Digging on Deadline

By Lena Viall

Cuts and downsizing make serving as the daily record more than enough work for many small-town papers. The resources needed for long investigations are perks or sacrifices, seldom a budget entry. But the secrets are still there, and Montana journalists are adapting to uncover them.

Chuck Johnson of Lee Newspapers’ State Bureau in Helena knows the struggle of in-depth coverage firsthand. Covering Montana’s state government is a busy task for his crew of only two. A few years ago, there were three.

“I don’t know of any newspapers or television stations in Montana that have a team that works on nothing but major investigations,” Johnson said. “But we try to dig into things. Sometimes they’re not stories you have the luxury of working for two weeks on. You may have to start working on it on Monday and have it out by the weekend.”

For Johnson, the “60 Minutes” style of story isn’t feasible, but solid reporting is. Rather than one huge exclusive, his small team often strives to expand upon their topics in incremental articles, each building on the last. In 2012, Johnson wrote extensively about Montana’s pension system debate, publishing dozens of articles.

“In a broader sense, what we do would fall into explanatory or in-depth,” he said. “I’m not sure if you’d call that investigative or not.”

For those living by the deadline, diligent reporting from the trenches is their investigation. There just isn’t much time for anything else.

What classic investigative reporting really needs is a breath of fresh air, and it’s finding an ally in an unlikely source: the Internet.

More data is available online than ever before, and with it come more sources for investigations. Nonprofit news sources like ProPublica or the Center for Investigative Reporting have blossomed in recent years.

“Right now has kind of been the reinvention of journalism,” Jeremy Knop, founder of the Montana Center for Investigative Reporting (MTCIR), said. “There are so many places to get your news. You’re basically having to find new ways to fund revenue streams.”

Knop, whose day job is with a Montana television station, founded the MTCIR in February 2012, to address what he sees as a scarcity of investigative journalism in Montana. The MTCIR lives entirely online — there is no press, which means low overhead, but no subscription revenue either. The MTCIR’s small group of contributing journalists writes all the stories, often choosing to cover subjects that are either of state-wide importance or pieces that are underreported outside Montana.

“For me, what’s most important is it sparks a conversation about what really matters in our communities,” Knop said. “It’s the kind of journalism for which the First Amendment exists in the first place.”

But the MTCIR is still seeking the stable footing that all new nonprofits do: funding, exposure, and the resources to achieve both. It took months to attain Internal Revenue Service 501(c)(3) nonprofit status, which most grants are dependent upon. It’s hard, uncertain work. With obstacles on all fronts, how are nonprofit news sources supposed to get a foot in the door?

One answer is through sites like the Investigative News Network (INN), of which the MTCIR is a member. In the four years since its inception, the INN has grown from 27 to over 80 members in North America and will soon be launching worldwide. The INN is a journalist’s network, providing resources that would be difficult to acquire independently: website hosting, fresh avenues for publishing and republishing work, and collaboration among reporters. Members can access thousands of databases without having to file time-consuming Freedom of Information Act requests on their own and are able to access grants from foundations and negotiate payment from third-party publishers. Once a member publishes a story, it becomes part of the network, available for other reporters to use.

University of Montana journalism professor and former Bozeman Chronicle managing editor Dennis Swibold said he feels investigative reporting is the best type of journalism. The months or years of tedious research needed for deep investigative journalism don’t always deliver a shocking exposé and rarely lead to a fat paycheck. But investigative journalism provides the society-changing stories daily reporting can leave out: corruption at city hall, white-collar crime, and underreported issues. In an era of Internet opinion, “the demand for good journalism is higher than ever,” Swibold said.

In the last three decades, the news game has changed. Newspaper subscriptions are down. Internet news, often free, is thriving. Yet, secrets never sleep, so neither will investigative journalism.

Lena Viall is a freelance writer and University of Montana Creative Writing Program alumna. Her work has been featured in Bugle Magazine, The Oval, and on Montana Public Radio. She lives in Missoula.