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For watchdog reporting, costs add up fast

For what it spends on a major investigative series, The News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C., could hire about four full-time reporters.

That amounts to $150,000 to $200,000, a rough estimate Executive Editor John Drescher made when speaking with producers of the Duke Office Hours webcast Thursday.

Those costs include everything from photography and editing to copy fees, although Drescher said the majority can be attributed to personnel — namely the paper’s three-person watchdog crew.

UPDATE: The estimate is on par with spending from nonprofit investigative news outlet ProPublica, which according to a 2009 calculation from Jim Barnett spent around $200,000 for each of its major projects.

The fact that big-time investigative reporting is an expensive endeavor shouldn’t come as a surprise. But it’s often hard to pin down a price tag for metro dailies like the N&O, which Drescher told me aims for four to six major pieces a year that “really uncover something people didn’t know.”

The figure got the attention of John Robinson, former editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C. Via Twitter, he posed a question for Drescher: Are these reporting projects worth it?

In a phone interview Thursday afternoon, Drescher unequivocally said yes.

“It’s the key reason we exist, and that’s to get to the bottom of things,” he said.

Drescher first came up with that “back-of-the-envelope” calculation about four years ago at the request of Duke University Professor Jay Hamilton, who directs the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy (UPDATE: read Hamilton’s resulting paper). Full disclosure: the center oversees our lab.

Back then, the paper employed legendary investigative reporter Pat Stith. Although Drescher said the number likely hasn’t changed much, it may have gone up slightly since Stith retired in late 2008.

“I didn’t replace him with one reporter,” Drescher said. “I replaced him with two.”

Budget cuts in newsrooms often mean management must choose between depth and breadth.

The rest of the paper, however, has changed drastically since then. Dozens of newsroom positions have been eliminated through buyouts and layoffs, according to the tracking site Paper Cuts. The copy edit and design desks have been consolidated with The News & Observer’s sister McClatchy paper, The Charlotte Observer.

Yet when it comes to investigative reporting, Drescher said he’s worked to hold the line, expanding the paper’s watchdog role even as the staff contracts.

“When you look at coverage areas and what’s not being covered, it’s really tempting to take those investigative reporters and put them in those areas,” Drescher said. “I’ve resisted that temptation.”

In a blog post Thursday afternoon, Robinson noted the investment has certainly paid off for The News & Observer.

He also said he believes Drescher’s estimate adds an important measurement to an ongoing discussion about the value of big watchdog reporting projects to readers — close to $1 million annually can buy quite a few reporters, after all.

“If I had that choice when I was still the editor [of the News & Record], I would probably fall on the side of fewer projects and more feet on the ground for daily reporting,” Robinson said in a phone interview Thursday, although he added that such a philosophy is highly dependent on the type of newspaper you want to be.

By shielding his investigative team from cuts, it’s clear Drescher has made up his mind on that.

And Robinson said he’s confident that decision will benefit not just News & Observer readers, but everyone in the state.

“Good journalism costs money, and The News & Observer has a tradition of doing good journalism,” Robinson said.

As lab director Sarah Cohen pointed out during the Duke Office Hours webcast, the lab’s hope is to help reduce that cost — both in terms of time and money.

Investigative reporting may never be cheap, but at least we can work to make the choice between depth and breadth a little less necessary.

About Tyler Dukes

Tyler Dukes is the managing editor for Reporters' Lab, a project through Duke University's DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy. Follow him on Twitter as @mtdukes.
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