With steady layoffs at newsrooms around the state, it may seem like a bad time to be an investigative journalist in Arizona. Not so, say the watchdogs.

Investigative State

Written by Lauren Loftus Category: Valley News Issue: March 2017
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In(vestigative) Memoriam
With generous endowments, including a $25,000 grant from the Arizona Community Foundation, AZCIR is poised to keep reporting for another year. Not all journalistic start-ups in the Valley have been so successful.

• The Arizona Guardian, 2009-2012
Staffed by laid-off East Valley Tribune journalists, the exclusive political news site charged upward of $150 for subscriptions.

• Heat City, 2009-2011
Former EVT reporter Nick Martin launched the crowd-funded Phoenix news site but left for a gig with Talking Points Memo in New York.

• AZ Tech Beat, 2012-2016
Founded to expose the tech sector’s growth in Arizona, the site became volunteer-only after being unable to fund full-time writers through sponsorships.

Investigative news is all over the news these days. See: Meryl Streep’s Golden Globes speech imploring support of the “principled press.” In a culture of fake news and spurious, self-serving accusations of fake news, the relentless pursuit of truth by dogged journalists seems more important than ever. It also seems harder to do. Layoffs have become the norm since the Great Recession, leading to 20,000 fewer newsroom jobs in 2014 than 20 years prior, according to the Pew Research Center. Factor in falling subscriptions and traditional ad revenue, and it’s no small wonder any newspapers – the traditional volume purveyors of investigative reporting – still exist, let alone produce powerful storytelling that keeps power in check.

The Valley media landscape has certainly not escaped unscathed. Once home to roughly a dozen staff writers, the Phoenix New Times is down to two. The Arizona Republic newsroom has shrunk by half. And the East Valley Tribune, which won a Pulitzer Prize for a Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office investigation in 2009, is now a weekly with a skeleton staff. It’s a dismal picture on its face, but many in the biz insist the state of investigative reporting isn’t that dour. Rather, it’s adapting.

“There’s never been a better time to be an investigative reporter,” says Jim Small, the new executive director and editor of the nonprofit Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting, pointing out there’s more data – that most holy of investigative tools to prove corruption – than ever before and faster technology to process it. After 12 years as a reporter and editor with the Arizona Capitol Times, Small points to nonprofits like AZCIR – which aren’t beholden to corporate interests and are funded by endowments and public contributions – as a possible solution to the inevitable gaps in reporting. Sure, “there are fewer people doing it, and the industry is spread thin,” he says, but “that’s where we come in.”

AZCIR founder Brandon Quester, who started the center in 2012 after several years working as a photojournalist and earning a master’s degree at Arizona State University, says he envisioned it as a “collaborative hub” that partnered with other newsrooms to report tough stories. For example, AZCIR collaborated with ABC 15 in 2014 to produce a package of stories investigating how Arizona regulates hazardous chemical storage facilities, finding frightening shortfalls.

Still, investigative journalism is a tough gig, and running a nonprofit outlet is even tougher. “Doing everything for so long weighs on you,” says Quester, who had to play editor, reporter, photographer and business manager for several years. Today AZCIR consists of just one full-time editor and reporter. Quester handed Small the AZCIR reins in January to become the director of data and visuals at the San Diego nonprofit inewsource.

Craig Harris, an investigative reporter at the Republic, says “it’s very hard to have a commitment to investigative journalism, it’s expensive.” You could start an online investigative site, he says, but then “you got to have some big benefactor or you got to charge… you’re always asking for money.”

Though he’s employed by a large, traditional publication, Harris cannot always immerse himself in complicated, long-running investigations. “I do a lot of daily stories in between,” he says. Still, he says, readers “want fair, factual reporting,” and playing the watchdog can yield tangible results: A 2016 series he wrote on questionable firings at the Arizona Department of Economic Security led to dozens getting their jobs back.

Meanwhile, investigative reporting still has the mystique to entice young talent. ASU journalism professor Jacqueline Petchel says students are very interested in the field. What distinguishes the up-and-coming generation, she says, “is they have a wide variety of skills to market… they’re learning to do depth reporting with the addition of a lot of multimedia skills [like] photography, video storytelling and data [analysis].”

At AZCIR, Jim Small is excited to focus on investigative all the time. “What we get to do is that essence of pure journalism… we don’t have a deadline to hit every day,” he says, adding that his watchdog function is wholly “dependent on people with strong feelings on holding the powerful accountable.”

Luckily, he thinks that’s us.