Sy Hersh suggested one way to encourage better investigative reporting — fire the editors. Instead, he should read the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. In a time of severe cutbacks and layoffs for newspapers, the Journal Sentinel has excelled at watchdog investigative reporting, winning three Pulitzers and being named a finalist three other times, all in the past five years. How did the paper reach that success? By listening and targeting its women readers.
The Journal Sentinel polled its Midwestern readers on what they look for in the news, and how the responses split by gender were surprising, according to a piece from Nieman Journalism Lab:
The Journal Sentinel also found that the No. 1 reason women in its market read the paper is for investigative journalism, according to a survey [managing editor George] Stanley says the paper conducted last year. "For men, investigative journalism was the No. 3 thing," Stanley said. "No. 1 was the Packers. I forget what No. 2 was."
That women look for investigative reporting above all other topics runs counter to the stereotypical view of what they want (see: Bustle.com). But even as the paper was forced to cut back some things, it kept those investigative units in place. Now, Nieman Journalism Lab writes, "The daily newspaper is actually… kind of… almost… thriving."
The paper's award-winning stories have reflected that female switch. Their 2010 Pulitzer-winning article exposed fraud and abuse in a Wisconsin child-care program. And the its 2011 award for explanatory reporting came after a deep dive into a tearjerking story about the efforts to save a four-year-old with a mystery affliction.
That female readers most prefer investigative reporting may just be specific to Milwaukee readers, but it does raise questions for national outlets with a heavily gendered split. The New Republic, for example, publishes exclusive investigative pieces, but it counts women as just 20 percent of its readers. (For the record, The Atlantic's print readers are 61 percent male.) On the other hand, 53 percent of The New Yorker's print readers are female. The Journal Sentinel could be a model for other struggling Midwestern papers, particularly in light of the money struggles of the Chicago Tribune's parent company.
Advertising losses and job cuts are putting the pressure on newspapers to adapt to maintain their audience. And it just may be that the solution — women — has been there the whole time.