New York Times Reporter Discusses Effect of 24/7 Internet News Cycle on Investigative Reporting

Stephen LabatonThe proliferation of online news sources has “smashed assumptions about the news cycle” and intensified pressure on journalists to work faster than ever before, even on complex investigative pieces, New York Times reporter Stephen Labaton said this week.

Labaton, winner of the 2008 Futrell Award for Excellence in Communications and Journalism, spoke March 17 at the Terry Sanford Institute of Public Policy. The Futrell award is given annually by the DeWitt Wallace Center for Media and Democracy to honor a Duke alumnus.

Labaton co-wrote the first controversial reports last month about presidential candidate John McCain’s relationship with a female lobbyist. Labaton was brought into the investigation in November 2007 because of his expertise on lobbying and telecommunication issues and his previous reporting on McCain’s ties to lobbyists during the 2000 campaign. The story generated more than 2,000 reader comments to the New York Times, many of them negative.

“We knew this would be a controversial story,” he said. “There were dozens of editorial meetings about it. We didn’t anticipate how the reporting would become part of the story.”

As is common in political stories, sources wanted to remain anonymous. The reporters had repeated meetings to try to persuade them to go on record. Editors were concerned about when, not if, news of the Times investigation would appear on the Web, as well as the possibility that other news outlets might rush to break the story. Their concerns were borne out in December when the online Drudge Report posted a piece about the Times investigation.

“The Internet has changed how we work,” said Labaton. “It’s increased the tension between the need for quality and the demand for timeliness. I’m surprised we had seven weeks to work on the story before being noticed.”

McCain’s ethics had been questioned before, when he was among a group of senators accused in the “Keating Five” scandal of improperly intervening in a banking regulatory investigation. A Senate Ethics Committee inquiry concluded in 1991 that McCain’s involvement was minimal, and he was subsequently re-elected. McCain dedicated himself to reform, including crafting the McCain-Feingold campaign finance reform act. For these reasons, evidence of his favoring lobbyist Vicki Iseman was important, said Labaton. The Times staff believed it was necessary to include the possibility that the relationship was romantic because it could explain the McCain aides’ motives.   

In response to the barrage of critical comments that followed publication of the story, the newspaper created, for the first time, an online question and answer web page about the story. One criticism concerned the timing of the release. When work began on the story, McCain was not the Republican frontrunner, he noted, adding that the paper released the story when it was ready, not before.

“The Times is responding to the challenges of the Internet through greater transparency,” a necessary step to maintain the confidence of its readers, Labaton said.

Before beginning his remarks, Labaton was presented with the Futrell Award by Sanford Institute Director Bruce Kuniholm. The award was created in honor of Ashley B. Futrell Sr., publisher of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington, N.C., Daily News.

Labaton, a Duke Law alumnus, joined The New York Times in 1986 and became a legal affairs correspondent in New York in 1987. In 1990, he moved to the paper’s Washington bureau, where he covers financial and legal affairs, and works on campaign finance stories during the national elections.

Labaton has written extensively about the impact on worker and consumer safety of the Bush administration’s sweeping deregulation of industry. He won the 2003 Gerald Loeb Award for Distinguished Business and Financial Journalism for his coverage of the Securities and Exchange Commission, which prompted chairman Harvey Pitt’s resignation. In 2003, he was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in national reporting as part of a team of Times business reporters.