Bill Gaines is the Knight Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Reporting in the department of journalism. Prior to joining the Illinois faculty in 1991, Gaines spent almost 40 years as a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. Most of that time, from 1974 on, he worked as an investigative reporter and twice won the Pulitzer Prize. Gaines will retire this summer, but not before completing work on his second textbook on investigative reporting. He was interviewed by News Bureau editor Craig Chamberlain.
What are some of the biggest changes you've seen in the practice of journalism since you started your career in the early '60s?
When I started at the Chicago Tribune in 1963 I had no journalism education, no experience at a newspaper and knew no one in Chicago. But no matter. Reporters then had no desks or phones. We worked the streets and public buildings and turned our stories into the rewrite desk. The desks and floors of the city room were piled high with inky newsprint and the only means of communication was to shout across the room. In those days, if you had a college degree you were suspected of being in the wrong profession.
Now with electronic communication and reporters with clean hands, the city room is like a government office where one only hears the hardly audible clicking of computer keys. Reporters write their own stories and are never without their laptops. No more is it, "Hey you, do you want to be a reporter?" Reporters have long pedigrees from universities and need at least two internships to get in the door. They are experts in government and law and know what they are writing about. The readers of today are lucky. They are getting a better product.
You spent most of your time as an investigative reporter. How do you define investigative reporting and how is it different from other journalism?
Investigative reporters have a dual function. They investigate and they then report on their findings. They do not report on government investigations by way of leaks. They investigate the investigators. So they must be doubly sure of their facts.
Why is investigative reporting important?
Problems have been brought to the public attention that would not have been known otherwise. Some of the investigative articles that have corrected unfair treatment were brought to the investigative reporter after every other means of getting action had failed.
What is possible now - with the advent of personal computers, the Internet and online public information - that wasn't when you first started?
A reporter can easily get information about campaign disclosure, financial records filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission, and many other documents from government Web sites available from the computer terminal, and can file away a wealth of information to back up a story if it is called into question.
Instead of a reporter running out and buying a competitor's newspaper to see if he missed something, reporters can keep an eye out for the other guy's web site.
How do you envision the future of investigative reporting? How is it threatened by, or might benefit from, the rapid changes in the news business?
Journalism is in an upward spiral and investigative techniques are being utilized in day-to-day reporting. You will hear people say good journalism is on the way out. They trade on the idea that conglomerates will somehow crush the news in a frenzy to increase profits.
But the news is bigger than all the conglomerates. The news is one big story of the interacting of people. People demand the news, good or bad. It is up there with food, water and air in the list of necessities for a quality life. Even though newspapers are now being traded like game chips, people want the news and will get it by one means or another long after the media has adjusted or succumbed to change.
I believe journalists are in no way seeing the beginning of the end. As Winston Churchill did not say, "This is not yet the end of the beginning."