often it has a positive motivating sort of influence on reporters.”

And that was almost precisely what brought John Kitzhaber down. Competition moved the story forward — and not just in terms of Willamette Week and the Oregonian trying to beat each other to the punch on the next big revelation. To my mind, because the Oregonian was on this story, Kitzhaber and his apologists could not dismiss it as Nigel's hunting for yet another political trophy head for his wall and because he was on top of it Kitzhaber was unable to call it another example of the O bending the news to suit its political purposes.

Even as they tried to beat each other’s brains out, their output became a kind of de facto collaboration that was all to the good, a win-win for both even on the days when one did beat the other. And when Borrud came out of nowhere January 27 with a pivotal piece on $118,000 in previously-undisclosed fees Cylvia Hayes received to lobby for the very policies she and Kitzhaber were putting in place, if nothing else it silenced skeptics who thought the whole deal was about little more than chump change.

As Duin noted, sounding a bit like a latter day Hildy Johnson, investigative journalism is still imperiled, especially in its long form. “These things,” he said after ticking off a series of Oregonian prize winners, “take a great deal of time to cultivate sources, to run down the people who don’t want to talk to you the first time you call even if they have the truth inside them and it’s trying to get out. This stuff takes time and one of the dilemmas in our business right now is to find out ways to finance part of the business that doesn’t pay for itself.”

It never did, and news organizations continue to flail about on the web in search of a new day-to-day business model to replace the ad revenue that used to subsidize it. The sad part here in Portland is that so many of us would be right there with the Oregonian in this quest but for the hard-right editorial policies that are so out of step with our own views and antithetical to the values of this community.


Watch the full City Club forum here:

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