The investigative reporting team at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel is one of the best you'll find anywhere. Since it was organized in 2006, it won two Pulitzer Prizes. (The paper also won a third for explanatory reporting with a piece edited by a watchdog team member.) It regularly inspires celebratory notice from the likes of AJR, Nieman Watchdog, and Nieman Lab. And its revolutionary reporting has helped the paper achieve one of the highest rates of market penetration in the country.
“You’ve got to do stories that matter and you’ve got to have impact," is how the mandate goes. But I got curious about the second part of that: impact. It's a slippery concept. I dug into it in a piece for the Columbia Journalism Review. An excerpt:
… reporters anywhere can spend weeks or months grinding out investigative stories on worthy subjects. But once published, how do you measure what influence they had—which stories are effective, which fall flat, and why? How does one of the most celebrated investigative newsrooms in the country measure impact—and how does it achieve it?
The question doesn’t have a simple answer. Ellen Gabler, an investigative reporter and assistant editor, is part of the team that spent the last five months immersed in “Deadly Delays,” the newborn screening story. To some extent, all that work is an act of faith—that the information, once public, will create change, even if she can’t see what it is. “I’m not sure there is any true test for tracing the impact,” Gabler told me via email. “There are lots of ways to effect change: raising awareness, holding people accountable, changing laws—although that’s not always the best measure of success.”
(But) accountability reporting, at its best, is pivotal.
“This is about real people. We’re not doing this for fun,” (reporter Raquel) Rutledge said. “People are struggling in the world, sometimes needlessly. If we can bring justice and make the world just a bit better, that’s important. This is the kind of work that improves people’s lives.”
That’s the optimism that the Journal Sentinel’s brand of investigative reporting hinges on: Solutions exist. To measure the impact of a story is to measure whether or not the community has moved closer to finding them.