Column: Who will do the work?

— John Costa / The Bulletin /


Published May 19, 2013 at 05:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

News sources reported three weeks ago that Kevin and Tami Sawyer had been sentenced to federal prison for crimes related to their bogus real estate business.

But my question is where were these news sources when the tough journalistic work was being done?

Most media know how to cover hearings and rewrite press releases.

But which will invest in the very expensive work of reporting that goes beyond the obvious?

Media futurists are fond of predicting the demise of print, based on the assumption that advertising is in an irreversible slide to the Web.

Newspapers in print are going to be around for a long time.

This week, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the Washington Post and The Associated Press led the reporting in revelations about Internal Revenue Service targeting of political groups, new disclosures about the Obama administration and the terrorist attacks in Benghazi and the secret snooping on telephones of reporters.

What these institutions share is revenue from a print base, much as The Bulletin and its sister newspapers do.

It may be different in the future, but for now there is a definite connection between that revenue model and the investment in deep and original reporting.

Break that model and the future of independent, revelatory watchdog journalism is threatened to its core.

Let me give you some examples.

Bulletin reporter Sheila Miller has tracked the Sawyers' story since it began in 2009, when the first investigative hints began to surface.

Beyond the official announcements, we did a series of stories on their legal challenges, which disclosed their phony claims to investors about a housing development in Indiana.

What other media did that work, which is very time consuming and expensive?

And if The Bulletin didn't have the money and the commitment to do it, who else would?

We maintain bureaus in Salem and Washington to watch the performance of our delegations and to keep track of issues that are critical to Oregon.

Beyond The Oregonian, who else does that? Certainly, no other local media outlet.

A few years ago, our Washington reporter revealed that Oregon companies were bringing in foreign nonagricultural seasonal workers and ignoring requirements under the H2-B visa program that those jobs first go to Americans. The program received money from the 2009 stimulus, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

That story took a lot of time and research through federal and state records, a commitment that cost a lot of money.

Recently, Sen. Jeff Merkley introduced legislation to tighten the rules on the program to the benefit of unemployed Oregonians.

Was that worth it? I think so.

Will a local television station or a blogger do this very expensive work? I doubt it.

Our newspaper in Sonora, Calif., recently received an array of state reporting awards for an extraordinary commitment to community journalism. It dedicated a lot of time and energy to report that a local superintendent of schools hired his unqualified son for a position as a paid classroom aide. That's bad enough, but the son went on to seduce a vulnerable middle school girl.

The newspaper — The Union Democrat — stood its ground in the face of enormous community reaction in support, amazingly, of the superintendent and his son. But the law and the courts prevailed and the son went to jail.

In a future world with an economically fragile newspaper, who will do that work? And who suffers if it's not done?

Our republic and its citizens.