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Words From (And Thoughts About) Our Fearless Leader

POSTED: 09:54 AM ET, 08/18/2008 by The Editors

Leonard Downie Jr., who is retiring Sept. 8 after 17 years as executive editor of the Washington Post, initially made his name as an investigative reporter at the newspaper. At 24, he was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for his investigation of the local courts in the District of Columbia. In leading The Post, he has always been the staunchest advocate for investigative reporting, which he refers to in his own inimitable fashion as "accountability reporting." He is a hands-on editor who takes his pencil to every major investigation we do. Under Downie's leadership, the paper won 25 Pulitzer Prizes, a record for any editor, including six this year, a record for The Post in a single year. To say that he is a legend in American journalism understates the fact.

Last week, Downie was the opening day speaker at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism. The notes he based his remarks on reflect his commitment to the craft of investigative reporting and his belief that such journalism has a future, on paper or on the Web.

Among the highlights:

"For me, the most important and rewarding journalism you could produce, regardless of platform, technology or audience, is accountability journalism," Downie told the students.

He defined accountability journalism as journalism that holds accountable those in power, brings critical issues to light, rights wrongs, and finally, "matters."

He pointed out that such journalism is expensive and time-consuming, and there is "much worry" about how to continue to do it as newsrooms get smaller. But he also pointed out that newspapers big and small are protecting their ability to do it even as they make cuts in staff.

Downie also cited investigative projects in 2007 that received major notice, including the New York Times investigation into a deadly ingredient contained in Chinese glycerin, the Chicago Tribune investigation into unsafe cribs and toys from China and Washington Post investigations of Walter Reedand Dick Cheney's vice presidency.

As for the future of accountability reporting, Downie noted several trends:

independent investigative reporting blogs featuring original reporting and aggregation such as Josh Marshall's Talking Points Memo, the non-profit funding model of investigative reporting offered free to news organizations by ProPublica.org, university-based investigative reporting projects, and the consideration by foundations to underwrite investigative reporting inside news organizations. He also mentioned this blog, Washington Post Investigations.

Finally, he gave advice to those who want to pursue accountability reporting:

Read it throughout Web.
Use IRE site and go to workshops.
Be prepared to start on smaller newspapers or web sites or intern with investigative reporting projects.
Seek mentors wherever you work.
Find great stories - editors won't turn them down.

Coming from a man who has been to the mountaintop and seen it all, his notes on this subject are worth reading in their entirety. Columbia's Journalism School has also posted audio of Downie's speech.

By The Editors |  August 18, 2008; 9:54 AM ET
Previous: Condo Deal, Favors Outlined in Stevens Documents | Next: Army Makes Repairs in Wake of Soldiers' Complaints

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