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Monday, August 3, 2009

Chronicle's Last Investigative Reporter Sails Off to Calmer Waters

Posted By on Mon, Aug 3, 2009 at 12:59 PM

click to enlarge Lance Williams departs from the Chronicle, on the heels of Seth Rosenfeld, Susan Sward, and -- is that Chuck Finnie?
  • Lance Williams departs from the Chronicle, on the heels of Seth Rosenfeld, Susan Sward, and -- is that Chuck Finnie?

When it was announced last week that Lance Williams, the last man standing at the San Francisco Chronicle's investigative division, had resigned from the paper, you didn't need to be an investigative journalist to know that the Chron wasn't going to start filling its pages with ads seeking the next big-name member of its I-team.

The notion of reporters meticulously sifting through public records and filing 10 or 12 stories a year is no longer tenable at many daily papers -- especially ones like the Chron, which, before its most recent round of layoffs and buyouts, was reportedly losing a million bucks a week. Chronicle deputy managing editor Steven Proctor told SF Weekly that there will be no replacement for Williams. There will be no investigative team at the Chronicle. And, yes, this is a financial decision.

Proctor said the paper's new approach will be the 21st-century print journalism model of trying to do more with less. The Chron's beat reporters will now be relied upon to turn up the fodder that leads to investigative stories -- and write them. If need be, a beat reporter may be given a few weeks to track down such a lead. (This reminds me eerily of one of my mother's favorite expressions: "You want I should stick a broom up my ass so I can sweep the place up as well?")

If money were not an object would Proctor want to liquidate his I-team and have beat reporters doing double-duty? No -- of course not.

"If money wasn't an object, we'd have more of a combo approach," he says. "Obviously, we have fewer people than we did at one time. That does require changes in strategy." 

Earlier this year, Williams' erstwhile I-Team colleagues, Seth Rosenfeld and Susan Sward, left the paper during the Chron's latest cost-saving crusade. Williams, it should be noted, said his editors didn't want him to go, which Proctor confirmed. Still, the fact remains that Williams is leaving and not being replaced.

Williams -- who is heading over to the Center for Investigative Reporting at the end of next month -- had only good things to say about the Chron. But he did note that he's heading over to the CIR because "you know, I worked on investigative teams for a long time. Now I'm going back to one." After being offered the job last Wednesday, he accepted "30 seconds after they made the job offer."

While the Center for Investigative Reporting is a non-profit, the Chronicle is simply not profitable. If there was a future for reporters like Williams to track down stories, maybe he'd have taken 45 seconds or even a minute to accept the CIR's offer.

Perhaps Dreadnought battleships really are the right metaphor for the death of old-school investigative journalism. In the pre-World War I era, the massive, heavy cruisers were not only the lords of the seas -- they were also status symbols for powerful nations, the nautical equivalent of a Cadillac in the driveway. And in the days of rotary phones and Deep Throat, a healthy I-Team was also a symbol of a paper's virility (hence the 10 or so investigative reporters the Chron sported after it was bought by the Examiner and the papers' staffs merged).

Even by the end of World War I, however, it became clear that not only were the Dreadnoughts prohibitively expensive -- they were too big and slow. They were outmoded by smaller, quicker ships. But it's here that the analogy breaks down. While the "new media" is undeniably quicker and cheaper than old-school investigative journalism, it's difficult to say that it's "better."

But, then again, if you're not willing to pay for it -- what does it matter? Why even bother to think about it?

Readers will notice if the Chronicle stops assigning beat reporters to road baseball and football games. When it comes to the private or government malfeasance that reporters like Williams won't be unearthing anymore -- we literally won't know what we're missing.

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About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.


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