Lexi Cortes got her first taste of investigative reporting at her college newspaper. When writing for the Alestle at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, Cortes discovered major contradictions in the school administration’s statements regarding the closure of the school’s museum. She was hooked.
Cortes now writes for the Belleville News-Democrat, where she recently reported on two civil rights lawsuits against Granite City over the metropolitan St. Louis city’s strict “crime-free” housing ordinance.
“The BND has made watchdog journalism a part of nearly every reporter’s beat,” Cortes said. “They recognize the importance of this kind of journalism. We have empathy for the people we write about and try our hardest to maintain fairness and balance.”
Cortes began reporting on the litigation in August and discovered that Granite City officials required landlords to evict tenants if anyone staying in their homes, including a guest, was charged with a felony. Even if the offense happened somewhere other than their apartment or rental home, the tenant would still be evicted.
Cortes spent most of her days working on the story by combing through court and public records, analyzing data, and talking to sources to build the strongest story possible.
In the most recent development, Cortes reported that Granite City had revised its eviction rules to comply with a new amendment to the Illinois Human Rights Act, which states that a landlord can’t evict a tenant for a crime committed away from the premises unless there is a conviction. Granite City’s new eviction rule requires a conviction – not just an arrest – when the crime occurs away from the rental property.
Seeing her stories have an impact on people’s lives, gives Cortes fulfillment in her career. “It makes the months or even a year’s worth of work worth it,” Cortes said.
Todd Eschman, a senior editor for the BND, said stories like these are the “bedrock” of why newspapers exist.
“Nobody represents the people in this kind of way unless we do,” Eschman said. “It’s an expectation of our paper to do this kind of work.”
Regional newsrooms that focus on investigative journalism are increasingly rare in journalism with so many newspapers just struggling to survive. According to a study by the University of North Carolina’s Hussman School of Journalism and Media, the United States has lost almost 1,800 papers since 2004, including more than 60 dailies and 1,700 weeklies. Roughly half of the remaining are located in small and rural communities. The vast majority have a circulation of less than 15,000 and don’t have the money, staff, or resources to prioritize watchdog reporting.
“It’s a fine line that newspapers have to walk,” Eschmen said. “You have to remain committed to having a balance of giving the reader what they want, but also what they need.”
Mark Poepsel, an associate communications professor at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville, doesn’t fault news organizations for trying to maintain an audience and blames the state of the journalism industry for a lack of investigative reporting.
“The way we consume news today is so messed up,” Poepsel said. “It’s important to create a buffer so reporters can do this kind of work. Often times the tendency for a news organization is to chase clicks and not substantial content.”
Poepsel stressed that in order for the industry to survive and for investigative reporting to thrive in the future, up-in-coming journalists need more freedom to choose what they want to pursue in their careers.
“Unfortunately, with shrinking newsrooms, young journalists are expected to know how to do everything. There are so many skills that we expect them to have,” Poepsel said. “Let the students who want to do news do news and let the students who want to focus on investigative reporting, receive the resources and means to let them succeed.”
Eschman, on the other hand, believes that all journalism has some investigative aspect to it and that it’s important for all reporters to have at least a baseline understanding of how to do investigative journalism. Eschman believes every story begins with the question, “who cares about this story and why?” and it’s the reporter’s job, no matter the subject, to answer that question.
However, Eschman believes not everyone is cut out for this kind of journalism. He compared the drive of wanting to do investigative reporting to that of baseball. “Great [baseball] hitters are born, not trained. There are techniques and rules to follow, but either a journalist has that healthy sense of skepticism and the grit to follow it, or they don’t.”
Nick Forsythe is a correspondent for GJR based in Chicago, where he studies film and journalism at Columbia College Chicago. Follow him on Twitter @njfproductions.