DAVID GREENE, host:
Now, the Madoff story about money, massive fraud, a once-prominent figure is just the kind of tale that gets the hearts of investigative reporters thumping. But these have been tough times in the world of journalism, and with newspapers struggling to survive and cutting their budgets, some reporters are moving on to other trades. NPR's media correspondent David Folkenflik has been speaking to some of these former journalists about what they're doing now, and David joins us from our New York studio. Good morning.
DAVID FOLKENFLIK: Good morning.
GREENE: The people we're talking about today, I mean, I think of them as those classic reporters, you know, the whiskey-drinking, chain-smoking, meet-their-source-in-an-alley kind of reporters.
FOLKENFLIK: Guys that look like an unmade bed.
FOLKENFLIK: Well, in reality, the way they think of their job is finding things out and getting people to say things that those people don't want to make public. And it can be through conversation and it can be through rigorous sifting through data. You know, a number of investigative reporters are bailing out for corporate gigs, gigs in political PR, some becoming actual private investigators.
But I spoke to two veteran investigative reporters, both guys who'd spent long stints at the Los Angeles Times, both leaving the field of journalism voluntarily to seek a new form of public service.
And I wanted to start with Joel Sappell. One of his greatest reporting projects at the Los Angeles Times took five years. He revealed secrets of the sprawling Scientology empire of the late L. Ron Hubbard, and here's what he described it felt like while he was doing that reporting.
Mr. JOEL SAPPELL (Reporter): We had private detectives. We were sued four times. I was falsely accused of criminal assault. There was a lot of stuff that went on during that period.
FOLKENFLIK: That was Joel Sappell talking about what was like to investigate the empire of the Scientologists. Sappell held other editing and reporting jobs over the years but about a year ago after struggling with the decision he left for a job with a powerful local politician, Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky. And here's what Sappell told me about how he feels about his new position.
Mr. SAPPELL: I'm working for the people, and I love that feeling. I like that feeling better than working at the L.A. Times. I like knowing that I'm doing something that's a pure, unadulterated public service.
GREENE: That's the voice of the former investigative reporter Joel Sappell, who spoke to NPR's David Folkenflik. And he is happy with the move away from journalism, it sounds like.
FOLKENFLIK: He loves it. He is using his reportorial skills to try to figure out what's going wrong in county government and how things might be improved. His increase on behalf of Yaroslavsky helped lead the Los Angeles County Sheriff's office to count all of its unprocessed rape kits, turned out there were thousands. And then helped to encourage the department to start to process them to identify possible suspects.
GREENE: Well, David someone like Sappell leaves the newspaper world, what do they think of the work newspapers are doing?
FOLKENFLIK: People like Joel and others who I talked to said that they have a lot of respect for reporters and editors who are still striving under terrible economic pressures to do good work. And there's a lot of good work being done. The L.A. Times itself, they've done major enterprise stories on brush fires in Los Angeles and on the gang system there, for the example. When I talked to L.A. Times editor Russ Stanton, he says, look, our commitment is unwavering to investigative and enterprise journalism, it is point of distinction for us.
Then again, I talked to a guy who had risen to the level of managing editor at the L.A. Times, named Doug Frantz. He had also been at The New York Times, St. Petersburg Times previously. Last year, Frantz said he looked around and he told me he didn't see a lot of appealing opportunities left in journalism.
Mr. DOUG FRANTZ (Managing Editor, Los Angeles Times): The issue for me has always been, can I find a job where I can look myself in the mirror every morning before I go to work and say, I'm going to do good?
FOLKENFLIK: Former Los Angeles Times journalist Doug Frantz. He says he's now found that chance to do good. And he is the chief investigator for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, headed by Senator John Kerry. Now Frantz is sort off gunning not for the front page but for the direct impact on national policy. Here's what he said when I talked to him.
Mr. FRANTZ: My first and highest responsibility there was to produce something that would inform Senator John Kerry, my boss. In a sense, everything that I do and write is for an audience of one.
GREENE: We have been talking to NPR's David Folkenflik about several former investigative reporters and David, if folks like this have moved on out of journalism entirely who's filling that watchdog role that they used to fill?
FOLKENFLIK: Well, I think one of the most fascinating thing are the development of not for profits. There are these established larger national ones in California, the Center for Investigative Reporting in D.C., the Center for Public Integrity for public, and now a new one in New York. But there are also smaller regional and local ones often based within universities that are providing through the work of the young rising journalists and through the oversight of former newspaper investigative reporters, reports that appear on front pages of major newspapers.
Walter Robinson, a former lead investigative reporter at the Boston Globe is overseeing projects that now appear on the Globe's front pages. Several Pro Publica reporters used to be with the L.A. Times and their exposes have appeared on the front pages of the L.A. Times.
GREENE: I guess the reality of that newspapers and other old-time media has to face today.
FOLKENFLIK: I don't think anyone is doing it alone anymore.
GREENE: David, thanks a lot for bringing these voices to us.
FOLKENFLIK: You bet.
GREENE: NPR's David Folkenflik joined us from our New York bureau. And we should note that just yesterday a coalition of non-profit news organizations including NPR announced plans to work together on investigative reporting projects.
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.
As the newspaper industry shrinks, investigative reporters are taking jobs with unconventional news outlets, academia, government agencies and the corporate world.
As some newspapers are going out of business and many more are shedding costs, a lot of investigative journalists who have devoted years to exposing government corruption and corporate scandals are leaving their newsrooms.
While some have been given pink slips, others left on their own steam, bailing out for corporate or political PR jobs, teaching gigs or even new careers as private investigators.
Still others are seeking fulfillment in a different kind of public service. Take, for instance, the paths of Doug Frantz and Joel Sappell, two former journalists for the Los Angeles Times.
"The issue for me has always been ... Can I find a job where I can look myself in the mirror every morning before I go to work and say, 'I'm going to do good?' " says Frantz, a former L.A. Times reporter and managing editor.
Frantz is now chief investigator for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Back in Southern California, Sappell, who spent nearly three decades as a reporter and editor for the Los Angeles Times, is now a troubleshooter for Los Angeles County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky.
Sappell is trying to use his reportorial skills to try to figure out what's not working in county government — and how to make it better.
"There's not many days when I come into this office when I don't remember exactly who I'm working for," says Sappell. "I'm working for the people, and I love that feeling ... I like knowing I'm doing something that's a pure, unadulterated public service."
Sappell loved reporting and editing, too. On one project, he and a partner took five years to reveal secrets of the Scientology empire. It paid off, but he says it took a toll.
"We had private detectives [follow us], we were sued four times along the way, my dog was poisoned, I was falsely accused of criminal assault," Sappell recalls. "There was a lot of stuff that went on during that period." (It should be noted that although Sappell's dog was poisoned on the same day he reported being threatened by a lawyer for the Scientologists, he acknowledges there was no proof they were involved.)
Sappell worked for the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and the New York Daily News before joining the L.A. Times. He held a variety of jobs — city editor, local enterprise editor, executive editor of latimes.com, and back again to reporter — before deciding to leave the newspaper.
Sappell joined Yaroslavsky's office last year and says he's found he can have a more immediate effect: His inquiries helped Human Rights Watch and other advocacy groups goad the L.A. County Sheriff's office into counting the backlog of untested rape kits and to start processing them to identify possible suspects. (California's financial problems have slowed that effort down in recent days.)
Sappell says he has respect for many editors at the L.A. Times and elsewhere who are striving to do good work, but that the paper's ambitions were diminished.
"So much of a newspaper and its mission is about its heart and its identity. What does it stand for?" Sappell asks. "I felt that it was losing its bearings."
Los Angeles Times editor Russ Stanton disputes that charge, pointing to the paper's yearlong, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation of the fires that routinely threaten Southern California. He also noted recent enterprise reporting on gangs and schools.
"We're feeling the heat of the combination of the recession and the structural changes that are rolling through our industry," Stanton says. "But throughout it — and in the past two years in particular — we've maintained an unwavering commitment to do this kind of journalism."
Stanton says that with a smaller staff, investigative pieces are more likely to come from beat reporters. But he sees such enterprise work as something that will distinguish the L.A. Times from other outlets in a crowded media landscape.
Investigative journalists are just one element of the exodus from newspapers, which have taken a series of financial blows: Many companies have stopped advertising in print publications as circulation has fallen in recent years, and the economy has been brutal to remaining advertisers. Many major newspaper companies, including McClatchy, Gannett, Tribune and Lee, are struggling to make their debt payments. (The Tribune Co., which owns the L.A. Times, is in bankruptcy, as are the parent companies of big papers in Minneapolis and Philadelphia.)
There are no firm figures quantifying how many investigative journalists have left the business in the past few years. Officials at the professional association Investigative Reporters and Editors said they did not know.
Outside the profession, the title "investigative reporter" evokes the intensity of Al Pacino as former 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman, or the glamour of Robert Redford as the Washington Post's Bob Woodward. Inside the trade, investigative reporters are often characterized as self-indulged prima donnas.
In reality, a successful investigative reporter is dedicated, focused and patient — someone who can get sources to reveal things they didn't want public; who can apply computer analyses to endless public records; who can spend months tracking down every loose end to stitch together a coherent narrative.
Doug Frantz fits that bill. He has a pretty astonishing history as an investigative reporter and editor at the St. Petersburg Times, the L.A. Times and The New York Times. At one point, he did a series on nuclear proliferation and the Pakistani nuclear program — and wrote it without a single American source.
"U.S. intelligence's reputation was in tatters because of the inability to find nonexistent weapons of mass destruction in Iraq," Frantz says. "I wanted to do this story without any sort of taint."
After brief stints at the Wall Street Journal and then Portfolio magazine, Frantz said he looked around and didn't see a lot of appealing opportunities in journalism.
Instead, Frantz agreed to work for Sen. John Kerry on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Frantz says he had been impressed by Kerry, a Democrat, in the early 1990s, when Kerry helped lead a Senate inquiry into banking wrongdoings that involved other influential Democrats.
Frantz is no longer gunning to appear on the front page of the nation's big dailies, but to have a direct impact on national policy. His first report, published in May, is on Iran's nuclear program, and is surprisingly readable for a finding by a Senate committee.
"My first and highest responsibility there was to produce something that would inform Sen. John Kerry, my boss," Frantz says. "In a sense, everything I do and write is for an audience of one."
Frantz says once-great investigative papers like the L.A. Times and even its rivals are losing many of the very people who can do work like that.
But Brant Houston, former executive director of Investigative Reporters and Editors, says he finds hope in an informal network of not-for-profit groups driven by the investigative muscle of former newspaper reporters.
For example, former Boston Globe reporter Walter Robinson now teaches journalism at Northeastern University; his students' stories have been published by the Globe. Three former Los Angeles Times reporters have joined Pro Publica, a new not-for-profit organization in New York City, and their work has appeared on the front page of the L.A. Times. And other, less heralded examples have sprung up around the country, and are connecting to established groups such as the Center for Investigative Reporting in California and the Center for Public Integrity in Washington, D.C.
"This is a grass-roots effort that's happening around the country and really started to blossom last year," says Houston, now a professor at the University of Illinois.
On Wednesday, a coalition of not-for-profit media outlets — including NPR — announced the creation of what it's calling the Investigative News Network to harness this scattered energy. Among those on the new organization's board: Houston and Brian Duffy, a senior NPR editor who helps oversee enterprise reporting.
The Los Angeles Times' Stanton swears he's not outsourcing investigative reporting. But it may be that in the future, watchdog coverage is provided by a loose confederation of shrinking but still influential mainstream news outlets and more nimble newcomers.