Veteran Reporter Lisa Chedekel on the Future of Investigative Journalism and C-HIT

Editor’s note appended, Nov. 13, 2011

By Melissa Tabeek

Lisa Chedekel co-founded the Connecticut Health Investigative Team, a non-profit that reports on health and safety issues.

Layoffs, buyouts and budget cuts have been a loathed, but familiar tune for newsrooms across the country for the last several years. And just as resources have dwindled so has the ability to produce in-depth investigative reporting, the indispensable watchdog arm of journalism. But journalists are resourceful, if nothing else, and while investigative teams are disappearing from the newsrooms, they are reemerging online as independent organizations.

Are these new models sustainable? And what does the shift mean for the next generation of investigative reporters?

Veteran journalist and co-founder of the non-profit news site, Connecticut Health Investigative Team (C-HIT) Lisa Chedekel sat down with Watchdog New England to discuss the current state of investigative journalism and her experience launching C-HIT. Chedekel takes a look back on a great career, and gives tips for tomorrow’s journalists.

How did you first get involved in journalism, and specifically, investigative reporting? 

I started out as a regular beat reporter after college at the weekly New Haven Advocate. After 18 months, I joined the New Haven Register in 1984. I did everything at the New Haven Register from city hall to education to writing a column. I went to the Hartford Courant in 1992 and again did a variety of beats, including the state capital, education, immigration, feature writing and politics.

Somewhere along the way, probably in the late 1990s, I developed an interest in investigative reporting. At the time, The Hartford Courant had a proud tradition of investigative reporting. They had an investigative team of six reporters and I aspired to be part of that team. In 2003, I became part of that team. Health and safety were our two issues—anything that had some broad impact in health and safety, we could do.  We covered everything from nursing home care to sweatshops to mental health care in the military, and I loved it.

Sadly, my stint on the investigative team coincided with the horrible cutbacks in newspapers. In 2004, the team shrank from five to three. Investigative reporting became less important at the Hartford Courant, as it did at most mid-sized dailies throughout the country. In 2008, after about the twentieth round of layoffs under the Tribune Company, I decided to take advantage of a buyout package, leaving a two-member team at The Hartford Courant.

I tried a few things in academia, did some freelancing on the side, but I could not get rid of the investigative bug. Luckily, there was a movement among some former veteran investigative reporters to keep investigative reporting alive in some other medium and there were grants being offered by different foundations for regional investigative centers to open up.

A Hartford Courant colleague and I applied for some funding from foundations to start an online investigative news service focused on health and safety.  We put in an application to the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.  We got approval for it in 2010—we got $100,000 from them, and $25,000 from a local Connecticut group.  It was enough to launch the Connecticut Health Investigative team, which went online in December 2010.

How has the business model for investigative journalism changed since you entered the field?

It’s a big change that we’re even going this route—non-profit online. There isn’t [just] one business model. [That] is the problem. The business model for investigative reporting for my entire lifetime was on an investigative team or a designated investigative reporter in a newsroom setting, whether that be TV, radio or print.  Under this nice, big, comfortable, corporate umbrella, you were an investigative reporter in a newsroom. Now we’re kind of this wandering tribe of veteran investigative reporters who have left, either willingly or unwillingly, but want to continue the craft of investigative reporting. C-HIT is just one business model—we’ve chosen the route to try to sell the content, distribute it as widely as possible, make some money off it and also do training programs.

There are other online centers that are not distributing the content, but driving people to their websites like a newspaper would do—accepting ads and sponsorships and supporting themselves that way. There are others who are trying the ProPublica model, [which relies heavily on private donors].*

I also think the business model, right now, is that we all have our own turf. C-HIT only does Connecticut, Watchdog New England does New England, somebody else is in Texas, and someone else in California.

Another business model that hasn’t been quite explored yet is that we all become one AP service, looking at national trends as a group.

The question is, what happens when the foundation money is gone, how on earth are we going to keep going?  There’s not one business model yet that has proven its sustainability in online investigative journalism.

What are some of the challenges the non-profit you work for, Connecticut Health I-Team, has faced, and is that endemic of the challenges faced by other non-profits producing journalism as well? What is your map for survival (organizationally and individually)?

I thought launching would be the hardest part, but it was actually the easiest. We knew what we wanted to do, we got up and running, we’re producing content, we’re working on more distribution agreements, but we need to keep evolving in order to keep foundation money coming in. That’s a challenge for all the centers. There’s an expectation from the foundations that you’re going do something different or more each year.

The foundations acknowledged that initial argument, “Look the newspapers aren’t doing this reporting anymore, it’s dying, you need to let us fill a void.”  The problem is the second, third, fourth year of funding. Once you’re launched, the “fill the void” argument is still true, but foundations are going to be looking for something new every year. You have to broaden your reach and they want interactivity with the public.

There’s a big push among the foundations to not just push your stories onto people, but to interact with your readers. Some centers are looking at doing apps. That’s something that C-HIT is looking into, too. For example, we could create an app where you could come search databases that we have online.

Also, eventually, that foundation money is going to dry up and we need to find our own initiative to raise revenue or private donors or training programs. We’re going with training, but there are some centers that are looking at investigating for hire. I think you’ll see that—investigative reporting centers sitting down and saying, “What other things can we do with our skill set, what other functions can we do to pay for the journalism?” I think that we’re all going to be looking at non-journalism ways to raise revenue.

How do you balance the ethical concerns of, say, corporate sponsorship or large private donors—and draw the line between the public’s interest and their interests?

A lot of the non-profit investigative world is wrestling with that issue right now. I think that online centers are being careful to disclose who their sponsors are with disclaimers on their websites, and have clear written agreements that the sponsors will have no control over content. There is a firewall between the funding and the editorial content, which is the newspaper model. The newspaper survived all these years from advertising from corporate interests and there was always an agreement that just because you took out a full-page ad, that didn’t mean that when you turn the page there wouldn’t be a negative story about your company. In the online world, we’re attempting to make that same firewall workable so we can tap both corporate and foundation funders.

The way that we’re doing it right now at C-HIT is less ethically challenging because we don’t take any corporate sponsorships or donations. We’re completely funded by non-profit foundations or private donors that don’t have a vested interest in journalism. I think that right now, the ethics of corporate sponsorship affect mostly destination websites that are propped up by those corporate donors, as opposed to C-HIT, which is distribution rather than hits-driven.

There can still be ethical issues even without taking corporate sponsorships or donations, though. One of our funders—the Universal Health Care Foundation of Connecticut—is a non-profit that is leading a campaign for health care reform. C-HIT did some stories about an issue they were involved in and it was a tricky situation. We didn’t discuss the stories with them and they never swayed us one way or the other, but I think there’s an ethical issue in any kind of journalism that has to find ways to sustain itself. and other ‘on the media’ websites point to a trend of greater public engagement to produce investigative journalism?  Do you think these models are viable?

For investigative journalism, I still think most of the interactivity happens after the disclosure of the story. There can be great interactivity afterwards in terms of people weighing in with their experiences and thoughts. In the best possible situation, citizens get involved and follow up on an issue you’ve covered. And in the actual reporting process, you’re interacting with people who are knowledgeable about the topic all the time, but interactivity in terms of social media during the reporting of an investigation doesn’t happen—it’s done pretty quietly. Your story comes out, and then there are opportunities for connecting with the public.

You want the public to read, absorb, and react, you don’t necessary bring them in as partners for investigative stories. For example, if we do a story on nursing homes, we ask people to post on their message board their experience with nursing homes after the story is out. I think it’s a noble aim to have interactivity, but I don’t think you’re ever going to see an investigative reporter interacting by throwing the whole thing open for the public to comment on before they have a story. It’s just not the nature of investigative journalism.

Do you think the challenges are different from big newsrooms to small?  How so?

Financially [investigative reporting] is not nearly as lucrative in a small newsroom, or online. Also, stories take longer. Many of us who are in investigative reporting online are not doing it full-time, because we have to pay the bills other ways, so it takes us longer than when we were full-time in a newsroom. The stories can be as good in this setting as they were in the newsroom; it’s the length of time it takes to get it done that is different. [At C-HIT] we tend to pick stories that aren’t going to be a huge expenditure of time and money, so it’s a different story selection.

What skills does an aspiring investigative journalist have to have to be successful today?

Curiosity and persistence. It’s harder now because in the old days, within the mainstream media, there was a niche for investigative reporting. There was a place to go to. Now if you are in college, or just out, and you want to be an investigative reporter, there are not as many niches at these mainstream media outlets. I do think in five years, the Web world will figure out a way to keep investigative reporting alive and that’ll be a place to go.

ProPublica already is, but there shouldn’t be just one shop for a young investigative journalist to aspire to. These regional centers are going to morph into something, as a home for investigative reporters. But honestly, you can be an investigative reporter at any job in journalism. The label is nice, to be part of an I-team, or an investigative news site, but the skills that you use for investigative reporting, you can use them covering a regular beat, covering Mattapan, covering South Boston.  Whatever your field, you can be an investigative reporter. Some of the best journalists who have come up and out of newspapers and who are now still involved in investigative reporting weren’t necessarily investigative reporters at their media outlet, but were in beats where they did investigative-type reporting.

So I would definitely say, don’t be discouraged that there’s not an investigative team left at the Hartford Courant or wherever you’re going. You can go to those papers and be an investigative reporter in whatever beat you’re on. It’s a skill set now more than a label. And learning that skill set serves you well in any beat you cover.

Just know that you have the right to public documents, you can mine data, you can look through correspondence. It’s more a mindset than a job title anymore. I don’t think it’s bleak at all for people who want to be investigative reporters. I think the only bleak part is that you may not be called that when you get your first job at a TV station. They may call you a general assignment reporter, but if you have a skill set as an investigative reporter, you’ll become an investigative general assignment reporter.

This year the Federal Communications Commissions reported that there is a shortage of independent watchdog journalism at the local level that is resulting in a lack of schools, government agencies and businesses being held accountable.  What do you think about this statement?  Do you see Connecticut Health I-Team playing a role in remedying this? What is at stake?

If there isn’t a Watchdog in every state, it’s not lost on politicians or public officials that newspapers have lost their seven-person investigative team. I don’t know if it has led to more corruption or wrongdoing, but I do worry that the perception is going to be among public officials that no one is watching. When I started out, you were being watched in public office by more than one reporter. There was an investigative team, your correspondence was being looked through, your contracts were being looked through, and that’s not happening anymore. I worry that the perception of public officials is that you can get away with more. I do agree that that’s a real concern.

I think that the existence of investigative reporting in mainstream news media organizations was a deterrent, just the existence of them. Now they [public officials] know were not looking. And we’ll never know. It’s really scary to me the perception out there that no one is coming to their meetings, no one has FOIA’ed their correspondence, no one has FOIA’ed their contracts, no one is calling every week bugging them anymore. The perception is that the local watchdog is gone, so why not take the free lunch? No one is going to be looking through your expense records.

So I don’t know what that is going to end up leading to, we’ll have to wait and see.

Part of the motivation for starting C-HIT was that Connecticut has a big medical industry. It’s an affluent state that has a lot of providers. Our sense was that there was hardly anyone covering health and safety and that our mere existence may act as a deterrent. We can’t get to every story, but I think that now, 10 months into our website, there is a sense among the provider community that someone is watching. I just feel good knowing that people know that we’re there.

There are entire urban areas in this country that are really not being covered regularly … . The big danger is that people are only going to get a one-shot press release surface story without the questions. People are going to be disengaged from what their government is doing—decisions being made without people being a part of it.

What do you see for the future for yourself, career-wise?  For investigative journalism?

I want to stay doing journalism. I have to do other things to support myself—that’s what’s new. It used to be journalism was, and it still can be, a great career with plenty of opportunities. I tried to leave it for a year, I tried to do something else, but I missed it so much. I understand now it’s going to be a part of my life, and it’s probably going to be investigative journalism because other kinds of reporting don’t interest me now. I’ll just follow wherever it leads. It’s on the Web now with these centers, but if someone decides it’s better done in a national magazine that has the best investigative news from around the country, I would be part of that effort. If there will be some site that aggregates investigative news from around the country, I’d want to be part of that. I do like the local, regional focus because I think people need to know what’s happening in their own backyard before they’re going to care about what’s happening nationally.

I don’t know where it goes if it can’t work on the Web. If it can’t work in print, and it can’t work on the Web, I don’t know what other options there are. I know from teaching the high school and college workshops that there is a generation of people who want to keep doing it. The future of investigative journalism is up for grabs. We’re going with my era, where we had a great ride as investigative reporters in mainstream media. Most of us who had that great ride and are trying to do this transition to the Internet, we’re going to see how it works, and then we’re going to have to hand it over to the next generation of reporters and let them take it from there.

What is the best part of your job as journalist?

I love digging through documents and I love telling people things that are wrong with systems and how things don’t work, because most of what people read just scratches the surface—sound-bite stuff.

I love finding problems with systems. I like the piecing together of people and data. I like to use both. That’s the best formula. You have hard data and people affected by it and being able to blend the two—that’s what brings a story home.

The best part is being able to uncover something that is not working right and show the consequences of that and offer up as much as we can, without being advocates, ways that it might work better.  I can’t think of another job that has a better reward and satisfaction-level than investigative reporting.

Why did you become a professor?

Two years ago I thought, I probably have another 20 years at this, then who is going to do it after that? I got inspired as a young person by different people in the field. It’s genuinely wanting to be able to say I helped to motivate some younger people to be watchdogs. Since I can’t do it full-time anymore, the next best thing is passing on things I know. That’s why I decided to teach. I still have so much enthusiasm for it.

Lisa Chedekel has been a journalist for 29 years. In 1999, she was part of the team at the Hartford Courant that won the Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News Reporting. She was honored with the Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting in 2006 and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting in 2007.  In December 2010, Chedekel co-founded C-HIT, which produces in-depth content on health and safety in Connecticut. Chedekel has also been an adjunct professor at Northeastern University for the past two years.

*Editor’s Note: The original version incorrectly referred to ProPublica as having only one donor. ProPublica had more than 1300 donors in 2010, in addition to their original funder.

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