John Walcott, who has led some of the most skeptical investigative reporting in Washington on first the Iraq War and more recently the financial crisis, announced recently that he is leaving his post as Washington bureau chief for McClatchy Newspapers to become editor in chief for an online business-information company, SmartBrief Inc., on Nov. 1. Walcott has led first the Knight Ridder and then the McClatchy bureau, after it bought Knight Ridder, since 2002.
In 2008, Walcott was named the first recipient of the I.F. Stone Medal for Journalistic Independence, sponsored by Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation for Journalism. He was honored for leading a team of reporters whose probing coverage of the Bush administration’s claims about Iraq’s weapons programs before the U.S. invasion in March 2003 was largely unmatched by other news outlets — and also mostly ignored by policymakers.
His new employer, SmartBrief, partners with more than 100 trade associations and professional societies to produce nearly 150 online publications for audiences in specific industries and professions. Walcott offered these answers to five questions about his move and the future of journalism:
Question: Why go now?
Answer: When you’re my age (61) and opportunity knocks, you have to think very carefully before you decide not to answer the door. The more serious answer is that SmartBrief has a great business model that’s based on the simple fact that the flood of news and information, good, bad and indifferent, continues to grow exponentially, but the time to sort through it remains constant. So it’s a great place to find ways to marry the traditional virtues of journalism, such as independence and verification, which I think matter more than ever these days, to the new ways that people are getting and sharing news and information. All we ever hear is that old media-new media is a zero-sum game, but I don’t think that’s right.
Q: What does the success of SmartBrief tell us about the future of news, especially business news?
A: I hope it tells us that there’s a bright future for professionally edited, timely, reliable news, information and analysis that executives and individuals can trust to help them make decisions in a world that’s changing very rapidly–economically, technologically, scientifically, demographically and globally.
Q: What do you think the future of investigative journalism is in this country?
A: The future of investigative journalism in this country, unfortunately, is uncertain. A number of nonprofits are trying to fill the void that’s being created as more and more media outlets abandon the expensive and time-consuming pursuit of complicated, hard-to-report and controversial stories, but so far, much of their work has lacked the discipline that’s imposed by newspaper and magazine space restrictions or broadcast time constraints. At a time when there are ever-increasing demands on everyone’s attention and symptoms of what I call technologically-induced ADD, that’s not a formula for success.
Nor is it possible or sensible for the largest of these investigative outfits to do the local-level investigations that have long been a staple of good local media outlets. Some of the state-level investigative projects, in California, for example, are doing some excellent work, often in partnership with newspapers and television stations, but I don’t think that sustained funding for those operations is something that we can take for granted. Nor does private funding automatically prevent the kind of potential conflicts of interest that the traditional advertising-supported model sometimes encountered.
Sadly, especially at a time of economic hardship for so many Americans and others around the world, the need for sound, fearless, independent investigative reporting may be greater than ever, so I hope that so acceptable ways to sustain it are within reach, not just in this country but around the world.
Q: What has the shuttering of several bureaus and the loss of regional reporters in D.C. meant for the coverage of Congress?
A: In short, it’s made it harder for citizens in Atlanta and San Diego and Richmond and all over the country to hold accountable their legislators and the federal regulatory agencies that are important to them. That’s profoundly unhealthy in a democracy, I’m afraid.
McClatchy, to its credit, has kept its Washington bureau going and maintained its commitment not only to regional reporting, but also to national and international reporting. The last of these is important not only because of the effects of globalization on our markets and readers and the threats our country faces from abroad, but also because McClatchy serves some 54 military communities, including a number of the largest Army and Marine Corps bases, where the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are personal.
Q: What was the size of the merged KR/McClatchy bureau at its peak, which was when, and what is it now?
A: The bureau is 35-40 percent smaller than it was at its peak, but that’s in part because McClatchy quickly sold off a number of major KR papers such as The Philadelphia Inquirer and the San Jose Mercury News, and later its own Minneapolis Star-Tribune. The bureau, however, is also smaller than it was after that consolidation was completed, but we always try to punch above our weight class, as they say in boxing, and I think the folks here succeed in doing that to a remarkable degree.
You can read another Q-and-A with Walcott on the future of news done by a SmartBrief blogger or a post about his move by Justin Ellis at the Nieman Journalism Lab.