Investigative reporting is ‘still a very white male business’

How the Online News Association and The Georgia News Lab are working to diversify journalism

MIAMI, FL — Can an innovative college-professional news collaborative, with a $35,000 grant in hand, “change the pipeline for investigative journalism in Georgia?” The Georgia News Lab—a partnership between The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Atlanta’s ABC affiliate WSB-TV, and four local universities—won support in April from the Online News Association’s Challenge Fund to give that goal a go starting this semester.

The Lab, the brainchild of Georgia State University’s David Armstrong, is designed not only to supplement the investigative reporting being done in Atlanta, but also to bring needed diversity to the ranks of investigative journalists.

Armstrong recruited two historically black universities, Morehouse College and Clark Atlanta University, to participate.* He also got the University of Georgia’s Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication involved. The ONA grant will cover the costs of the team’s investigations, Armstrong said. (The ONA Challenge Fund, like CJR’s United States Project, is funded in part by the Democracy Fund.)

“When we started this, we were really trying to see how we could do more than the obvious,” Armstrong explained. “Something that’s been crying out for ages was bringing more diversity into newsrooms and in particular into investigative teams.”

Armstrong started teaching the first class this semester with 10 students from the four universities. The class will run two semesters, and the AJC and WSB have each promised to hire two summer interns from the class. The students are starting out by compiling financial information on state legislature candidates, checking to see if the candidates’ financial disclosure forms square with other public records, looking into their spouses’ businesses—essentially, casting a wide net to see what they might find.

“You never know what you’re going to find,” Armstrong said. “We’re simply following facts. It leads us where it will.”

The work backgrounding candidates gives Armstrong the chance to train the students in how to dig up and use public records.

“They’re capable and young and enthusiastic, but they’re also students,” Armstrong said. “What we take for granted is all new to them. I can’t assume they know how to do a proper search, or even what a lobbyist is. There’s a lot of preparation.”

The plan is for the class to come up with a bigger investigation and pitch it to both outlets as a project for next semester.

Ron Thomas, director of the Journalism and Sports Program at Morehouse, said he was particularly impressed that the partnership included the diversity element from the outset.

“Right from the beginning, one of the goals David had was training students who were black or another minority because there are very few minorities who are investigative journalists,” he said.

The partnership also allowed Morehouse, which only offers a journalism minor, to expand its course offerings.

“An investigative reporting course would be a luxury for us because we don’t have anybody with that expertise,” he said.

The students primarily meet at Georgia State, but Armstrong said the class will move around a bit, sometimes meeting at the news outlets, sometimes moving to classrooms at Morehouse and Clark Atlanta.

Kandace Harris, chair of the Department of Mass Media Arts at Clark Atlanta, said she hopes the focus on bringing minority students into investigative journalism will result in minority communities being covered better.

“We want to make sure the students understand it’s hugely important to share stories that are important to our communities,” she said. “In terms of diversity, those impactful stories sometimes get lost.”

Charles N. Davis, dean of the Henry W. Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at University of Georgia, said the collaboration between so many universities is remarkable in itself.

“It’s very interesting to see that many educational institutions partner on something, and quite unusual,” he said. “Everybody was willing to share.”

Folks at the AJC are excited about the possibilities.

“We want to grow some good investigative reporters right here in Atlanta and we are particularly looking for people of color in those roles,” said Ken Foskett, senior editor for investigations at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “If you look at investigative reporting today, it’s still a very white male business.”

Foskett said he also hopes the partnership will help the AJC tackle some regional issues, noting the paper covers a five-county area.

“Having 10 students to fan out around Atlanta opens the door to regional reporting,” Foskett said. “It’s something we can do, but it involves a lot of manpower. A class of students can divide up and conquer the region.”

The students I talked to were eager to learn the ropes.

Timothy Tukes, a sophomore majoring in English at Morehouse, said he is looking forward to studying the techniques investigative journalists use to dig up stories. Tukes was invited to attend the Investigative Reporters and Editors convention over the summer, with IRE covering his costs.

Jared Loggins, the other Morehouse student enrolled in the class, is excited to learn how to dig up dirt on politicians because his ultimate goal is to work in political opposition research. And Adam Chaves, a junior journalism major at Georgia State University, thinks it’s great that the general public will be able to access what the class finds out about local politicians.

“It’s actually a lot of fun finding this information and knowing the public will be using it,” he said.

Doug Mitchell, an NPR consultant who was on the grants committee at ONA and is a frequent advocate for more diversity in journalism, said he saw the Atlanta project as an important step in the right direction.

He noted that several of ONA’s grant recipients were universities with very diverse student bodies, though the Atlanta project was the only winner with diversity as one of its specific goals.

“Education and media need to work more closely together,” he said. “Industry needs to—as part of its business model, not some side thing that can be cut when times are bad—work with universities as laboratories.”

Another partnership, two years in

Students in Georgia are already producing a lot of journalism. Tim Regan-Porter, director of the Center for Collaborative Journalism at Mercer University in Macon, has spent the past two years working with students, the Macon Telegraph, and Georgia Public Broadcasting on a slightly different type of partnership (profiled at launch by The New York Times).

The Telegraph moved its newsroom into a building on campus. Most of the work the Mercer students are producing isn’t investigative. Instead, they’re contributing everything from video to go with print pieces to feature stories. Regan-Porter said students published 230 pieces in the Telegraph and on GPB last year, including a couple that got picked up nationally.

Fifteen students in Mercer’s freshman journalism course just put together a joint story on housing problems on campus that ran on the front page of the Telegraph.

Looking back, he said one of the most important things he did was use grant money—the project attracted some $6 million in funding, largely from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation—to hire a newsroom coordinator.

“She keeps a handle on where students are in terms of their readiness,” he said.** “That allows the students to not be so much of a burden to the assigning editors and reporters.”

Sherrie Marshall, executive editor of the Telegraph said she has been pleased with much of the students’ work, and with how the partnership is progressing.

“Mercer had a pretty small journalism program, so growing the number of students, and the number of students who had some basic journalism training before they enter our newsroom has taken some time,” she said. Most of the students have concentrated on feature stories, but as Mercer builds a better trained cohort of students, Marshall would like to see them covering more straight news.

“I’m not knocking features, but when they’re able to come in and cover a school board meeting, that’s when I know we’re preparing them well,” she said.

*The original version of this story misidentified Morehouse College as Morehouse University.

**The original quotation here referred incorrectly to the newsroom coordinator for the Mercer University class. She is a woman.

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Susannah Nesmith is CJR’s correspondent for Florida and Georgia. She is a freelance writer based in Miami with more than 25 years working for regional and national outlets. Follow her on Twitter @susannahnesmith. Tags: , , , , , ,