Good reporting is still the heart of newspaper work

Some of the best reporting in Colorado last week was in the pages of The Daily Sentinel, a couple of stories by Will Woody about the deal that may or may not be struck between Montrose and Extra Aircraft LP.

Extra is an aircraft manufacturer that is dangling jobs in front of Montrose officials in return for incentives to locate a manufacturing facility at the Montrose Regional Airport.

If nothing else, it’s an object lesson in how private enterprise works the public sector to get various tax concessions and, in this case, other incentives that are worth millions. The point here is not to say whether the Montrose-Extra deal is good or bad public policy. I’m sure a case can be made on either side of that argument.

Instead the point here is about Woody’s dogged pursuit of the story, and what it means in today’s world of newspaper journalism. The Extra story is one of those that doesn’t simply appear in a newsroom in the form of a press release. In fact, it’s one of those stories that many, if not all, of the principals would prefer gets no coverage at all. In fact,  Extra threatened to sue the city of Montrose if the details of the deal were made public.

The unvarnished truth is there is a journalistic corollary to Newton’s Third Law. It’s something like this: For every effort to keep secret a fact the public has a right to know, there is an equal effort by a good reporter to make sure that fact becomes public knowledge.

My days in a newsroom are quickly becoming part of a distant past, and I don’t know how Woody came across the Extra story. But I’m pretty sure when he encountered opposition to his pursuit of the facts, Newton’s Third Law kicked in and he became more determined than ever to get the story. That’s simply what good reporters do, and it’s what good editors expect them to do. They are hard-wired to get information, and the more obstacles that are thrown in front of them in that pursuit, the harder they will work to get it.

Here’s my bias. I’m going to qualify that statement by narrowing the group of reporters who act that way to those who work for good, old-fashioned newspapers. That’s not to say television and radio reporters don’t break a few good stories every now and then. They do. And when they do they deserve kudos for doing it. And it’s not to say there haven’t been a few good stories broken by some bloggers. They, too, occasionally are the first with a good story that requires some first-rate reporting skills. But most good stories are still the province of newspaper reporters.

The New York Times earlier this year, in a story about a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism, had this to say about the role of newspapers in a digital world: “Looking at six major story lines that developed over one week ... 83 percent of the reports in local news media ‘were essentially repetitive, conveying no new information,’ said the study ... Despite diminished resources of established news organizations, ‘of the stories that did contain new information, nearly all, 95 percent, came from old media — most of them newspapers,’ it said. ‘These stories then tended to set the narrative agenda for most other media outlets.’ “

That only confirms what every reporter and editor has long known intuitively. It’s a line repeated every evening in just about every newspaper newsroom in the country. Reporters stand around and watch the local news and complain that all the television stations are doing is reading the newspaper. Today, the complaint goes beyond the television stations, to the blogosphere.

It’s irksome, of course. But it’s also a compliment.

What it really means is, newspapers are still where the community has to look for significant reporting.

Like the stories Will Woody did last week about Extra Aircraft and Montrose.

Denny Herzog is the retired executive editor of The Daily Sentinel. E-mail him at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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