With all the criticism major media have rightly received over the last few years for their failures to investigate issues ranging from the U.S. decision to invade Iraq to the corporate takeover of public policy, it was refreshing this month to see the payoff when The News & Observer put the time and resources into an investigation of paramount public interest. The conviction of former lottery commissioner Kevin L. Geddings on five federal fraud counts for hiding his connections to lottery vendor Scientific Games wasn’t just a blow against public corruption, it was a victory for The N&O‘s decision–made the day the lottery was approved, says state government editor Bill Krueger–to be an aggressive watchdog over the start-up of a business expected to bring in $1.2 billion in its first year. And, not incidentally, it was a victory for public records laws that made the newspaper’s investigation possible.

The paper dedicated a state government reporter, J. Andrew Curliss, to focus on the lottery’s creation. He was soon joined by Dan Kane, who broke the story about ties between Scientific Games and Meredith Norris, who worked for House Speaker Jim Black. The story got more interesting on Sept. 22, 2005, when Geddings was appointed to the lottery commission and Curliss says he talked to Geddings several times, asking “very specific questions about his relationship with [Scientific Games Vice President] Alan Middleton.” Geddings repeatedly insisted they were just friends who once shared office space. Curliss says he had reason to think otherwise.

With that began months of investigation. Critical to the task was going through 11 boxes with more than 5,000 documents from public records requests involving Black and the lottery, Curliss says. Kane and Curliss first shared a lottery byline on a story that revealed Scientific Games helped write the lottery legislation, and it was the first of more than 100 co-bylines. (Full disclosure: They both worked with me when I was Durham editor of The N&O.)

The results came clear at Geddings’ trial, where many of their stories were entered into evidence. Kane and Curliss took turns writing for print and the Web, where the paper offered updates and background material like recollections that didn’t square with the evidence. And new media offer old thrills: When he was on Web duty, Curliss says he loved running to the phone and shouting, “Hello sweetheart, get me rewrite.”

At a time when newspapers are shortsightedly cutting staff to boost profits, it’s good to see one recognize that old-fashioned, investigative journalism is a much better investment.

Kane and Curliss aren’t the only investigative reporters getting results these days. Check out Managing Editor Jennifer Strom’s story about a federal indictment of Mickey Clark, former president of Kane Realty Corp. in Raleigh, which follows her investigation published in the Independent last December (“The price of friendship“).