By Dave Lieber
Fort Worth Star-Telegram Columnist
Secretary, National Society of Newspaper Columnists Education Foundation
Talking to Hartford Courant columnist George Gombossy on the phone the other day was really weird.
It was like having a conversation with myself.
He does what I do.
He thinks like I do.
Just weird, man.
I told you a few months ago in this space about how two years ago I switched from writing a three-times-a-week metro column on the local news section front to writing an investigative column called The Watchdog.
I didn’t know anyone else who did this job at any newspaper the way I do. Expose wrongdoing in government or business. Tell it in one single story with a beginning, middle and end. Heroes and villains. Real people who come to the newspaper for help against the big bad wolves trying to run over them.
And then I heard about George.
I read it in a five-paragraph brief in my newspaper, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The item said that a Watchdog columnist at The Courant had exposed how Best Buy stores in Connecticut used what could be described as a phony Web site to fool customers into paying more for electronics. The Connecticut attorney general, my paper reported, had launched an investigation into the columnist’s findings.
So I looked up the column.
It was wonderful.
Here’s how this worked: If you found a product that you wanted to buy at Best Buy for, say, $199, you would walk into a store and tell the sales person. He might say, “Oh, that’s not right. I think it’s a little higher.” And then you and he would check the Web site on his computer. Only problem was that his Web site, which looked like the one you checked at home, was actually an Intranet site only available in the store. And, of course, the price was higher. But how many customers knew this was most likely a sham site?
People complained to George. He investigated. He wrote. Best Buy had to explain. The attorney general got interested.
That’s what The Watchdog is supposed to do.
But hey, who is the guy doing what I do?
So I called George.
He’s the former business editor for The Courant. Before that, he was an award-winning investigative reporter. He once won a George Polk Award.
George started his version of The Watchdog in November.
The Best Buy column, he told me, drew the biggest reaction so far.
“I got 200 e-mails,” he told me. “There were 250 messages left on a message board. There were over 200,000 page hits for that story.”
He loves his new job: “This is totally new. I don’t think I’m in the office more than five hours a week,” the former editor said. “I work out of the home. It’s quieter.
“I’ve never had so much fun in my life. It’s just great. One of the things I love about it is you don’t have to be objective. You can take sides. I’m allowed to have an opinion. As the column grows, they are giving me more and more leeway.”
That’s one difference between my watchdog column and his. I don’t offer overt opinions. I let the story do my talking for me. My opinions are subtle, shown by what I write and how I write it. But George has a different kind of bark.
“I tend to be tenacious,” he said. “I’m not very diplomatic. I tend to call them as I see them, which I think has certain value as a consumer columnist. If somebody is trying to spin me or give me a half-truth, I just call them on it: ‘Hey, you and I know that’s not the truth. Tell me what’s really going on.’ This is much different than the straight jacket I used to be in as a reporter and editor.”
I asked him why his paper created a watchdog column almost two years after my paper did. His answer was the same I would give to someone who asked me a similar question:
“Readership surveys show that’s an area that really needed coverage. We haven’t had a consumer reporter for over 20 years. The decision was made that this was an important enough area – something we could offer our readers that nobody else could.”
Both of us marvel that something so obvious, something so much fun that brings a steady stream of positive results and change, and something so amazingly popular with readers hasn’t made it to other papers yet.
“You’d think,” he said, “that the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times would do this.”
I asked him about the future of this new column genre and his response was almost the same, word for word, that I gave Dave Astor of Editor & Publisher a few months ago when he did a feature on me and my other watchdog colleague, Amie Streater, a Pulitzer finalist. (See, the feature is so successful at my paper that a few months ago, they added a second watchdog.)
George said, “As you look around to what readers want and where newspapers can be the most help, we have a tremendous amount of knowledge. We have some very sharp reporters and editors. I think every newspaper ought to have at least one watchdog columnist. You can connect with and help the reader.
“Most reporters spend a considerable amount of time in the office. They use the Internet and the telephone. There’s such pressure on them to produce that they are literally afraid to leave the office.
“By inviting the public to have a one-on-one relationship with a columnist, we’re getting tips and story ideas which would never before come into The Courant. And if they did, people wouldn’t know what to do with them. So we have an incredible opportunity to reach out and talk to our readers and potential readers in a way that most reporters don’t have because of the pressures they are under.”
So give us a few more watchdog columnists, and George and I can open our own organization – The National Society of Newspaper Watchdog Columnists. The NSNWC.
You think I’m kidding?
There was another watchdog columnist I just found out about, too.
But I found out a little too late.
I found out after she was fired.
As reported in the March 2007 issue of Quill, the Society of Professional Journalists magazine: “The San Antonio Express-News ‘Watchdog’ columnist has resigned in the wake of charges she plagiarized from such Web sources as Wikipedia, Editor & Publisher reported Jan. 3.
“The columnist, Jacqueline Gonzalez, who also served as administrative assistant to Express-News Editor Robert Rivard, had worked for the paper for three years. She resigned Jan. 2.
“A co-worker discovered Gonzalez used information from Wikipedia in a Dec. 25 column on the birth date of Jesus but did not attribute it to that source. After a probe of 25 columns written by Gonzalez, two other examples of material taken from Web sites without attribution were discovered, according to the Express-News.”
It’s gonna be hard to build this NSNWC.