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Editor's weekly: Creating a niche for quality reporting

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 20, 2010 - Here's the story behind three stories the Beacon posted this week. They show the emerging opportunities for new media like the Beacon to provide high quality reporting.

On Sunday and Tuesday, the Beacon posted a two-part series by Mary Delach Leonard on mortgage foreclosures: With or without foreclosure moratorium, homeowners and housing market still ailing and Untangling the latest installment in the nation's foreclosure mess. The topic had been top news for years before the latest crisis broke. Now, the question is whether mortgage holders have followed proper procedures in seeking foreclosures. Some lenders have declared a temporary moratorium while the courts sort out whether documents were properly signed.

What could a regional publication like the Beacon possibly add to the reams of reporting already done on the subject? A lot, it turns out. Relying on local experts, Mary explained the complicated situation in terms that were easy to understand. Then she went further, describing how possible solutions to the immediate problem could set off unintended longterm consequences.

Before reading these stories, I had little understanding of just how tangled this particular part of the mortgage crisis has become. After reading them, I realized that all of us are bound in a Gordian knot: lenders and borrowers, those who are able to make their monthly payments and those who cannot.

A moratorium on foreclosures might provide short-term help for troubled homeowners, but the long-term consequences could be devastating for mortgage holders and other homeowners. But ignoring the shoddy paperwork and plunging ahead on foreclosures might have devastating long-term consequences, too.

Mary recently won the St. Louis Bar Foundation's Spirit of Justice Award for her coverage of the mortgage crisis, and these latest stories are one more example of why her work is so outstanding. They also show that even a relatively small organization like the Beacon can make a major contribution to public understanding if we recognize the opportunity.

On Monday, Beacon reporter Dale Singer's story demonstrated another growing opportunity for new media -- an opportunity we are creating for ourselves by building channels of cooperation.

Dale's story reported on letters that local members of Congress wrote on behalf of constituents seeking federal stimulus funds. Some of these members opposed the stimulus bill and have denounced it as a waste of money. But, as Dale reported, they see no inconsistency in helping some of the money flow to Missouri.

The documents on which Dale's reporting was based were collected by the Center for Investigative Reporting, a decades-old nonprofit investigative news organization in Washington. Based on these documents, several other regional news organizations and investigative centers wrote localized stories like Dale's.

Versions of the center's national story appeared in the Washington Post and on National Public Radio. That kind of cooperation used to be unthinkable, but it's growing as new news organizations seek more efficient and productive ways to have an impact.

All this was coordinated in part through the Investigative News Network, a new association formed to help the many nonprofit investigative news organizations that are springing up around the country as traditional media falter. The INN, which now has nearly 50 member organizations, includes the Beacon, and I serve on its board.

Though many struggles lie ahead for new news organizations, Dale's and Mary's stories this week provide evidence of the progress we've made and point the way toward a promising future.

Send questions and comments about this story to feedback@stlpublicradio.org.