Riley, News & Observer editor, discusses continued need for journalism with impact

By Kellye Coleman

Steve Riley, senior editor for enterprise reporting at the Raleigh News & Observer, began his career as a sports writer in Mississippi. Photo by Julia Sayers.

Investigative reporting does not have to include balance, according to Steve Riley, senior editor of enterprise reporting at the Raleigh News & Observer. “I don’t want our investigative reports to be balanced. A balanced report is something you spend a day or so on,” he said. “The reader, when they get through it, may form their own opinions about the issue, but you’re not really leading them there.”

In his eight years as the N&O enterprise editor, Riley has found that “writing with authority” is the key to a powerful investigative story. “Writing with authority means you’re going to lead them somewhere, because you’ve spent the time, you’ve done the work, you have exhausted everything you know to do to be able tell the reader what the truth is,” he said.

In fact, many of the stories published by the enterprise staff include assertions and strong statements, made possible because the reporters have completed their work thoroughly.

Although the need for authoritative writing has not changed since Riley began working about 30 years ago, the readership is continually changing, which has brought about change in the presentation of information and stories.

“Today we’re attempting to seek the crowds through our work on Twitter and Facebook,” he said. “But the basics of the work is the same.”

The goal for Riley and his three-person enterprise team is journalism with impact.

Stories written by Riley’s team have led to the removal of judges from their courtrooms, the exposure of a half-blind, colorblind neurosurgeon whose work was leading to serious medical issues, the disbarment of the Durham district attorney involved with the infamous Duke lacross case and  former Governor Mike Easley’s guilty plea for accepting bribes. For Riley, that is what it’s all about. “Good journalism is indispensable to the future of the country,” he said.

According to Riley, young journalists have a challenge to “create a market for news and a platform you can deliver it on where people can really absorb it and understand it,” he said. “I do worry about the changes that I characterize as the shorter attention span, the reading in quick bursts online.”

Despite these challenges, Riley has advice that he has found makes a difference.  It is important to represent oneself and the stories being written honestly and fairly. “Here’s my best advice for you all day long,” he said. “Don’t ever lie.”

Also, allowing sources to understand what will be published about them before it is done, simply for the sake of honesty and fairness, is an important step to take.

Riley discusses the way in which his team overcomes challenges faced when sources are unhappy:

Finally, Riley encouraged students to continue to pursue journalism. “There’s still a market for news, a thirst for news. It’s still there. You have to figure out the best was to deliver it,” he said. “But you can still have a lot of impact and a lot of fun.”

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One thought on “Riley, News & Observer editor, discusses continued need for journalism with impact

  1. Nice work on this, Kellye! I wish it had been up online sooner. I sent Steve the links to all the student work that was posted by midnight the day he spoke. You did well structuring this in a tight, informative online media format.

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