Investigative reporting in the digital era


MANCHESTER >> Investigative journalism didn't begin with Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein and "All the President's Men," and won't end with depleted newsrooms more focused on Facebook likes and Twitter feeds than uncovering municipal corruption or corporate malfeasance.

Herbert Bayard Swope of the now-defunct New York World may no longer be a household name, but 100 years ago he earned his place among the journalistic elite with a series of stories that were published by his newspaper titled "Inside the German Empire."

Along with the editorial board of the now also defunct New York Tribune, which published an editorial on the first anniversary of the sinking of the passenger ship Lusitania by German U-boats, he earned the distinction of winning the first-ever Pulitzer Prize for journalism, awards established by Joseph Pulitzer, a rambunctious New York publisher and Hungarian immigrant. Ever since, the awards have represented the apogee of success and recognition of excellence in the profession.

On Wednesday, March 2, David Sanger, the chief Washington, D.C. correspondent for the New York Times, and a member of two Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporting teams, will give a talk in Manchester that is part of the centennial celebration of the Pulitzer Prize. Sanger's talk, which will explore the state of investigative journalism in the present day, is also part of the Vermont Humanities Council's "First Wednesdays" series of free public lectures, which are hosted locally by the Manchester Community Library.

Conventional wisdom maintains that in the rapidly shifting and challenging environment presented by the transition from traditional print-oriented journalism to the uncertain digital future, the economic underpinnings of the industry are under pressure. Newsrooms have seen staffs scaled back, and in-depth investigative reporting requiring weeks and months of dogged research may be, some have feared, a luxury not easy to afford. But Sanger, on the other hand, sees this as a potentially "golden era" for investigative work, if news gathering organizations have "the institutional structure to support it," he said by email.

The economic challenges are real, although some, mostly larger news organizations are making headway, he said.

"But if you step back, the rise of many forms of new media has the prospect of making this the golden age of investigative reporting," he said. "More data is available than ever before. The art and science of big data makes it easier to sort through. New technology makes it easier to conduct some kinds of reporting at fraction of the traditional cost. The question is which news organizations find a way to organize themselves to exploit these tools and focus their reporting."

That's a task that could prove more problematic for smaller news chains and papers, he adds.

"I'm increasingly convinced they will need to separate themselves from all their previous business models, and rethink their more fundamental assumptions about how one funds news organizations," he said, referring to smaller news organizations. "This should be a subject of lively debate."

Sanger plans to discuss some of the larger investigative efforts he's taken part in, and the lessons he took away from those experiences. The space shuttle investigations, and those involving the smuggling of nuclear devices and know how from Pakistan to North Korea in the 1980s and 90s, along with the effort that uncovered "Olympic Games" and the "Stuxnet" virus — the cyberwarfare strategy and weapon developed by the response to the development of nuclear weapons by Iran — will be among those he will discuss and review, he said.

In 1986, Sanger was part of a team of journalists who investigated the causes of the space shuttle "Challenger" disaster, revealing the design flaws and bureaucratic fumbling which led up to it, and earned his first Pultizer Prize. A decade later, he won a second Pulitzer as a member of another team of Times' journalists who wrote about the Clinton administration's efforts to control exports to China.

He has also written two books. His first, "The Inheritance: The World Obama Confronts and the Challenges to American Power," published in 2009, looked at the legacy the outgoing Bush administration was leaving to the then-incoming Obama administration as it prepared to take office. His second, "Confront and Conceal: Obama's Secret Wars and Surprising Use of American Power," published in 2012, analyzed how President Obama and his team met those challenges during his first term in office, with an emphasis on unconventional warfare and weapons in the American inventory. The book explored the use of drones and the cyber attacks that were part of "Olympic Games," as it attempted to wind down and diminish the U.S. role in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through a lighter military footprint and more reliance on technology to safeguard homeland security.

First Wednesdays is a free series of public lectures offered from October through May at nine Vermont libraries. Manchester has been part of the series since 2007.

Sanger is no stranger to the Manchester area. He has given talks at the Weston Playhouse annually for the past several years as part of a fundraising event for the theater there, and also gave a presentation on "Confront and Conceal" at the Northshire Bookstore when that book was published.

Sanger's talk will take place Wednesday, March 2, starting at 7 p.m., at the First Congregational Church in Manchester Village. For more information, call the library at 802-362-2607.


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