The common wisdom is that journalism’s nonprofit foundations will allow serious investigative reporting to thrive. My recent adventure in writing the investigative prize-winning series, “American Imports, Chinese Deaths” with small grants for my travel expenses—without any salary or stipend—makes me dispute this idea. Although nonprofits offer hope for investigative reporters, the current system needs improvement.
I reported and wrote this series as a freelancer after a 25-year career as a staff writer at The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer. I brought to the series my skills as an investigative reporter—I won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in 1983—and my experience as a foreign correspondent in China. I also brought my sense of outrage and my pleasure in reporting a great story. The six stories were published in 2007 in The Salt Lake Tribune.
The series won this year’s Investigative Reporters and Editors’ Gold Medal, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi Award for investigative reporting, The Michael Kelly Award given by the Atlantic Media Company, and numerous loc al and regional awards. It also was a finalist for the Shorenstein Center at Harvard’s Goldsmith Award for Investigative Reporting and for the Daniel Pearl Award for Outstanding International Investigative Reporting.
As with most investigative stories, the reporting obstacles were high. But I found it much easier to overcome them than the hurdles to obtain meager funding or to overcome editors’ reluctance to support the stories. Perhaps something can be done about this in the future.
Selling My Story Idea
In 2005, every few months I visited a different large newspaper to discuss my five-page story proposal and accompanying photographs. Editors already had read the proposal. It explained that millions of Chinese factory workers were paying the real price of cheap American imports, with their health and their lives. In virtually every industry, factory workers were getting fatal diseases or limb amputations. I proposed to go to China to interview dozens of dying workers or amputees—I already had interviewed some—and obtain their medical records. Then I’d use shipping documents to show the thousands of U.S. companies that were importing goods causing the fatal diseases or amputations.
The stories, I explained, would raise a moral and a policy question: Since U.S. workers are protected from fatal diseases and limb amputations while making our products, shouldn’t Chinese workers making our products also be protected?
By the end of the year, editors at three large newspapers had declined. At one of the newspapers, midlevel news editors felt that similar stories already had been done: Wasn’t that what the Nike story was about? No, I said, this was different. Workers were dying from carcinogens they used while making American products. It was a human rights issue, not a money issue, and American companies and U.S. trade policy were responsible. Plus, I added, I would bring to the story the skills of an investigative reporter, telling it not only with interviews but also with a wide range of documents. I’d describe a system and show why it wasn’t working. Their eyes glazed over.
But the top editors at that paper and another large newspaper clearly liked the idea. Money was the problem, they said. At a third, it was money and something else. “That’s a pretty plum assignment to give someone who’s not on staff, isn’t it?” the managing editor asked.
Undaunted, in 2006 I applied for several stipends given by foundations that support journalism. I did not get one. Currently, proposals for investigative stories must compete with many other types of projects for stipends. The Alicia Patterson Foundation Fellowship ($40,000) and the Kaiser Media Fellowships in Health ($55,000) are two sources of stipends.
After failing to receive a stipend, it might have been the end. But an editor friend suggested I apply for a travel grant from the newly formed Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Jon Sawyer, its founder, quickly decided that the center would fund my international travel to report the stories—as long as a newspaper would commit to publishing them. Coming after more than a year of dead ends with editors, I tremendously appreciated the Pulitzer Center’s willingness to commit. The newspaper that agreed to publish my stories, Sawyer explained, would be responsible for paying me. That turned out to be an important sentence.
So, proposal in hand, I visited a newspaper that I had not approached since taking a buyout in 2001: my old newspaper, The Philadelphia Inquirer. The Inquirer had had a proud tradition of investigative series. Many were responsible for the paper’s 17 Pulitzer Prizes in 15 years under editor Gene Roberts. Drastic cost cutting had made those days a bittersweet memory by the summer of 2006.
The newspaper’s top editors liked the idea of the series and the Pulitzer Center’s travel money. They offered to pay me a freelance rate, about $500 per story. I accepted, although I felt perplexed. In years past, as a staff writer at that paper, I had earned about $90,000 per year. Looking back, I think my strong desire to report and write the series made me reluctant to negotiate for money that the newspaper clearly did not have. I also rationalized it, thinking that someday I might want to write a book on U.S.-China trade.
On August 1st, Inquirer editors made their commitment official. “The Philadelphia Inquirer is committed to this project,” wrote then managing editor Anne Gordon in a letter to the Pulitzer Center. “Our goal is to help Loretta produce a series that we will publish in our paper and on our website.”
Getting My Stories Published
During the next year, I made five trips to China, spending nearly four months there. I interviewed dying workers, gathered their medical records and factory inspection reports. For my travel expenses, I used the Pulitzer Center’s grant of $13,000 as well as another grant, of $4,500, from the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Dick Goldensohn Fund, in memory of the late investigative reporter.
Between trips to China, I did reporting in the United States, obtaining shipping records so I could match the factories of specific dying Chinese workers with specific products for U.S. companies. I also gathered medical journal articles on occupational diseases in China, wrote the stories, and set up my next trips. Throughout it all, I conferred by telephone with my editors at the Inquirer, Avery Rome and Karl Stark of the national/foreign desk.
By July 2007, I had finished reporting and writing five stories. Rome and Stark, after reading them, said they were strong. Later that month, Rome called with the news: the new Inquirer editor, Bill Marimow, who months earlier had replaced Amanda Bennett, would not publish the series. He had a policy, Rome said, that investigative stories should only be written by staff writers.
I said I had been a staff writer at The Philadelphia Inquirer for 14 years.
Rome said she was sorry.
I thought about warnings Jon Sawyer had given me during the preceding months that a new editor might not feel invested in the previous editor’s commitment to publish the series.
I called Sawyer from my home in Utah to tell him the news. “I have a Plan B,” I announced. “I’m calling Tom Baden (then managing editor) at The Salt Lake Tribune tomorrow.”
Baden was sympathetic but noncommittal. He asked to read the stories. He said he’d get back to me after he and editor Nancy Conway read them. Within days, Baden and Conway agreed to publish the stories. They gave me a great editor, Lisa Carricaburu, who suggested a sixth story: the Utah angle. I gladly complied. During the following two months, I sat in the Tribune newsroom, working with graphics and photo editors, and with Carricaburu as she suggested changes, trimmed and polished.
In the end, The Salt Lake Tribune paid me $5,000 for my 14 months of work. I did not press the Tribune editors for more money. I knew, from all the unfilled seats in the newsroom, that they did not have it. I was relieved and grateful that the editors agreed to publish the stories.
Next time, though, I want to be paid fairly. I also think this model—in which a nonprofit organization pays only a reporter’s travel expenses and a newspaper pays a small fee for a year of work—cannot be sustained.
A Funding Proposal
Most newspapers cannot fairly pay experienced freelancers for time-consuming investigative stories. So I think foundations—especially those representing newspaper families—should consider providing one-year salaries or stipends specifically for experienced investigative journalists who have well-researched proposals. Currently there are stipends available for budding foreign correspondents with project ideas and for science and medical writers with project ideas. Why not investigative reporters?
Those who select the winning proposals should include editors who understand the various genres of investigative reporting: not just the 40-inch story of official wrongdoing, but also the investigative series that has as its focus human beings who have been hurt by a bad system. The latter type, heavily represented among stories that have won Pulitzers for investigative reporting, is an endangered species in this age of the quick Internet story. The awards should not be limited to staff writers but should include experienced freelancers as well. I also suggest that senior journalists be eligible for the awards, not just midcareer journalists.
Currently there is a diaspora of accomplished investigative reporters, some of them Pulitzer Prize-winners, who have taken buyouts because their papers no longer can support investigative reporting. Although many are not working for newspapers, they continue to focus on problems in society, conceptualize investigative stories, and even dream of reporting them. I have discussed ideas with many of them. With proper pay from nonprofit foundations, these accomplished reporters can provide important stories to newspapers. Some may be willing to work on a story with a newspaper’s less-experienced reporters, so that younger reporters develop or improve upon the unique set of skills used in investigative reporting.
I also think newspaper editors should be more open—as The Salt Lake Tribune was—to showcasing such work. Ideally, freelance reporters and newspaper editors should discuss the stories at an early stage, before reporting begins, rather than after the stories have been completed. Reporters can make it easier for editors to accept their stories by making sure all sources are named and on the record and by giving editors the actual documents cited in the stories.
In this way, serious investigative reporting once again can grace even small- and medium-size newspapers, the newspapers’ watchdog role may thrive, and American readers will have some hope of changing policies and institutions that do not serve the public interest.