Scribbling outside the lines

Journalist I.F. Stone was a squinty pipsqueak who roared like a lion. Author Jessica Mitford was a transplanted Brit with a knack for raking American muck. Each was determined to right wrongs and expose corruption.

The Herald believes a good newspaper embraces its watchdog role. Just this year, in-depth work by reporters Scott North and Noah Haglund exposed malicious monkeyshines orchestrated from the offices of (now-departed) Snohomish County Executive Aaron Reardon.

The stories of Stone and Mitford remind us, however, that conventional news organizations have no monopoly on the passion or ability needed to tell honest truths about important issues.

Stone’s dogged coverage of J. Edgar Hoover resulted in his blacklisting from newspapers in the 1950s. Rather than quit, he started a one-man weekly newsletter — a publication that exposed misdeeds of the powerful from the McCarthy era through the Nixon administration. One biographer credits Stone with shaping modern investigative reporting by standing up to government and focusing on official documents.

Mitford had a modest publishing resume when she wrote a piece for a small magazine examining how some funeral homes took advantage of grieving families. Her article sparked a national reaction and led to a 1963 book, “The American Way of Death,” still considered a classic piece of investigative reporting.

Since 2009 in the Pacific Northwest, a nonprofit called InvestigateWest, has answered the call to perform public-spirited investigative reporting. InvestigateWest has fostered relationships with newspapers and TV stations throughout the region, and you’ve seen some of its output in the Herald.

Now we can congratulate InvestigateWest for its share of the New America Award, a national honor from the Society of Professional Journalists recognizing coverage of immigration issues. “Center of Detention” — which pooled the talents of InvestigateWest’s Carol Smith and the Tacoma News Tribune’s Lewis Kamb — examined a private, for-profit Tacoma facility that processes thousands of immigrant deportations each year.

Many editors, academics and concerned citizens, watching as digital communication “disrupt” the media landscape, assume traditional newsrooms will be cutting back on investigative reporting. So, it is comforting to know innovative journalism start-ups feel compelled to examine vital topics.

But don’t count newspapers out just yet.

Gannett, a huge media group with a penchant for slashing news budgets, recently surveyed 81 markets to identify topics that inspire reader “passions.” They expected to learn, for example that Shreveport readers love food and Fort Collins readers love camping. But in most markets, a Gannett executive reported, “the top ‘passion thing’ by a wide margin” was investigative reporting.

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