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How One Mid-Size Paper Took On Blackwater

July 14: This post has been corrected.

Private security contractor Blackwater Worldwide has been among the most controversial contractors working in Iraq and Afghanistan, coming under intense scrutiny for the 2007 shooting in Baghdad’s Nisour Square that led to the death of 17 civilians and the circumstances leading to four employees’ deaths in Fallujah in 2004. The Raleigh-based News & Observer, with 400,000 readers, has repeatedly broken big news on the company, including its attempt to apply shari’a law in court, its possible noncompliance with federal weapons laws, and its alleged tax evasion. We asked Steve Riley, the N&O’s investigations editor, how a paper with under 200 reporters has succeeded in shining light on one of the government’s largest contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan and its controversial leader.

Credit: Yuri Cortez/AFP/Getty ImagesTo see a complete listing of the N&O’s Blackwater coverage, click here.

Note: This is an edited transcript of the conversation.

What initially got you interested in Blackwater?

Blackwater is an enduring entity in the northeast corner of our state [the company’s headquarters, Moyock, is 200 miles from Raleigh]. It impacts the entire state’s economy. Also, we have an enormous military presence in eastern North at any given time, there are thousands and thousands of uniformed military people and people in related industries in our reading area.

War effects everybody, even if it doesn’t seem like we’re at war. We don’t have a correspondent in Baghdad or Kabul all the time. We strive for ways to bring the impact of the war home.

When did you realize the significance of Blackwater as an investigative subject?

We started paying attention as far back as 2001, when they were just a training company. When Fallujah burst upon us in March 2004, we pretty quickly came to the conclusion that we should go as deep as we could. We saw the Fallujah incident as a way to explain how those four guys came to be on that bridge that day—tracing their lives up to their decision to work for Blackwater. This gave us a way to explain the increasing importance of these private military contractors that we were paying a lot of money for.

As a mid-sized paper, how have you been able to dedicate such resources to tracking one story?

We make sure not to try to duplicate what the big papers are learning in Baghdad. We’re obviously not in the same position as the Washington Post or New York Times to have legions of correspondents in all these places. We do have good work from our McClatchy bureaus, so we pull from that reporting.

For the Fallujah series, the hard news was sitting out there for anyone to get, but what was missing was the backstory about how it happened and why. We felt the reason our readers cared was because the spectacle of what happened to these four guys, and in a broader policy sense what this new type of military contractor meant. We set out to learn everything we could to learn about the four victims. Joe [Joe Neff, one of the N&O’s two investigative reporters] went to Ohio and Jay [Jay Price, the paper’s military reporter, who was in Fallujah shortly before the incident] went to California and Hawaii to run down their stories. Through our state office, we had a correspondent, Charlie Crane, who happened upon the scene shortly afterwards. We sort of cobbled it together.

What impact has the series had?

The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform eventually used what we found [on how Blackwater’s revenue is distributed] when we were able to get enough of Blackwater’s contracts—none of which are public record to this day. That’s what we were trying to show: how the real cost of this is far greater than we can know. Recently we were finally able to get Erik Prince to talk to us—he’d ignored us for years, instead trying to charm 60 Minutes and others. We’ve definitely been a burr in their saddle.

How have readers responded?

Our readers keep reminding us, we’re still staying pretty feisty even though we’re getting smaller and have had to cut newsroom staff. So we feel pretty good about that, all things considered. That said, I don’t think too many people are digging through our site to find our Blackwater investigations.

The most linked of all your Blackwater pieces is the shari’a story. Why do you think that is?

On the web, people value different things. The shari’a thing is 10 inches long. It’s funny and it’s unusual. It gets passed around and suddenly it’s a cyberspace hit.

How have newsroom cuts and pressures from other media affected your investigative work?

Investigations like these are the core of what we do, and it’s time to make sure we keep doing it. What really separates print from other types of media is that we have the ability to tell deep and meaningful stories and reveal things people don’t know. If we don’t do it, it won’t get done.

Everything we do, we ask what does this do to our ability to do big work and how can we insulate that. One of our goals for the year is to get more investigative reporting off of all our desks. We haven’t taken steps like the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to wall off investigative people, but all our desks have goals for those types of stories. We’re trying to do as much or more of that than ever.

In print, we’re going to make sure we’re doing stories that take you very far, not just the average journalism that we all used to churn out to fill up space. At the same time we have to keep feeding the web. That’s where you give people breaking news and all the titillation they want, where people get their laughs and move on. I don’t mind feeding the web, but I don’t want to be dominated by it.

Correction, July 14, 2008: An earlier version of this story stated that the News & Observer employs 260 journalists. In fact, with recent cuts, the newsroom’s size is under 200 editorial staff. Additionally, the News & Observer’s Steve Riley told us the paper’s coverage on Blackwater began in 2002; the paper subsequently informed us the initial story was in 2001.

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