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McClatchy's Major Detainee Investigation Comes Amid Major Staff Cutbacks

Earlier this week the McClatchy Washington Bureau published an impressive five-part investigation into detention facilities in Guantanamo Bay and Afghanistan. Based on extensive interviews with 66 former detainees and U.S. and Afghani officials as well as Department of Defense field manuals and internal memos, the series is a shining example of the kind of investigative reporting that is endangered everywhere -- even at places like McClatchy.

Credit:Seaman David P. Coleman, U.S. NavyThe anchor piece explores the flimsy grounds on which many of the suspected terrorists were apprehended. Lead reporter Tom Lasseter unearthed extensive evidence suggesting that many detainees were low-level foot soldiers and conscripts -- some even supported the U.S.-backed Afghani government. Many were turned over by rivals and provided no real intelligence value.

Subsequent stories have examined the use of torture in Bagram and Kandahar (which predated well-publicized torture practices at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay), how hardened jihadists used the facilities to expand their base, and how Bush administration policy -- much of which was struck down in last week's Boumediene ruling -- precipitated these trends.

The timing of the 8-month, 11-country endeavor is uncanny. As remarkable as the coincidence of the Boumediene decision, the series was released the same week McClatchy announced it would slash 1400 jobs, reducing its workforce by 10 percent. These cutbacks -- which are rippling through newsrooms across the country -- may be just the beginning. (The Washington Bureau has not experienced any cuts.)

According to McClatchy Washington editor David Westphal, "Tom Lasseter spent most of a year doing it, and the project required significant resources stateside as well, so you had to be willing and able to spend a lot of time and money on something like this." This is time and money the company has less of since its high profile acquisition of Knight Ridder in 2006. The Wall Street Journal reports that "McClatchy has been hit harder than most newspaper publishers. It spent $4.6 billion to buy the bulk of rival Knight-Ridder Inc.'s operations two years ago, just as the industry was entering a slump. It also has suffered from its concentration in Florida and California, states hard hit by the housing downturn. McClatchy blames about two-thirds of its advertising declines on those states."

McClatchy (and Knight Ridder) have a storied history of "getting the story right" -- from the administration's case for invading Iraq to the politicization at DoJ -- but this week's cutbacks dramatize the critical question facing newsrooms everywhere: how exactly can the company continue to fulfill its promise to keep up the good enterprise work? In a blog post earlier this week, McClatchy's VP of news argued that strategic cutbacks at local McClatchy papers enable the company to prioritize limited resources for national investigative projects like those coming out of the Washington bureau (which retains its full staff).

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