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The ‘I-team’ is back — and it might help save local TV news

Valari Staab has been around TV news long enough to see trends come and go — and sometimes come back again.

“In 2008 and 2009, when revenue dropped significantly, many TV stations cut back in two areas: investigative and consumer reporting,” recalled the NBCUniversal executive, who supervises 11 NBC-owned newsrooms in big markets that include the District, New York and San Francisco.

A lot of stations were down to one investigative reporter, she said, "if they had anyone at all."
I-teams, as they were known when they became popular decades ago, seemed to be a thing of the past across the country, with a few exceptions.

But now, the TV I-team is back. You could see evidence of this at the recent Investigative Reporters and Editors conference, where almost a third of the 1,800 attendees were TV journalists, mostly from local stations — looking spiffed up and camera-ready, and easy to spot among the scruffier print scribes.

And IRE recently elected Matt Goldberg of KNBC in Los Angeles as its board president, the first time a TV journalist has held that post in many years. Although trade organizations such as the National Association of Broadcasters don’t keep numbers to prove it, there’s general agreement in the industry that I-teams are proliferating on local TV.

And the attitude about I-teams has changed along with their numbers. It’s about the business as well as the journalism.

“Stations need market differentiation — a distinction between what they offer and what everybody else offers,” said Al Tompkins, senior faculty member for broadcast at the Poynter Institute.

He points out that not all of what TV stations tout as investigative journalism measures up.

"A lot of investigative folks are doing 'day turns' " — getting a story done in one day — "and you have to ask: How investigative can you be in eight hours?" Tompkins said.
But, he noted, those quick hits can add an element of enterprise journalism — a quick dive into public records, for example — that's worthwhile. And some of the projects are flashy enough to get plenty of attention.

Tompkins mentions the Tampa CBS affiliate WTSP's exposé of how yellow lights at intersections were "short-timed" to make it easier to charge drivers with running red lights, thus generating more traffic-ticket revenue for municipalities.

At the deeper end of the pool is traditional watchdog work, especially important at a time when investigative reporting at local newspapers is atrophied by staff cuts.

For example, KARE, the NBC station in Minneapolis, took a year to investigate how veterans with traumatic brain injuries were often examined by unqualified doctors and sometimes denied appropriate treatment and benefits at the Veterans Affairs hospital there. The project, "Invisible Wounds," which took the top broadcast award at IRE this year, resulted in a nationwide review by the VA inspector general's office; hundreds of veterans were offered new exams.

With less importance but plenty of camera appeal, Chris Nakamoto, a reporter for WBRZ, the ABC affiliate in Baton Rouge, was filmed in the spring as he was led away in handcuffs after he tried to get public records on the mayor's salary in White Castle, La. Law enforcement officials detained him after a claim that he was harassing the town clerk and refusing to leave the town hall. The incident happened on public property.

This all comes at a crucial moment for local TV as an industry, where there are both hopeful signs and reasons for trepidation.

"Local TV's steady stream of advertising and other revenue has helped maintain staffing levels for their newsrooms, which rose 1 percent in 2014 — a sharp contrast with newspapers' 10 percent drop in the same period," the most recent report by Pew Research found.

And although TV news remains the major news source for Americans in general, the clock is ticking ominously, with millennials identifying Facebook as their major news source.

This makes the scramble for audience (and the ad dollars that may follow) more important than ever. Many stations have decided that enterprising journalism — dubbed “investigative” by marketers — is one way to get there.

“The only way to hold or grow an audience these days is to have exclusive content,” said Mark Horvit, executive director of IRE. “The term ‘investigative’ is a way to say, ‘We dug this up — this is ours,’ ” he said.

Many journalists see what’s happening in local TV as an important development, although they suggest taking some of the marketing with a grain of salt.

“Stories about bedbugs that are called investigative journalism are kind of silly,” said Sarah Cohen, who runs a data journalism team at the New York Times and is the immediate past president of the IRE board of directors. “But not everything has to be a six-month project. The core of investigative work is something of public importance that somebody doesn’t want you to know.”

By that measure, the return of the I-team to local TV stations can be regarded only as positive. And if a TV reporter seeking public records ends up in handcuffs, making for riveting footage, that might not be so bad, either.

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