By Anne Lowe
Newspapers have been hard-hit by technological advances and an uncertain economy. What happens to the journalists—many who are seasoned veterans—when the jobs disappear? For some it means continuing investigative digging and reporting—on the government payroll.
Though the investigative abilities of newspapers seem to be dwindling, the skills journalists have acquired on their former job fronts can be just as important in providing agency oversight.
From the Stateline:
A few months ago, Nancy Vogel, a longtime reporter for the Sacramento Bee and the Los Angeles Times, published her investigation into the use of affordable housing money by California’s redevelopment agencies. The results were not pretty.
By law, the roughly 400 locally controlled agencies are supposed to use 20 percent of their funds for affordable housing. The bulk of them do, Vogel found, but dozens have been getting away with putting a disconcerting amount of that money into “planning and administration,” not building actual affordable housing.
For example, the agency in Culver City salted away $22 million in its low- and moderate-income fund over 13 years while producing just four units of housing. Even worse, Vogel reported, there was essentially no way to be sure that money was being spent appropriately, as oversight mechanisms “are few and flawed.”
Had Vogel’s reporting appeared in the Times, it would have been front-page news. Instead, her work had a smaller, although more influential, audience: state legislators and staffers in a position to do something about what she’d found.
That’s because late in 2008, Vogel left the Times’ state capitol bureau and went to work for state government in the new Senate Office of Oversight and Outcomes. Created by Senate President Pro Tem Darrel Steinberg, the office is designed “to professionalize oversight and institutionalize it across the board,” in Steinberg’s words. But it does so in an unusual way: Its three “consultants” — Sacramento committee-speak for research and policy staff — are all former reporters.
In addition to Vogel, the newcomers include Dorothy Korber, a former statehouse reporter for the Sacramento Bee, and John Hill, a former investigative reporter for the Bee. Korber and Hill have worked together before; they won the prestigious George Polk award for their 2004 stories demonstrating that high-ranking officials with the California Highway Patrol were inflating their pensions by submitting questionable claims for injuries or disabilities as they neared retirement.
The three are not the only former journalists in California to put their investigative skills to use digging into the workings of government from the inside. Mark Martin, a former statehouse reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle, works for the Assembly Committee on Accountability and Administrative Review, an oversight committee set up a few years ago under former Speaker Karen Bass.
Stuart Drown, a one-time city editor for the Sacramento Bee, now is executive director of the Little Hoover Commission, an independent oversight agency that likewise looks into state government operations. Elsewhere around the country, a smattering of former journalists, some of them fleeing media companies that have retrenched from covering state government, also have gone to work for state oversight agencies.
The California Senate office, however, is the only one to rely so heavily on refugees from newspaper cost-cutting. Korber, the first consultant hired for the new office, put in a call to a Senate contact within minutes after finding a buyout notice on her desk at the Bee. That’s when she heard about Steinberg’s plans to build a new government watchdog office. “It was exciting,” she says, “because we would be creating this new thing on the fly.”