The morning after my previous piece on Strib reporter Paul McEnroe signing on with KSTP-TV was published, the station’s news director, Anne Wittenborg, called, apologetic about not getting back to me in time for the story. “I was buried in budgets,” she explained.
For the record, Wittenborg, a Marshall native who is fairly new to KSTP’s news director chair (stepping up this past May), confirmed McEnroe’s understanding of his role at the station, which is to provide veteran news judgment to routine coverage as well as give the station something it hasn’t really had in a while — an impactful investigative unit.
“There’s no quota on Paul,” she said. “With his sources and experience, we think his presence will be valuable on many different levels. We don’t expect everything he does to be a big, four minute blockbuster.” Four minutes being a kind of “Lawrence of Arabia” epic in modern TV news.
Wittenborg and KSTP — the metro area’s only locally-owned TV news outlet — deserve credit for being smart enough to lure in someone like McEnroe. He’s a big presence, the sort of character with very specific ideas of how to do serious journalism. But what KSTP is also conceding, implicitly, is that the local TV news game, as presently played both in Minnesota and across the country, is in serious need of rethinking and reinvigorating.
Wittenborg reiterates what McEnroe told me, that he will be able to concentrate on “long and deep” stories with a social justice focus. Skeptical viewers will be watching closely for how much the TV version will compare with the newspaper iteration of such stories. But the mere act of declaring your intention sometimes has the effect of bolstering your determination.
The sad fact is that for too many (i.e. most) TV stations “investigative reporting” circa 2015 is defined as anything that takes four phone calls, a Google search and some promo hype. Budgets are of course a key determination in allocating resources — or not — for investigative projects. Another is audience research, which has a bad habit of describing news shows’ target audience, “soccer moms,” as being mostly interested in stories about keeping their family safe, stories that allow them to feel good about their community, and stories that keep them current with trends in dining and fashion. Those two factors combined place a premium on quick hit pieces a reporter and a photographer can crank out in an afternoon.
A second fact is that TV is still the primary source for a majority of news consumers, and probably will remain so for years to come, onslaught from the internet withstanding.
In his testimonial for McEnroe, Strib editor Rene Sanchez made a point of touting recent longform investigative work done by his staff, specifically the recent four-part series on farm safety. The series had everything you want in “long and deep” reporting, and the Strib team deserves all due credit for both effort and execution. But it was a damned daunting read. The sheer acreage of newsprint presented precisely the challenge that many news consumers turn to TV to avoid: personal effort.
In his study, “StoryBased Inquiry: A manual for investigative journalists” Mark Lee Hunter defines investigative journalism by contrasting it with “conventional” journalism:
Investigative journalism involves exposing to the public matters that are concealed – either deliberately by someone in a position of power, or accidentally, behind a chaotic mass of facts and circumstances that obscure understanding. It requires using both secret and open sources and documents.
Conventional news reporting depends largely and sometimes entirely on materials provided by others (such as police, governments, companies, etc.); it is fundamentally reactive, if not passive. Investigative reporting, in contrast, depends on material gathered or generated through the reporter’s own initiative (which is why it is often called “enterprise reporting”).
Conventional news reporting aims to create an objective image of the world as it is. Investigative reporting uses objectively true material – that is, facts that any reasonable observer would agree are true – toward the subjective goal of reforming the world. That is not a license to lie in a good cause. It is a responsibility, to learn the truth so that the world can change.
Other reporters and academics have their variations on that, but among the fundamental criteria for something to qualify as “investigative” in what we’ll call “the genuine sense” is that the subject matter be broadly substantial. Exposes of crooked microwave repair shops — or the all-time classic: KSTP’s mid-90s pixelated tour de force on topless housecleaners — do not qualify. What McEnroe has the potential to bring to KSTP is a committed focus on the big stuff: those institutions and characters who have influence over the lives and well being of thousands.
There are plenty of people skeptical that McEnroe’s presence will be transformative to the culture at KSTP. More than a few are betting he’ll be driven to frustrated exhaustion by the standardized superficialities of the local TV news game. And having watched this shtick for 25 years, 60 cents of my dollar is on that outcome. But given the audience TV news reaches, I’m still hoping the ship of silliness can be steered into deeper seas.