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Investing in Investigative

For many stations, deep-digging, hard-hitting investigative journalism became a casualty of the shrinking local TV economy. Experienced gumshoe reporters are expensive, and the costs of months-long investigations—including surveillance, Freedom of Information Act requests and even deploying helicopters to track a perp—can be hard to justify in ever-tighter budgets.

But for the six stations among the 14 winners of the 2010 duPont-Columbia awards for their market-changing investigative work, such cuts are hard to fathom. “Unfortunately, people identify investigative journalism as an area to cut,” says KMGH Denver VP/General Manager Byron Grandy, whose station won for a report on grave emergency-response woes at Denver International Airport. “If a newsroom is not uncovering things, I'm not sure it's meeting the expectations that people have for it. I believe it's a mistake.”

The six stations winning the prestigious duPonts, called the broadcast-news equivalent of the Pulitzer Prizes by Columbia University, which gives out both awards, doubled the three that got awards in 2009. Other winners include HBO, CBS News and NPR. Of the six stations, five have previously won duPonts, four would be considered market leaders and five do business in DMAs 10 to 51. Three are owned by publicly traded companies, and four of the five winning owners have four or fewer stations.

DuPont director Abi Wright says 150 stations submitted entries, down from 175 the year before. Yet twice as many won. “I can only conclude that more good work is being done [at the station level],” says Wright, who is not involved in selecting the winners.

The stations say their robust investigative reporting is essential to maintaining their news brand. WTVF Nashville's six-person I-team produces 10 to 15 reports a year, and increasingly pitches in on breaking news. “If you want to stand out in your market, you have to deliver what the others don't,” says President/General Manager Debbie Turner, whose station's winning report used its chopper to follow judges who failed to show up in court because they were spending personal time or doing second jobs while the accused waited for their cases to be heard.

Some stations focus on civic corruption, others on street-level scammers. Some, such as WCAX in DMA No. 94 Burlington, Vt., don't have I-teams per se, but encourage investigative work throughout the newsroom. “It's what we do,” says President/General Manager Peter Martin. “If you're the trusted source of information in your community, you have to do these sorts of things.”

WSVN Miami's “Help Me Howard” segments get some 50,000 e-mails or calls a year from viewers looking for help, says VP of News Alice Jacobs. WSVN won for a series on storefronts selling prescription drugs to addicts. “We're a local TV station—it's what we're supposed to do,” she says. “We're supposed to help the community.”

But the winners say their motivation is as much about strategy as it is about altruism. While publicly traded Belo Corp. has had its share of belt-tightening the last few years, Executive VP Peter Diaz says its investigative crews have remained essential to the business model. (Belo's KHOU Houston and WWL New Orleans won 2010 duPonts.) “The station that does great investigative work stands out in the market,” he says. “That translates to better ratings, which translates to better revenue, which translates to better recruiting.”

Indeed, as stations begin hiring talent after a long freeze, Diaz says a reputation for impactful reporting is a big draw: “People want to work for stations that do good news.”

As much as they enjoyed claiming the silver batons in New York last month, station executives take greater pride in seeing the reporting bring about change. Jacobs says the “Pill Mills” series prompted Florida to create a system to track how and where prescription drugs are dispensed. Grandy says KMGH's report pressured Denver's airport to position an ambulance on-site for emergencies.

Like the other winners, Grandy credits the parent company for supporting such enterprise. “McGraw-Hill has a strong belief in making sure what we do is meaningful,” he says, “and making sure we can keep doing it.”

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