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Book aims to pin down economic return on investigative reporting

Editor's Note:

This article first ran on April 11, 2017 on the Columbia Journalism Review's website.

By Anya Schiffrin

At a time when U.S. journalism is being hit by the collapse of advertising revenue, ongoing uncertainty about business models, and a continual assault from the alt-right and the White House, a new book explains why investigative reporting is essential for policy making and social well-being.

Democracy’s Detectives: The Economics of Investigative Journalism (Harvard University Press, 2016) by economist James T. Hamilton is probably the most detailed, comprehensive study ever published of how US investigative reporting has evolved since Watergate. Hamilton, director of the journalism program at Stanford University, provides a taxonomy of subjects covered by different types of outlets and estimates the cost-benefit to society of the reporting.

Hamilton’s economic perspective is particularly relevant at a time of resource constraint. Many of the investigative stories Hamilton examines cost their newspaper $200,000 or $300,000 to report, but the savings to society were far larger. The following Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

One of the remarkable things about Democracy’s Detectives is you looked at data mined from 12,000 entries in the journalism prize contests held by the Investigative Reporters and Editors organization from 1979 to 2010. What did you find?

Investigative reporting involves original work, about substantive issues, that someone wants to keep secret. The economics of this type of work are often discouraging. Original work means there is a fixed cost of finding and telling the story. When your reporting changes laws or policies, the benefits spill over onto many people who will never be your readers or viewers, so it is hard for the media outlet to monetize the value generated by these policy changes. By denying access and resisting FOIA requests, the government can raise the transaction costs to finding out what is going on in an agency. These are some of the reasons why, on average, a story submitted to the IRE prize competition takes six months to produce.

Despite these calculations, investigative work does get done. In newspapers, investigative work appears to happen at outlets with higher circulations, which allows a paper to spread the costs of investigation across many readers. If you are offering important stories that others are not, this provides a reason for consumers to seek out your work.

In Democracy’s Detectives you remind us of a key point made in Journalism of Outrage which is that the impact of journalism coverage can unfold over time and in three phases: individualistic, deliberative and then substantive. In other words, the impact on an individual, of a piece of investigative reporting,  can be transformed into a broader discussion about how to address the problems revealed by journalists and then finally into a policy change.  After analyzing so many pieces of investigative reporting, what kind of impact did your study find from that reporting, and how did that change over time?

Nearly 15 percent of IRE prize contest entries noted their work led to investigations by others. The most likely individual effects were resignations (6%), indictments (4%), and firings (3%). Slightly more than one percent of the IRE stories resulted in the enactment of new laws.

Through case studies, I found that each dollar spent on stories can generate hundreds of dollars in benefits to society, though gains are distributed in ways hard for news organization to translate into additional reporting resources. In one example, I studied the December 2008 News and Observer series “Losing Track: North Carolina’s Crippled Probation System.” The paper found that between 2000 and 2008, 580 people on probation in North Carolina were convicted of killing someone. The three-day, 10-article series took six months of reporting, and cost $216,500 to produce. The reporting generated benefits across the state, but only 6 percent of state households paid for print version of the newspaper. The series changed personnel, law, policies, and expenditures. I estimate that for each dollar in investigative costs, $287 emerged in net policy benefits in the first year of full implementation of probation reforms.  There is no process, though, that links brand reward for the paper to the magnitude of these net policy benefits. If the News and Observer had captured just 10 percent of net policy benefits, the paper could have nearly doubled the size of its newsroom.

I also studied the impact of investigative reporting by looking at the work of Pat Stith, who did investigative work in North Carolina for nearly 36 years. During that time, he produced more than 300 investigations. Of those, 149 generated substantive changes, 110 produced deliberative outcomes, and 43 generated individual impacts.

In 10 percent of Stith’s investigations, the result was a new law passed in North Carolina. Across nearly 36 years on investigative beat, he generated 31 new laws. The legislation he generated affected multiple policy areas: public safety, environmental protection, criminal justice, civil rights, and health care. In his last four years of investigative work, he prompted significant legislative change each year.

As you note, there doesn’t seem to me much of a business model for investigative reporting. What did you learn from the past that can help us in the future? How can investigative reporting be supported, especially in the small towns where it’s under threat or no longer exists, according to you.

There are five incentives that lead to the creation of information about public affairs: Pay me (the subscription model); I want to sell your attention (advertising); I want your vote (partisan); I want to change how you think about the world (nonprofit); and I like to talk (expression). Investigative reporting can be generated by different combinations of these incentives, and I think we’ll continue to see a reweighting of these incentives as a source for investigative work.

I’m optimistic about the future of investigative reporting in part because of the evolution of computational journalism. New combinations of data and algorithms can lower the costs of discovering stories. Telling stories in more personalized and engaging ways holds the prospect of the type of product differentiation which can raise the probability that you could charge for news.

It is true that outlets in smaller towns are at a disadvantage, since there are fewer people whose resources or attention could support the creation of costly stories about their local community. Smaller outlets, though, can seek help. IRE has provided training subsidies for smaller newsrooms. ProPublica will often partner with small outlets who can tell the local version of a national story. Right now, state and local governments are releasing data online that can be the source of new accountability stories in small communities.

What lessons do you have for the media under Trump? What should journalists do?

It is always cheaper to repeat a story than to find one. Through his tweets and his free-wheeling management style, President Trump will generate many stories that have a relatively low cost to cover and a high appeal to entertainment demands. The challenge for journalists will be to tell the stories of policy implementation on the ground, to describe the lives of voters as policies are changing (rather than waiting four years to check back in during a campaign).

A key tool may be FOIA. I found in an examination of FOIAs at 14 federal agencies, media FOIAs dropped overall by about a quarter and by nearly 50 percent for local newspapers. In an era when career executive branch workers see the very basis for their agencies challenged, responses to FOIAs may offer a way to provide journalists with the type of data that gives rise to more accountability reporting.

By Susannah Nesmith, CJR

Editor's Note:

This article first ran on Dec. 2, 2016 on the Columbia Journalism Review's website.

The Palm Beach Post made the bold decision to profile all 216 people who died of an opioid overdose in its coverage area last year, risking the wrath of victims’ families, some of whom were horrified to have their private pain publicized. The stark display of photos of each of the dead, accompanied by brief profiles, effectively served The Post’s goal—drawing attention to the magnitude of the crisis in a way statistics simply could not, while bringing addiction out of the shadows.

The “Generation Heroin” project, rolled out last month, was motivated by the reporters’ discovery that many people were overdosing inside controversial sober homes where they had gone to get better. When the reporters dug deeper, they realized the sheer scope of the problem was far worse than they had imagined: More people died in Palm Beach County from heroin, fentanyl, or illicit morphine overdoses in 2015 than in car accidents.

“We felt like we really wanted to make a major impact with this project,” says managing editor Nick Moschella. “We needed to go beyond what many outlets have done—and done well. We thought, how can we really wake up the state and the community to something that is killing a generation?”

The more standard story about the statistics behind the epidemic, with a few profiles of victims whose families agreed to participate to illustrate its toll, has been done before. The danger with those is its easy for readers to conclude that opioid addiction could never happen to a friend or loved one.

More and more local news outlets are waking up to the reality of the heroin epidemic in their backyards. Earlier this month, WXIA, the NBC affiliate in Atlanta, did an impressive five-part investigation into addiction in the city’s wealthy suburbs, for example. The stories are shocking; the lack of response frustrating. But The Post’s creative treatment of the problem is worth a look.

The Post reporters and editors—Pat Beall, Joe Capozzi, John Pacenti, Christine Stapleton, Lawrence Mower, Mike Stucka, Melanie Mena, and Joel Engelhardt—spent months gathering records on each case. Then Beall, Capozzi, Mower, and Engelhardt divided up the names and made the difficult calls to family members.

They started out dreading the reaction.

“I expected families to be very angry with me from the moment they picked up the phone,” Beall says. “We found this overwhelming support.”

In the end, family members of 98 of the victims supported the project, Engelhardt says. Another couple dozen were basically neutral. Ten asked The Post to pull their family members out of the project, with a few even threatening to sue. The Post was unable to reach family members of some 70 victims, but reconstructed their stories from police and autopsy reports.

The Post spent a good bit of time planning how to report the stories sensitively; reporters and Engelhardt, who is an editor, prepared a standard script before they started the calls. 

“We felt we had to get certain things across very carefully and clearly,” Beall says. “If we were leaving a message, we didn’t know who was going to hear it. We were telling them ‘it’s our intent to show these people as individuals and not statistics.’ We felt very deeply that we could be hurting people.”

They were not, however, calling for permission. The newspaper insisted on printing every name, and every photo it could find, even if family members opposed it.

The Palm Beach Post did not casually decide to publish the pictures and personal stories of every person in Palm Beach County who died after taking heroin, fentanyl or illicit morphine in 2015,” wrote Publisher Timothy D. Burke in a column explaining the decision. “Though most families of those who died and who spoke with The Post expressed gratitude for the decision, it will bring some others pain. But we believe that the staggering toll this epidemic is taking has been largely hidden from public view, and as a result has not been aggressively addressed.”

I spoke with Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute. Tompkins has been teaching a series of seminars on how to cover the opioid addiction epidemic and he agrees with The Post’sexecution of the project.

“That’s a really wonderful project,” he says. “A large public interest, in my judgment, overwhelms a family’s request for privacy. We know we’re going to cause harm sometimes. The question is the potential good. I don’t know of any large social problem that has ever become better by not looking at it.”

Poynter’s Kelly McBride, the Institute’s ethics guru, wrote recently about the ethics of publishing photos of heroin addicts after a pair of photos released by police in Indiana and Ohio went viral because they showed passed out parents next to terrified children. McBride came up with a checklist of questions to ask when deciding whether to report  on pictures like those. If at least three were met, she deemed publication was ethical. One criteria was:

“Efforts to minimize harm. This would include cropping out or blurring faces of minors (there were no minor victims in Palm Beach County last year). It could also include not naming the adults or showing their faces. After all, the goal is to raise awareness, not shame people, right?”

But while the Post did name the victims, the paper also met several other criteria McBride laid out, including publishing an in-depth story looking at what other communities are doing to tackle opioid addiction, and what Palm Beach County and Florida could be doing.

In Huntington, (West Virginia) population 49,000, nearly every public official carries Narcan, the life-saving drug that reverses heroin overdoses. Police, firefighters, members of the mayor’s cabinet—even librarians carry it—and the health department gives it away to anyone willing to take a class. So when 27 people there overdosed in four hours in August, all but one were saved.

In Palm Beach County, a few police departments and fire departments use Narcan. But (Palm Beach County) Sheriff (Ric) Bradshaw has refused to let his deputies carry it, even when offered the medicine for free. He cited liability issues.

The failure goes beyond local officials in Palm Beach County. The story noted that Gov. Rick Scott dismantled the state’s Office of Drug Control in 2011, replacing it with a powerless advisory council, which has helpfully suggested that something needs to be done. On the other end of the spectrum, Massachusetts declared a public health emergency after seeing a 15 percent spike in overdose deaths in 2014. The same year, Florida saw ODs rise 111 percent, with no corresponding response. On the national level, Congress passed the first major addiction legislation in 40 years last year. The bill to pay for it failed 48 to 47; Florida’s Sen. Marco Rubio skipped the vote.

“I remember saying ‘they’re doing so much and we’re doing so little by comparison,’” Beall says. “Joel said ‘They know them.’ That’s why we had to show their faces. So people here can know them like the people in West Virginia know them.”

In addition to looking for solutions for the community, The Post offeredsolutions for families and a story in which experts explain addiction. The newspaper also ran a story  attacking the stereotype of a junkie by pointing to the normal and sometimes even successful lives of many of the victims.

But the heart of the project is the collection of profiles.

The stories are heartbreaking and sometimes chilling, like the one about the addict who admitted to The Post that when a friend overdosed, he decided to use the rest of the friend’s heroin first, then call 911. The friend died. The youngest victim was 19, the oldest 65. Eighty percent were men and 95 percent were white.

Some family members weren’t ready to talk about their loved ones, but sent the Post moving written responses.

The Post team realized early on that doing all those interviews caused its own form of trauma. “It’s really important for reporters to understand that trauma is contagious,” Beall says. “My job description included crying every day.”

Capozzi said decades in journalism hadn’t prepared him for the emotional toll of the months of interviews with grieving family members.

“In the course of my career, there’s always a case when somebody dies and you know, you call the next of kin,” he says. “We were doing that five times a day, coming in on Saturdays to do it because we realized that was a better time to reach people. And for these families, it was like ripping open a scab again. They had already begun to process the death. There were a lot of tears, by me and the families.”

Capozzi traveled to South Carolina to meet with one of the first families he reached, producing a moving prequel to the project, a 180-inch story—about a mother’s failed effort to save her son—that ran in September.

That families’ story reflected one factor common to so many of the stories—the victim was from out of state and came to Palm Beach County to get help. Palm Beach County has become a hub of rehab facilities and sober homes. “They’re coming down here trying to get help, but they are coming down here to die,” Capozzi says.

The Post journalists I talked to say they have been encouraged by the reaction to the project, especially from overwhelmed medical examiners and the police and firefighters who often feel helpless in the face of the epidemic. The Sheriff’s Office in Martin County, just north of Palm Beach, urged its Facebook followers to read the package, calling it “incredible” and “sad, shocking and eye opening.”

Shortly after the project came out, a Palm Beach County commissionerpledged to push for reforms to slow the epidemic. The daughter of her chief aide fatally overdosed the week before.

The Post is hoping for a more robust reaction in the weeks and months ahead. “It’s still early in the game,” Capozzi said.

By Amy Pyle

Editor's Note:

This article first ran on Nov. 21, 2016 on the Columbia Journalism Review's website.

I was jolted awake, or rather I was jolted awake, by the Northridge Earthquake on January 17, 1994. I drove bleary-eyed down the 210 freeway to the 118, careening off expansion joints that had become steps. Less than a mile from the epicenter, the San Fernando Valley office of The Los Angeles Times already was surrounded with yellow police tape. Off limits. I was a newly minted editor, suddenly in charge of a mass disaster without access to the normal tools of our trade: phones, computers, police scanners.

We worked in the hot sun of the Times parking lot for most of the day, sneaking inside to grab a battery-operated TV, laptops, pens, and reporters’ notebooks. And from that day on, nothing was the same. For weeks, for months. Actually, for years.

The news was so big that we set aside all of our stories in progress and our future story pitches. Everything was dwarfed by the size and urgency of the quake, its aftershocks, and its aftermath:  the bodies sandwiched inside apartments, the jittery families camping in the median strips, the tearing down and rebuilding that ushered in corrupt contractors and quake ghost towns.

It was overwhelming at first. Then we learned to pace ourselves, to start small, to begin with what we knew, ask questions and follow them.

These are lessons I am reflecting on frequently these days, because on November 8 we were jolted awake again and now are bracing for aftershocks. So many of the stories we had in progress are eclipsed by the election of Donald Trump, so much of what we had planned now seems off topic. So much of what we can do feels inadequate.

From this day on, nothing will be the same.

Unlike the LA Times, a daily newspaper then relied on by 1 million people for their daily news, Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reportinghas a special niche: uncovering wrongdoing and injustices, focusing our efforts on those stories with the greatest potential to drive change. That niche has never seemed more relevant.

We are a nonpartisan newsroom. So this pursuit is not about Republican versus Democrat, conservative versus liberal. In recent years, we have not shied away from stories critical of the Obama administration, including several taking the president to task for not living up to his promises to veterans. (Those veterans chose Trump over Hillary Clinton by a 2-1 margin, by the way.) We are independent in every way; none of our donors hold sway over what we cover, no matter how generous.

And change can be good—at a minimum good for news. A new presidential administration, particularly one with a platform of disruption, offers unlimited fodder for investigative journalists.

So where do we start?

After I became editor in chief earlier this year, we defined three filters for our coverage: accountability, inequality, and sustainability. That provides a crucial and topical framework now as we re-evaluate our stories and our plans, guided by an additional filter: How is this new administration likely to shift the foundation, and the response? Who will be hurt and helped?

We have no preconceived notions of what will happen in these areas beyond what we all learned about Donald Trump and his plans during the campaign, much of it from the candidate himself. His post-election statements—such as telling Lesley Stahl on 60 Minutes that he will deport millions of undocumented people—persuade us he intends to follow through. That kind of change deserves close scrutiny.

Already we have many concerns and the tools to start to address them. Sexual harassment and assault are illegal, not paying contractors and mistreating workers are, too. We have a track record of using our accountability filter to expose these problems and we will continue to do so. Destroying our planet is unfathomable, just as we have begun to make some meager headway against climate change. That’s where our sustainability filter will come in handy. Intolerance is intolerable. The ugliness ignited by Trump’s campaign in terms of racism, sexism, and ethnocentrism catches in our inequality filter.

But the bigger challenge for us as journalists is confronting another fault line of this election: that no one seems to care what we report, that no one trusts us. We don’t have 1 million subscribers like the LA Times did back in 1994, counting on us to help them recover. So we realize that rebuilding trust will be difficult—and essential. We’re just beginning to think about how to begin but we already know that our work convening local and regional media around the nation as investigative partners—through Reveal Labs and our public radio program and podcast with PRX, Reveal—will be another powerful tool in meeting that challenge.

In a trending post on Twitter two days after the election, a man called one current narrative backward. It’s the rural and exurbanites who need to listen more to the urbanites, he said, not vice versa. I think it’s both, I tweeted back at him: “We all need to assume less, listen more.”

So in the coming months, watch for us to redouble our efforts to uncover wrongdoing and injustice. That draws on our core values, our mission, which will persist no matter who is president. But help us, too, as we learn to assume less and listen more.

We’ll start small, beginning with what we know, asking questions and following them. We are not judge and jury. We’re just a small but ambitious nonprofit newsroom, jolted awake.

 

Amy Pyle is editor in chief of Reveal, which publishes, across multiple platforms, the work of the Center for Investigative Reporting. She can be reached via email at apyle@revealnews.org.

By Kevin Deutsch

Editor's Note:

This article first ran on Nov. 16, 2016 on the Columbia Journalism Review's website.

During a career that’s spanned three and a half decades, Ted Conover has guarded hardened criminals in Sing Sing, snuck across the US border with Mexican immigrants, inspected poultry as a USDA employee, and roamed the nation as a railroad hobo — all in pursuit of his next big story.

Along the way, he’s become one of the prominent practitioners of immersion writing, steeping himself in other worlds that are typically off-limits to reporters and the public.

For some books and articles, Conover’s gone undercover. For others, he’s left home to live among disenfranchised subjects. In his new book Immersion: A Writer’s Guide to Going Deep, Conover distills decades of hard-won knowledge into a how-to guide for journalists.

Among his topics: how to gain access to new communities, how to behave ethically once inside, and how to craft a powerful story when it’s all over.  The following interview was conducted over email during November 2016, and has been edited for length and clarity.

 

You write that Immersion is the book you wish you’d had with you when you were 22 years old, immersing yourself in the world of railroad tramps. At the time, you were researching your college thesis, which later morphed into your first book, Rolling Nowhere:  Riding the Rails with America’s Hoboes. What inspired you to finally commit these techniques and advice to paper? What was the spark? And how long had the idea for Immersion been gestating?

Immersion is just one of the ways I’ve researched stories. All of my books before this one are based on it, but I’ve never thought of it as a separate class of research. I know that other people have, though. One of them was an editor at the University of Chicago Press (Jenny Gavacs) who suggested to me that I write this book.

 

With the nation bitterly divided following Donald Trump’s election—and lots of hand wringing in the mainstream press over having misread the mood of the electorate—what role, if any, do you think immersion writing can play in bridging the cultural divides in this country? And how might immersive projects help address those aforementioned reportorial blind spots?

I think that immersion research makes it harder to think of any group of people simplistically. No part of the electorate is merely “angry.” “Less educated” also seems like an unhelpful descriptor, unless maybe it’s paired with some words and phrases that haven’t commonly been used to describe Trump supporters, such as “disadvantaged” or “at risk of going broke.” I write that “immersion implies leaving home—or at least spending significant amounts of time outside it—engaged in daily exposure to your subjects and the problems they face. Writing that proceeds from this can answer complaints about the superficiality of journalism. It offers cures on several levels, one of which is the level of commitment. Immersion tells the reader: This is no drive-by. I did more than get a quote. I lingered and I listened. I got to know them as multidimensional.”

 

In your experience, what part of the immersion process do young writers and journalists struggle most with? Is there a common point at which newer practitioners of the craft hit a wall? What’s the hardest part of the process for you, personally?

I’d say that access is often the hardest for younger journalists—it can be a real challenge getting people to “let you in,” particularly if you’re not on assignment from some recognizable news source and don’t yet have a track record. Next hardest may be what I call reporting for story: learning what to look for, the kind of notes your research needs to generate (i.e., characters, conflicts, the passage of time, and other elements of narrative).

Access is a perpetual problem for me as well, particularly since I’m interested in setting a high bar, in trying to do things that haven’t been done before.

 

Technology is transforming the way we gather information and tell stories. How is it affecting immersive writing, specifically? Has it changed the way you and your peers and/or students working in the genre operate?

Well, I don’t think the essential tools have changed: you need a pen and a notebook. You need to be able to listen and you need to be able to explain yourself. You need to notice.

But technology definitely has expanded the number of possibilities for telling these stories, in ways which really haven’t been fully explored yet. Back when only wealthier, tech-savvy people had smart phones, you had to worry about taking out your smart phone in certain settings. Now, though, it seems practically everybody in the US has one—I was in a Starbucks in Denver last week where two homeless men were charging their phones. A third had taken his laptop from his cart and was using the store’s Wifi. This is great, because adding video and still photography to our reports can expand the audience, the options for telling a story, and the richness of the story itself. And, of course, it can help empower people who previously were only the subjects of our stories to tell stories of themselves.

 

You write of students sometimes wanting to dive directly into immersion writing, without first mastering the tenets of traditional journalism or third-person nonfiction storytelling. What is the ideal training for a writer before they embark on an immersive project?

I do think it’s helpful to know the basics of journalism before you set out—conventions around quotation, using anecdotes to help illustrate a larger theme, the importance of topicality, that sort of thing. Immersion research can take a long time, and experience in turning reporting into story can help insure that time won’t be wasted.

 

If there’s one book of immersive writing you could recommend to a young journalist, what would it be and why?

I think the most important book or article is one you love, the one that speaks to you. Such a book for me is Stanley Booth’s brilliant Dance with the Devil: The Rolling Stones and Their Times. (I wrote an appreciation of itin CJR in 2006.) It’s full of joyful literary risk-taking. But it’s also a cautionary tale about what can happen when you get too close to the flame, when you go too deep.

Finding models is super-important in this endeavor, which is one reason I assembled a detailed bibliography at the end of Immersion. Each of those books and articles, to me, is a possible inspiration.

 

The time commitment for immersive projects can be huge. How can a writer know they’ve found a worthwhile story?

I guess it’s like the commitment a writer makes to any big story. It needs to be about something that matters, a topic you might be able to make readers care about, and one you’re likely to care about for the time it takes. You need a fairly good prospect of ongoing access; having a Plan B in place should that access fall apart is not a bad idea. It can help to have friends who don’t think the idea is crazy, and even better is to have an agent or editor who’s intrigued.

 

In the paperback afterword to Newjack, you wrote of having nightmares related to your experience working as a correction officer at Sing Sing—dreams a psychiatrist suggested were the result of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. (Full disclosure: I received a diagnosis of PTSD after reporting my book on a Bloods/Crips gang war in New York, and your mention of PTSD in the afterword was one of the things that encouraged me to seek treatment in the first place.) Do you consider dealing with mental health issues to be an unavoidable hazard of immersion work?

I’m glad you raised the possibility that research can take a toll on the researcher. PTSD among journalists is real, and not just for war reporters and photographers. Immersion is probably not the best approach for a journalist who is not feeling pretty centered and stable to begin with. The trick then becomes how to maintain your equilibrium should conditions become stressful. Having a wife I love, who believed in my project, really helped me endure the months I spent working as a CO. And having little kids at home, though they at times contributed to my exhaustion, I’m sure ultimately helped keep me steady. With projects that are less emotionally fraught, like my stint as a USDA meat inspector, the main challenge can simply be managing feelings of isolation and loneliness. Again, having somebody waiting for you at home can be indispensable.


You write that immersion writing has “huge potential for sowing empathy in the world,” and that an immersion writer “cannot help but come to appreciate the other’s point of view, hopefully in a way that is both visceral and nuanced.” Newjack sowed empathy for both corrections officers and prisoners. What lessons/insights from that book would you want to impart on journalists covering the American corrections system today, and the ongoing efforts to reform it?

Acknowledge the pain on both sides. Don’t demonize the civil servants. All of us are actors in systems that make us behave in certain ways. The challenge is to reform the system.

 

The amount of media available to American consumers has grown exponentially in recent years. But immersion writing seems to always find its audience. What can immersion writing do that other forms of storytelling can’t? Why does it endure?

I think its power comes from how quickly it can lead a reader to the emotional core of a story. Immersion writing is almost never dry. It’s also as personal as its creators, which is to say every good project seems to invent its own trajectory. As a genre it has been with us for a long time, at least as far back as Sir Richard Burton’s excursions to Arabia in the mid-19th century; and yet every season seems to bring us another example of somebody adventurous opening a window into a world we realize we’ve never seen before.

 

Can you point out some of the best immersion journalism you’ve seen recently?

I admire Jennifer Percy’s Demon Camp: A Soldier’s Exorcism, an up-close, lyrical depiction of PTSD; Suki Kim’s Without YouThere Is No Us, about teaching English in North Korea; Matthew Desmond’s Evicted; and Shane Bauer’s undercover account of working in a private prison in Mother Jones.

 

Here are some other significant works of immersion writing Conover highlights in his book:

Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich

Among Schoolchildren by Tracy Kidder

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman

Among the Thugs by Bill Buford

Behind the Beautiful Forevers by Katherine Boo

Holy Days by Lis Harris

Collision Low Crossers by Nicholas Dawidoff

Methland by Nick Reding

Mississippi Drift by Matthew Power

My Enemy, My Self by Yoram Binur

By Martin Fackler

Editor's Note:

This article first ran on October 25, 2016 on the Columbia Journalism Review's website.

It seemed like compelling journalism: a major investigative story published by The Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s second largest daily newspaper, about workers fleeing the Fukushima nuclear plant against orders.

It was the work of a special investigative section that had been launched with much fanfare to regain readers’ trust after the triple meltdown at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant in March 2011, when the Asahiand other media were criticized for initially repeating the official line that the government had everything safely under control.

The team had been producing award winning journalism for three years, but the story on the workers would be the last for some of its ace reporters. And its publication in May 2014 would come to mark the demise of one of the most serious efforts in recent memory by a major Japanese news organization to embrace a more independent approach to journalism.

The hastiness of the Asahi’s retreat raised fresh doubts about whether such watchdog journalism — an inherently risky enterprise that seeks to expose and debunk, and challenge the powerful — is even possible in Japan’s big national media, which are deeply tied to the nation’s political establishment.

The editors at Asahi, considered the “quality paper” favored by intellectuals, knew the culture they were facing, but they saw the public disillusionment in Japan that followed the nuclear plant disaster as the opportunity launch a bold experiment to reframe journalism. 

No more pooches

On the sixth floor of its hulking headquarters overlooking Tokyo’s celebrated fish market, the newspaper in October 2011 hand-picked 30 journalists to create a desk dedicated to investigative reporting, something relatively rare in a country whose big national media favor cozy ties with officials via so-called press clubs. The clubs are exclusive groups of journalists, usually restricted to those from major newspapers and broadcasters, who are stationed within government ministries and agencies, ostensibly to keep a close eye on authority. In reality, the clubs end up doing the opposite, turning the journalists into uncritical conduits for information and narratives put forth by government officials, whose mindset the journalists often end up sharing.

The choice to head of the new section was unusual: Takaaki Yorimitsu, a gruff, gravelly-voiced outsider who was not a career employee of the elitist Asahi, and had been head-hunted from a smaller regional newspaper for his investigative prowess. Yorimitsu set an iconoclastic tone by taping a sign to the newsroom door declaring “Datsu Pochi Sengen,” or “No More Pooches Proclamation”—a vow that his reporters would no longer be kept pets of the press clubs, but true journalistic watchdogs.

The new section gave reporters a broad mandate to range across the Asahi’s rigid internal silos in search of topics, while also holding to higher journalistic standards, such as requiring using the names of people quoted in stories instead of the pseudonyms common in Japanese journalism.

The Investigative Reporting Section proved an instant success, winning Japan’s top journalism award two years in a row for its exposure of official coverups and shoddy decontamination work around the nuclear plant, which was crippled when a huge earthquake and tsunami knocked out vital cooling systems. The section’s feistier journalism offered hope of attracting younger readers at a time when the 7 million-reader Asahi and Japan’s other national dailies, the world’s largest newspapers by circulation, were starting to feel the pinch from declining sales.

The Asahi Shimbun believes such investigative reporting is indispensable,” the newspaper’s president at the time, Tadakazu Kimura, declared in an annual report in 2012. The new investigative section “does not rely on information obtained from press clubs, but rather conducts its own steadfast investigations that require real determination.”

That is why it was all the more jarring when, just two years later, the Asahi abruptly retreated from this foray into watchdog reporting. In September 2014, the newspaper retracted the story it had published in May about workers fleeing the Fukushima plant against orders, punishing reporters and editors responsible for the story, slashing the size of the new section’s staff and forcing the resignation of Kimura, who had supported the investigative push.

A newspaper-appointed committee of outside experts later declared that the article, which the Asahi had trumpeted as a historic scoop, was flawed because journalists had demonstrated “an excessive sense of mission that they ‘must monitor authority.’”

While the section was not closed down altogether, its output of major investigative articles dropped sharply as the remaining journalists were barred from writing about Fukushima.

Emasculating the Asahi

The abrupt about-face by the Asahi, a 137-year-old newspaper with 2,400 journalists that has been postwar Japan’s liberal media flagship, was was an early victory for the administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, which had sought to silence critical voices as it moved to roll back Japan’s postwar pacifism, and restart its nuclear industry.

“In Japanese journalism, scoops usually just mean learning from the ministry officials today what they intend to do tomorrow,” said Makoto Watanabe, a former reporter in the section who quit the Asahi in March because he felt blocked from doing investigative reporting. “We came up with different scoops that were unwelcome in the Prime Minister’s Office.”

Abe and his supporters on the nationalistic right seized on missteps by the Asahi in its coverage of Fukushima and sensitive issues of World War II-era history to launch a withering barrage of criticism that the paper seemed unable to withstand. The taming of the Asahi set off a domino-like series of moves by major newspapers and television networks to remove outspoken commentators and newscasters.

Political interference in the media was one reason cited by Reporters Without Borders in lowering Japan from 11th in 2010 to 72nd out of 180 nations in this year’s annual ranking of global press freedoms, released on April 20, 2016.

“Emasculating the Asahi allowed Abe to impose a grim new conformity on the media world,” said Koichi Nakano, a professor of politics at Sophia University in Tokyo and a leading critic of the administration on press freedom issues. “Other media know that once Asahi gave in, they were exposed and could be next. So they gagged themselves.”

But government pressure fails to fully explain the Asahi’s retreat. Some Asahi reporters and media scholars say the government was able to exploit weaknesses within Japanese journalism itself, particularly its lack of professional solidarity and its emphasis on access-driven reporting. At the Asahi’s weakest moment, other big national newspapers lined up to bash it, essentially doing the administration’s dirty work, while also making blatant efforts to poach readers to shore up their declining circulations.

 The knockout blow, however, came from within the Asahi itself, as reporters in other, more established sections turned against the upstart investigative journalists. The new section’s more adversarial approach to journalism had earned it wide resentment for threatening the exclusive access—enjoyed by the Asahi as part of the mainstream media—to the administration and the powerful central ministries that govern Japan.

Media scholars say reporters in elite national newspapers like the Asahi have a weak sense of professional identity; most did not attend journalism school and spend their entire careers within the same company. Until recently, a job at a national daily was seen as a safe career bet rather than a calling, as the Asahi and its competitors offered salaries and lifetime job guarantees similar to banks and automakers.

This result is that many Japanese journalists are unable to resist pressures that officials can put on them via the press clubs. Journalists who are deemed overly critical or who write about unapproved topics can find themselves barred from briefings given to other club members. This is a potent sanction when careers can be broken for missing a scoop that appeared in rival newspapers. This is what some Asahi journalists in the press clubs say happened to them as the Investigative Section angered government officials with its critical stories.

“When the chips were down, they saw themselves as elite company employees, not journalists,” said Yorimitsu, who after the Fukushima article’s retraction was reassigned to a Saturday supplement where he writes entertainment features.

Unable to weather the storm

It was a bitter reversal for a section that had been launched with high expectations just three years before. Yorimitsu described the new section as the newspaper’s first venture into what he called true investigative journalism. He said that while the Asahi had assembled teams in the past that it called “investigative,” this usually meant being freed from the demands of daily reporting to take deeper dives into scandals and social issues. He said the new section was different because his journalists not only gathered facts, they used them to build counter narratives that challenged versions of events put forward by authorities.

“Until 2014, the newspaper was very enthusiastic about giving us the time and freedom to expose the misdeeds in Fukushima, and tell our own stories about what had happened,” recalled Yorimitsu. “We were telling the stories that the authorities didn’t want us to tell.”

Yorimitsu had been hired in 2008 in to take charge of a smaller investigative team that the Asahi had created in 2006, when it was first starting to feel the pinch from the Internet. From a peak of 8.4 million copies sold daily in 1997, the Asahi’s circulation had slipped below 8 million by 2006, according to the Japan Audit Bureau of Circulations. (By late 2015, it had dropped to 6.6 million.) The team of 10 reporters was an experimental effort to win readers. “We realized that in the Net era, independent, investigative journalism was the only way for a newspaper to survive,” said Hidetoshi Sotooka, a former managing editor who created the original team.

However, it was not until Fukushima, Japan’s biggest national trauma since its World War II defeat in 1945, that the newspaper wholeheartedly embraced the effort, tripling the number of journalists and elevating it to a full-fledged section, putting it on par organizationally with other, more established parts of the paper.

Under Yorimitsu, the section’s crowning achievement was an investigative series called “The Promethean Trap,” a play on the atomic industry’s early promise of becoming a second fire from heaven like the one stolen by Prometheus in Greek mythology. The series, which appeared daily beginning in October 2011, won The Japan Newspaper Publishers and Editors Association Prize, Japan’s equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize, in 2012 for its reporting on such provocative topics as a gag-order placed on scientists after the nuclear accident, and the government’s failure to release information about radiation to evacuating residents. The series spawned some larger investigative spin-offs, including an exposé of corner-cutting in Japan’s multi-billion dollar radiation cleanup, which won the prize in 2013.

These were promising accomplishments for a new section, but they also led to resentment in other parts of the newspaper, where the investigative team was increasingly viewed as prima donnas, and Yorimitsu’s “no more pooches” proclamation as an arrogant dismissal of other sections’ work.

At the same time, the Investigative Section also was making powerful enemies outside the newspaper by exposing problems at Fukushima. This became particularly apparent after the pro-nuclear Abe administration took office in December 2012, when other media started to cut back on articles about the nuclear accident.

“We were being told that the Prime Minister’s Office disliked our stories and wanted them stopped,” Watanabe recalled, “but we thought we could weather the storm.”

They may have been able to if the new section had not given its opponents an opening to strike. But on May 20, 2014, running under the banner headline “Violating Plant Manager Orders, 90 Percent of Workers Evacuated Fukushima Daiichi,” the front-page article made the explosive claim that at the peak of the crisis, workers had fled the nuclear plant in violation of orders to remain from plant manager, Masao Yoshida. The article challenged the dominant narrative of the manager leading a heroic battle to contain the meltdowns and thus save Japan.

The reporters behind the story, Hideaki Kimura and Tomomi Miyazaki, had obtained a transcript of testimony that Yoshida gave to government investigators before his death from cancer in 2013. The 400-plus-page document, drawn from 28 hours of spoken testimony by Yoshida, had been kept secret from the public in the Prime Minister’s Office. Unearthing the testimony was an investigative coup, which the Asahiunabashedly played up in ad campaigns. It might have stayed that way, had not the Asahi opened up the floodgates of public criticism by clumsily setting off a completely unrelated controversy about its past coverage of one of East Asia’s most emotional issues.

That uproar began on Aug. 5, 2014  when the Asahi suddenly announced in a front-page article that it was retracting more than a dozen stories published in the 1980s and early 1990s about “comfort women” forced to work in wartime Japanese military brothels. The newspaper was belatedly admitting what historians knew: that a Japanese war veteran quoted in the articles, Seiji Yoshida, had fabricated his claims of having forcibly rounded up more than 1,000 Korean women.

The comfort women retractions appeared to be an attempt by the Asahito preempt critics in the administration by coming clean about a decades-old problem. Instead, the move backfired, giving the revisionist right ammunition to attack the Asahi. The public pillorying, led by Abe himself, who said the reporting “has caused great damage to Japan’s image,” grew so intense that the magazine of the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan ran a cover story: “Sink the Asahi!”

It was at the peak of this maelstrom, when the Asahi was on the ropes, that criticism of its Fukushima scoop erupted. In late August, the Sankei Shimbun and the Yomiuri Shimbun, both pro-Abe newspapers on the right, obtained copies of Yoshida’s secret testimony, and wrote reports challenging the version of events put forth by the Asahi. “Asahi Report of ‘Evacuating Against Orders’ At Odds With Yoshida Testimony,” the Yomiuri, the world’s largest newspaper with 9 million readers, declared in a front-page headline Aug. 30. Other media, including the liberal Mainichi Shimbun, followed with similar efforts to discredit the Asahi.

According to these stories, the Asahi’s epic scoop had gotten it wrong by implying that the plant workers had knowingly ignored Yoshida’s orders. The newly obtained copies of his testimony showed that his orders had failed to reach the workers in the confusion. The other newspapers accused the Asahi of again sullying Japan’s reputation, by inaccurately portraying the brave Fukushima workers as cowards. (Whether the Asahigot the story wrong is debatable, since its article never actually stated that workers knowingly violated Yoshida’s orders; however, it did fail to include the manager’s statement that his orders had not been properly relayed—an omission that could lead readers to draw the wrong conclusion.)

The fact that two pro-Abe newspapers had suddenly and in quick succession obtained copies of the Yoshida transcript led to widespread suspicions, never proven, that the Prime Minister’s Office leaked the documents to use against the Asahi. True or not, the newspapers seemed willing to serve the purposes of the administration, perhaps to improve their access to information, or to avoid suffering a similar fate as the Asahi.

The other papers also saw the Asahi’s woes as a chance to steal readers. The Yomiuri stuffed glossy brochures in the mailboxes of Asahisubscribers, blasting it for tarnishing Japan’s honor, while praising the Yomiuri’s coverage of the comfort women. This attempt to poach readers ultimately backfired as both newspapers lost circulation.

“Rather than stand together to resist government pressure, they allowed themselves to be used as instruments of political pressure,” said Jiro Yamaguchi, a political scientist at Tokyo’s Hosei University.

Despite peer pressure, Asahi journalists say the newspaper initially intended to defend its Fukushima scoop, going so far as to draw up a lengthy rebuttal that was to have run on page one in early September. As late as Sept. 1, Seiichi  Ichikawa, the head of the Investigative Section at the time, told his reporters that the newspaper was ready to fight back. “The government is coming after the Special Investigative Section,” Ichikawa said in a pep talk to his team, according to Watanabe and others who were present. “The Asahi will not give in.”

The rebuttal was never published. Instead, President Kimura surprised many of his own reporters with a sudden about face, announcing at a press conference on Sept. 11 that he was retracting the Fukushima-Yoshida article. Reporters say the newspaper’s resolve to defend the piece crumbled when journalists within the newspaper began an internal revolt against the article and the section that produced it.

This was compounded by a sense of panic that gripped the newspaper, as declines in readership and advertising accelerated markedly after the scandals. Fearing for the Asahi’s survival, many reporters chose to sacrifice investigative journalism as a means to mollify detractors, say media scholars and some Asahi journalists, including Yorimitsu.

The Asahi’s official line is that the story was too flawed to defend. The paper’s new president, Masataka Watanabe, continues to talk about the importance of investigative journalism, and some current and former Asahi journalists say investigative reporting will make a comeback.

However, scholars and former section reporters say the setback was too severe. They say the Asahi’s decision to punish its own journalists will discourage others from taking the same risks inherent in investigative reporting. Worse, they said the Asahi seemed to lapse back into the old, access-driven ways of Japan’s mainstream journalism. “The Asahiretreated from its experiment in risky, high-quality journalism, back into the safety of the press clubs,” said Tatsuro Hanada, a professor of journalism at Waseda University in Tokyo. Hanada was so dismayed by the Asahi’s retreat that he established Japan’s first university-based center for investigative journalism at Waseda this year. “It makes me think that the days of Japan’s huge national newspapers may be numbered.”

 

Martin Fackler is a Research Fellow at the Rebuild Japan Initiative Foundation, a Tokyo-based think tank. Prior to joining RJIF in 2015, he worked for two decades as a correspondent in Asia, including as Tokyo bureau chief for The New York Times from 2009 to 2015.

By Jackie Spinner, CJR

Editor's Note:

This article first ran on October 6, 2016 on the Columbia Journalism Review's website.

After five mystifying (and let’s be honest, pretty wretched) years under the ownership of wannabe journalism mogul and investor Michael Ferro, the city’s No. 2 newspaper signaled a fresh start and a new direction late last month with the promotion of two award-winning investigative journalists to top spots in the newsroom. 

Chris Fusco was named managing editor, a position that had been vacant since Craig Newman was dismissed in August 2015. Steve Warmbir, former assistant managing editor for metro news, was named director of digital and editorial innovation, a new post created to focus on growing the paper’s digital brand and overseeing its social media strategy. 

“I’ve got two of the best people from a journalism standpoint in really key positions,” says Jim Kirk, Sun-Times publisher and editor in chief. 

Both Fusco and Warmbir are Chicago area natives whose careers are deeply rooted in investigative reporting. Fusco, along with Tim Novak and Carol Marin, won a prestigious George Polk Award for Local Reporting last year for an investigation of a 10-year-old homicide caseinvolving a nephew of former Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. In 2004, Warmbir and Novak exposed a corrupt program that used private trucks for city work. The scandal ensnared some of the city’s top officials and led to a sweeping federal investigation.

The Sun-Times is the younger of Chicago’s two dailies, a fast, scrappy paper that has relished its role as the underdog, with a smaller staff and fewer resources than the Chicago Tribune. If the Tribune is the choir boy with his shirt neatly tucked in, the Sun-Times is the little rascal with his hair sticking straight up. 

In recent years, both papers have felt the strain of an outdated business model that has walloped the newspaper industry, forcing them to cut staff while trying to grow their digital presence. The company that owned the Sun-Times filed for bankruptcy protection in 2009, the start of a series of ups and downs that defined the paper for the next few years. Later that same year, Chicago financier James C. Tyree and a team of investors bought the paper. After Tyree died suddenly in March 2011, the Sun-Times was sold again, this time to Chicago investment group Wrapports, which supplied the paper with an infusion of cash but little else. The Sun-Times website became a running joke around town. 

The paper is still owned by Wrapports, of which Ferro is a majority owner. Ferro put his shares of Sun-Times stock in a trust when he made a surprise move earlier this year to buy a majority stake in Tribune Publishing, now Tronc, which owns the Chicago Tribune. The effect was immediate for the Sun-Times. The editorial board began to “follow its conscience” again and not Ferro’s, one former employee told me. Reporters reclaimed their beats and focused once again on the core of what has always been the heart of the Sun-Times: city government, Chicago sports, and watchdog reporting.  

The choice to promote two investigative reporters was purposefulKirk says, and reflects where he wants the Sun-Times to focus. “This news organization has had a long history of great investigative work,” he says, noting that this kind of watchdog reporting is what “our audience wants from us and expects from us.”

Fusco, who has been at the Sun-Times for 16 years, says investigative reporting will be the bedrock of the paper’s coverage going forward. “We can apply what we’ve learned filing FOIA and going through court records and unearthing files to the kind of things we do in our everyday reporting,” he says. “This is the kind of paper where everybody is an investigative reporter. We want to continue that tradition.”

Abdon M. Pallasch, a former Sun-Times political reporter, says Fusco is well thought of in the newsroom. “Everyone respects his work ethic,” says Pallasch, who left the paper four years ago and is now director of public affairs for the Cook County Sheriff. “I think he’s a calm, level-headed voice people enjoy working with.”

Fusco and Kirk pointed to a story the paper published this week as an example of the kind of journalism that the Sun-Times wants to make its signature. Veteran reporter Frank Main wrote a gripping account of a public suicide in Chicago that he witnessed, taking readers along as he tracked down the woman’s mother and tried to figure out why she had jumped from a downtown building.

The piece, with an accompanying editor’s note explaining why the paper decided to print the name of a 44-year-old Chicago woman who committed suicide and why Main wrote the story in the first-person, was a richly-reported account not only of one woman’s life of recovery from drug addiction and her estrangement from her family but also of its public ending, which impacted everyone who witnessed it.

“We want to do deeper, more powerful stories that can engage an audience,” Kirk says. “That story was it.”

Deborah Douglas, a former Sun-Times editorial board member and columnist, called Fusco and Warmbir experienced journalists who care deeply about the city and their craft.” But the appointment of two white men to top jobs, along with the paper’s recent hire of veteran Daily Southtown columnist Phil Kadner, who is also white, raises questions about the Sun-Times’ commitment to diversity.

“The Sun-Times over the years has lost a lot of diverse voices,” says Douglas, now a lecturer at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.  Such voices are “critical in telling the stories that they need to  tell in the region. I would hope that they have a commitment to truly reflecting Chicago.”

To that end, the Sun-Times also announced last week that veteran urban affairs reporter Maudlyne Ihejirika will shift into a new role writing about  the city’s Hispanic and African-American communities.

Kirk tells me that the Sun-Times will be a smaller player, more focused on local news. “We believe we are the city’s paper,” he says. “We are focused on those beats that are important to us. We aren’t going to be all things to all people.”

His words were another indication that the Sun-Times has moved beyond Ferro, who wanted the paper to go big, even as it was reducing staff. When we talked last week, Kirk was careful not to mention Ferro by name.

“I bet you’re having fun again,” I told Kirk. “Can I say that?”

He laughed.

“Yes, I am. It’s refreshing. Morale is up. Everyone is working toward the same thing.”

By Philip Eil, CJR

Editor's Note:

This article first ran on September 28, 2016 on the Columbia Journalism Review's website.

I filed my first Freedom of Information Act request on February 1, 2012. I was 26 years old, and chasing a story about my father’s med-school classmate, Dr. Paul Volkman, who had been convicted of a massive prescription drug dealing scheme the previous year. The aim of the request was simple: I wanted to see the evidence the jury saw during Volkman’s eight-week trial in Cincinnati for a book I’m writing about the case. But everyone I asked—the US district court clerk, the appellate court clerk, the prosecutor, and the judge who presided over the case—declined to give me the documents. It was time to make an official request to the Department of Justice.

To make a very long story short, in March of 2015, that FOIA request turned into my first FOIA lawsuit. And, earlier this month, I received my first FOIA judgment, which, I’m happy to report, is also my first FOIA-lawsuit victory. In a 17-page decision, US District Court Judge Jack McConnell cited Serial and Making A Murderer, wrote “Public scrutiny of judicial proceedings produces a myriad of social benefits,” and ordered the Drug Enforcement Administration to fork over the requested documents within 60 days.

It took more than four and half years to receive that judgment. And, during that time I began joking that I had attended “FOIA University.” Today, the prospect of postgraduate study looms; if the government appeals, it could extend this ordeal by months, if not years. But, with Judge McConnell’s decision in hand, I’d like to share a few of the things I’ve learned.  What follows is the cheat-sheet I wish someone had handed me five years ago.

1. Know your rights. Everyone knows about the Bill of Rights. But people have rights under the Freedom of Information Act, too—and journalists have an obligation to learn them.

Consider a few things I was surprised to learn during my FOIA adventure. One, anyone in the world can file a FOIA request; there is no US Citizenship requirement. Two, all requesters are legally entitled to an estimated completion date. (See the second-to-last paragraph of this DOJ memo.) Three, journalists are entitled to special fee-waiver privileges under FOIA. Four, requesters can file a second FOIA request for the processing notes from a previous FOIA request. In my case, “FOIAing my FOIA” yielded some interesting, if depressing, behind-the-scenes info. One released email showed that, at one point, my request was forwarded to the wrong DEA field office, where it was accidentally deleted.

2. The world of FOIA. Everyone who files a FOIA enters a vibrant and endearingly nerdy subculture. There are FOIA newslettersFOIA meet-upsFOIA comedy shows, and FOIA awards. There are FOIA-friendly organizations, like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press, and the National Security Archive. And there are FOIA folk heroes, like Vice’s Jason Leopold, and Brandon Smith, the Chicago-based freelancer who turned the city upside-down with two public records requests.

In short, there are lots of people with your same mix of curiosity, gallows humor, and righteous anger. And you can meet them by following the #FOIA hashtag on Twitter.

— Jason Leopold (@JasonLeopold) August 13, 2016

3. The media’s FOIA blind spot. You would think that reporters and editors care more about FOIA than anyone else. And many do. (See previous item.) But as my “FOIA nightmare” dragged on, I realized that many are uninterested, or unwilling, to cover the bleak reality of records requesting .

One editor at a national outlet told me, “Unfortunately, I think the FOIA stuff is a little inside media baseball for our site.” A national-outlet reporter said, “It’s an interesting case, but we wouldn’t normally cover FOIA litigation.” Another national-outlet reporter told me, “our lawyer does think it’s an important, interesting example of government transparency issues” but coverage “doesn’t quite work for us.” Another told me, “we’ve all got FOIA horror stories to share…what’s so special about yours?” Many reporters simply never responded to my emails.

These rejections compelled me to write an op-ed reminding journalists that “We are the transparency police. And if we don’t fight for this stuff, nobody will.” Here, I’ll simply urge reporters and editors to ask yourself, “What would I do if a reporter approached me with a stonewalling story?” And, “What kind of support would I want from reporters if I were being stonewalled on a major story?” I know you’re all busy—that was another reason reporters declined to write about my case—but take a minute to sincerely think about your answer.

I’ll also say this: it wasn’t until I was stonewalled by the government and ignored by fellow journalists that I understood the activists’ axiom, “Silence is compliance.” Silence about FOIA cases almost always benefits the agencies withholding documents. So when you ignore a story about bad FOIA behavior, you’re not being neutral; you’re helping the government keep taxpayers in the dark.

Editors: sometimes there isn't a sexy ending or doc-dump or news-hook to a transparency-failure story. Which is exactly the point. #FOIA

— Philip Eil (@phileil) August 6, 2015

Definitely going as a Sexy FOIA Request for Halloween.

— Lindsay Goldwert (@lindsaygoldwert) September 29, 2015

 

4. FOIA is money. FOIA fights aren’t just about documents, they’re also about money. There are few simple reasons for this.

First, FOIA battles gobble up a reporter’s precious time and labor. And sometimes the process involves actual payments, like the bogus $154 “review fee” I paid to an agency that held my request for nine months before transferring it to the DEA.  I haven’t sat down and calculated the total financial loss from my significant outlay of time calling FOIA offices, filing formal complaints with the “FOIA Ombudsman,” writing letters to Congress, preparing my lawsuit, and helping my lawyers craft legal arguments, but I know this: it was all time I could have spent pitching and writing other stories.

Second, FOIA fights often require legal representation (more on that in a moment), and lawyers cost money. Even if you receive pro bonorepresentation, like I did—shout out to the Rhode Island ACLU and Neal McNamara and Jessica Jewell, from the Providence office of Nixon/Peabody—it’s because a firm has consciously decided to donate its highly-billable time and labor to your cause.

Third, as Jason Leopold explained in congressional testimony in 2015, news is a perishable commodity. “Information about a candidate is less newsworthy after the election is over, and information about a war is less newsworthy after the conflict is over,” he said. Quite simply, delays diminish the value of documents being sought. 

The lesson here? You should be clear-eyed about the financial effects of FOIA battles before you begin. And you should also be aware that, generally speaking, these effects are not equally distributed. Freelancers and news organizations are much more financially vulnerable than federal agencies with virtually unlimited time, money, and legal resources. Plan accordingly.

Just filing a public records request with #Alabama Department of Corrections will cost you $25 https://t.co/W3ANMVZHAy #FOIA

— MuckRock (@MuckRock) September 15, 2016

 

5. Prepare to sue. It’s not a coincidence that many of the biggest FOIA scoops, from news of the Obama administration’s behind-the-scenes lobbying against FOIA reform to revelations about Edward Snowden’s pre-whistleblowing activities, are the fruits of litigation. FOIA denials are at an all-time high, and so, too, are FOIA lawsuits. As Associated Press General Counsel Karen Kaiser said in 2015 Senate testimony, “The reflex of most agencies is to withhold information, not to release, and often there is no recourse for a requester other than pursuing costly litigation.”

So, if you’re filing a FOIA, and you actually care about getting results, start thinking about the eventual lawsuit. Talk to your local ACLU. Read the RCFP’s how-to guide to FOIA litigation. Ask your editor if you have a legal budget. Whatever you do, don’t think of litigation as a far-off, slim-chance possibility. Think of it as a likely step to getting the documents you’re requesting.

— Jason Leopold (@JasonLeopold) September 17, 2016

6. Final words of inspiration. I’ve read a lot about FOIA by now, fromLBJ’s signing statement from July 4, 1966, to President Obama’s FOIA memo from his first day in office, to the House Oversight Committee’s “FOIA Is Broken” report from January (in which I’m featured), to MuckRock’s FOIA-unlocked complaints from the CIA cafeteria. But few passages have inspired me like one I found in Jon Weiner’s account of his 14-year FOIA-battle over the release of John Lennon’s FBI file.

In the introduction to Gimme Some Truth: The John Lennon FBI Files, Weiner writes, “The basic issue here was not simply John Lennon”: 

The basic issue was that government officials everywhere like secrecy. By keeping the public from learning what they have done, they hope to avoid criticism, hinder the opposition, and maintain power over citizens and their elected representatives. Classified files and official secrets lie at the heart of the modern government bureaucracy and permit the undemocratic use of power to go unrecognized and unchallenged by citizens.
 

Democracy, however, is not powerless before this practice. In the fight against government secrecy, America has led the world. In 1966 Congress passed the FOIA, which requires that officials make public the information in their files to “any person” who requests it, unless it falls into a small number of exempted categories, including “national security.” The act was substantially expanded in 1974 in the wake of revelations of White House abuse of power during the Watergate scandal. The FOIA, in effect, created a notable challenge to the history of government secrecy; it provided a set of rules and procedures, officials and offices dedicated not to the collection and maintenance of secrets but rather to their release to the public. Journalists, scholars and activists, have used the FOIA to scrutinize the operations of government agencies and expose official misconduct and lying, including the FBI’s illegal efforts to harass, intimidate, disrupt, and otherwise interfere with lawful political actions. The John Lennon FBI files provide an example.

Now get out there and request some documents.

By Carlett Spike, CJR

Editor's Note:

This article first ran on September 6, 2016 on the Columbia Journalism Review's website.

When Gannett announced in July that investigative-reporting legend Chris Davis would be joining its team, it was a shock to the industry. In recent years, Gannett had claimed an interest in investing in ambitious reporting after suffering major hits in circulation rates, but among journalists, its persistent reputation was as a corporate cost cutter. Hiring an editor of Davis’s caliber sends a different message.

Two pieces Davis edited for the Tampa Bay Times in the past year—“Insane. Invisible. In danger,” and “Failure Factories,”—won Pulitzer Prizes. At the Times, he also edited a 2014 Pulitzer winner. While at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, another piece he edited in 2010 won a Pulitzer, and two others he worked on in 2008 and 2010 were finalists.

What could Davis, who in August became vice president of investigative journalism at the USA Today Network—the new umbrella name for Gannett-owned papers—possibly gain from the media mega-giant? Davis spoke to CJR about why he took the job, his plans to beef up Gannett’s investigative work, and what makes for a Pulitzer-worthy investigative reporting project. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

What does your typical day look like?

It’s a little hard to judge at this point because nothing much has been typical. I’ve been spending this first month trying to get a sense of how Gannett does business. When you’re talking about 100-plus papers, getting to know what’s going on and the people can take time. I’ve spent a lot of time talking to people around the country about the stories they are working on and how they are approaching them—so a lot of meetings, and various conversations about journalism.

Can you further explain your role as vice president of investigations, and can you talk about why this role is important to you?

The idea behind this job was to have someone to look at the great work that is going on and try to elevate it even further. Joanne Lipman [Gannett’s chief content officer], who hired me, was telling me that Gannett has so many people working on good stories, but some of their stories weren’t lifting to their true potential. So they wanted someone to really focus on that kind of in-depth reporting, to corral the resources that we have, and to organize big reporting efforts across the country. The reason I took the job was because of the unique challenge and the unique opportunity here. We have so many local papers around the country, with boots on the ground and the ability to do a breadth of reporting that most places don’t have. 

What were your initial talks with Gannett like when they came to you with this position? What ultimately sold you?

I got a call from one of Joanne’s folks, and he described the job and made a pretty good pitch. But early on I was very happy at the Tampa Bay Times, so I wasn’t in a big hurry to leave. In the end, the more I talked to people [over two months] in the company and outside the company about what seemed to be happening at Gannett, with this emphasis on investigative reporting and the opportunity to use a huge network to do investigations, I got more and more intrigued. That led to more conversations, and here I am. The idea of getting in on the ground floor of something really exciting and really unique was the draw for me.

What do you think this new position says about Gannett’s journalistic ambitions now and in the future, especially as the company continues to refine its strategy?

To me, it’s a clear signal that the editors here are putting journalism first, particularly investigative journalism. They could have hired all sorts of people, but they wanted someone who could come in and really drive the most important kind of journalism, which is watchdog and investigative work. I think it shows a clear commitment, and it was one of the reasons I was intrigued at the outset. They want someone who is exclusively focused on investigative work to be in a top-level position. I think that says a lot.

What are some of the logistical aspects of the job—how many journalists are you overseeing, where are you based, and how do you stay connected with the people you supervise?

I’m based in Tysons Corner, which is Gannett’s corporate office right outside of DC. I oversee the USA Today I-team [Investigative team] of about 10 journalists and work directly with their editor, John Kelly. Our team is dispersed across the country and we have over 100 newspapers, so I am also working with the editors of the papers to identify the most high-impact stories they are working on and what resources they may need.

To keep in contact, it’s phone calls and email, obviously. I am in the process now of creating a system to pitch big investigations that the Gannett network will get involved in. Also, there will be some sort of discussion groups or trainings that we will do by Google Hangouts or a webinar set-up, but nothing is officially in place.  

How directly involved are you with local investigations undertaken by individual papers?  

There will certainly be many investigations that I never see. I can’t look at everything that is published in every paper, nor should I, but the way I have been talking to other editors about it is that I am a resource to them for advice or whatever help I can give. I will get more involved in more ambitious stories, by either one paper or a group of papers that are part of the network. A good example is the story the Indianapolis Star broke on the USA gymnastics policies that were allowing coaches to abuse athletes for years. The story was fully reported before I was ever hired, but they asked me to take a look at this story and talk through some ideas. I helped by bringing in some other reporters from around the country to help the Indianapolis paper’s I-team broaden some of the reporting they were able to do. So that is how I think it will work with more high-profile stories. 

What are some of the pros and cons of having such a huge network of newsrooms?

If you look at some of the stories that were done by the network already, there have been some really good ones, but I think there are some lessons to be learned. One lesson is that it can be really difficult to have a whole lot of reporters involved in fact-finding or news-gathering. If you have 100 different reporters go out and get bits of information to seed into a central location, that has some drawbacks, because you are dealing with people who maybe don’t fully understand the story or some that have a lot more experience doing confrontational interviews than others. It ends up causing work because you have to go back and fill in the gaps that weren’t filled in from the start. It’s great to have resources and to expand the number of reporters working on something, but at some point it gets so big that it’s unwieldy. I think we have to really be cautious of going a mile wide and an inch deep. Just because we are set up as a wide network doesn’t mean we don’t want to go very deep on an investigative story.

Are there any particular topics that you think could really benefit from a collaborative approach?

I don’t have anything specifically in mind, but some of the projects the network has already done illustrate how effective it can be. They did some stories on the lack of tracking of abusive school teachers on a national level. So this is the kind of thing a network like ours can really bring to life, because these problems are all over the country. When there is this fractured regulatory system, it can be very difficult to piece together a picture of the problem because no one resource has it at their fingertips.

With the current state of journalism, including focus shifting away from investigative journalism in many newsrooms, how do you foresee working on big projects with newsrooms that do not have equal resources?

There is no formula for it, really. Different stories and different newspapers are going to have different needs. At the most basic level, we can provide data support, we can help with video, or social. We can also encourage papers around the country to run other papers’ work if it makes sense for people in their community. When we start talking about bigger efforts or papers that already have a strong history of investigative work, like  [the Indianapolis Star] or [The Arizona Republic], then we can provide higher levels of involvement to help them. That would be getting them reporters or certain editing expertise to push the story to the next level. One of the areas we want to improve upon is our storytelling within our investigative stories. A lot of the past stories are data-driven stories and that’s great, but sometimes they are not as compelling because they lack in the storytelling department.

How will the changes you’ve seen in investigative journalism over the course of your career inform the projects you hope to take on?

The basics of investigative reporting are still the basics of investigative reporting, right? You have to be relentless, you have to ask tough questions, and you have to use records and data. That’s been true since I’ve been in investigative reporting for the past decade-plus. There are certainly more tools and data tricks now. I just want to make sure we are among the leaders in our abilities to use those tools and to keep up with all the different things that are emerging. Beyond that, I also think we want to be a leader in Web development, particularly for our big projects, to make them really pop on the Web.

What drives your passion for investigative journalism?

Righting wrongs and uncovering bad guys. When the government or the police or whatever powerful institution in charge are not uncovering the truth, we have the ability and obligation to dig into it and show what’s going wrong. That is it at its core. I also have come to believe that investigative journalism and in-depth reporting are the best chances newspapers have of weathering the current of woes that are upon us in this industry. I don’t think commodity news and the traditional, basic, breaking, quick-turn news is going to be where we make our bones. 

What about beliefs that audiences don’t have the attention span or desire to read longer pieces?

I think that has been proven wrong, at least from what I’ve read and what I’ve experienced. Anything that’s badly written or badly done, doesn’t matter if it’s long or short, people are not going to read it. If you have a compelling story and you’re revealing information that people are interested in that they didn’t know before, then they’ll read it. When I was at the Tampa Bay Times and the Sarasota Herald Tribune, the stories that got the most interest and clicks online were investigative works that are done well, narrative that is done well, and there was Katy Perry. The idea that people do not want to read long stories, I don’t think that’s right. They don’t want to read dull stories. But if you give them compelling work, they’ll read it.

Do you have a standard approach for finding investigative stories? When do you know you have all the necessary pieces to publish your findings?

I could probably talk about this for 30 minutes, but I’ll just give you some basic thoughts. I think some of the key aspects of good investigative work is it has to be new; people with compelling stories have to have been harmed; and there has to be somebody to hold accountable. If so, then it is probably worth pursuing.

A couple of great editors use the phrase “the story is done when it’s done,” and I believe in that. That being said, it’s easier to come at this when a story is not ready then when it is. The thing that I see a lot of folks do is pull up short. They prove the premise that they set out to prove, they do the data work, or they uncover evidence of the problem, and then they publish the story. It makes sense intellectually, but if you stop at just proving the premise and you don’t continue to report for story and find a compelling narrative, then it is not going to be as good of a read.

What do you miss about working in a typical newsroom and being closer to your reporters?

I’ll always miss Tampa because I had such a great team there and such great editors. It’s probably too soon to really know. One thing that comes to mind is the feel of working nationally. If I’m working with the Naples Daily News or the Indianapolis Star on a story, I don’t live in these places, so for me there isn’t a direct community relationship because I’m working with newspapers all over.

What do you read? Where do you get ideas?

Well, I read newspapers. I don’t have any that I read every day. Sometimes I go through periods where I cycle through magazines, and I’ll get a subscription for a while to Wired and then I’ll switch off and read the Times. Most of the reading I do is of daily journalism. I don’t get to read books nearly as much as I would like to, but I am a Game of Thronesjunkie and love those kinds of books.

Most of the ideas for projects come from beat reporters. I always encourage my investigative reporters to interact with beat reporters. Sometimes I would do formal meetings where I would sit down and go over story lists with reporters, but even just reading your own paper and seeing what reporters are working on. The two stories from the Tampa Bay Times that won the Pulitzer last year came from beat reporters. One was a story about mental hospitals that was an inquiry that began through a single story about one guy who had been seemingly unfairly kept in a mental hospital for many, many, many years. That prompted a deeper look at how our system was working there and led to “Insane. Invisible. In danger.”  

By Jackie Spinner, CJR

Editor's Note:

This article first ran on August 16, 2016 on the Columbia Journalism Review's website.

This summer, the Illinois Legislature stiffened the penalties that can be imposed on public bodies that refuse to comply with the state’s Freedom of Information Act. HB 4715, part of a two-bill package known as “Molly’s Law,” allows courts to fine agencies up to $1,000 for every day that they delay in turning over documents after a court ruling. The penalty would be in addition to existing fines, which range from $2,500 to $5,000.

The law, passed in response to a family’s fight for documents related to their daughter’s death, was touted by politicians as strengthening the state’s FOIA laws. Certainly stiffer penalties would seem to do that by sending the message to public bodies that not complying with FOIA could be costly. And the new law also establishes a presumption that a public body is wilfully violating the law if it ignores a binding opinion from the state’s attorney general to release documents. 

But in conversations with a handful of journalists and advocates who follow FOIA law closely, I heard mostly skepticism that the new law, which goes into effect next January, will do much. The responses highlighted a general frustration with how easily public bodies in Illinois can—and do—ignore requests for public documents, not just from journalists but also from citizens.

Perhaps the biggest question about the new law was summed up by Tom English, interim editor at the Southern Illinoisan, who asked: “Will anyone end up having to pay?” Under existing law, which already allows for civil penalties when public bodies “willfully and intentionally” violate the state FOIA, fines are rare. The state attorney general’s office, which issues FOIA opinions, mediates disputes, and trains the state’s public FOIA officers, does not keep records on when state courts fine public agencies, said spokeswoman Annie Thompson. But it doesn’t happen often. (In one such instance in 2012, an Illinois Appellate Court imposed a $2,500 penalty, the minimum, on the Rockford Public School District for violating the law when it denied a request from the Rock River Timesnewspaper for a letter related to a principal’s employment.)

“The civil provision has been wholly ineffective at improving FOIA compliance,” says Matt Topic, a Chicago lawyer who has represented journalists with their FOIA court battles, including the one that forced the Chicago police to release the Laquan McDonald shooting video last year. “The new penalties are a step in the right direction, but I doubt things will improve substantially without significantly stronger penalties.”

When the new legislation was first introduced, it called for a doubling of the baseline penalty for failure to produce documents, up to a maximum of $10,000, even before the $1,000-per-day fine. But the Illinois Senate struck that part of the proposal. A spokesman for Rep. Terri Bryant, the Southern Illinois lawmaker who introduced the bill, said legislators felt that such a penalty would be too harsh while the state is grappling with a budget crisis—though of course, making the fine hit harder would have been the point of raising it in the first place. 

Several of the reporters I talked to, however, were uncomfortable with the basic approach of fining government agencies for noncompliance—because it is taxpayers footing the bill for an official’s refusal to disclose documents that the taxpayers are supposed to have a right to see in the first place.

“Fining them is stupid,” said Jake Griffin, assistant managing editor for watchdog reporting at the Daily Herald in suburban Chicago. He recalled a case in which the attorney general ordered a local police department to release squad-car footage sought by the paper. If the department had refused to do so and the Herald sought penalties under the law, “taxpayers would have to pay for it,” he said. 

Beth Hundsdorfer, a reporter at the Belleville News-Democrat in Southern Illinois also recalled a wait for documents—nearly a year, after the attorney general ordered the Illinois Workers’ Compensation Commission to turn over nerve conduction velocity tests from guards at a correctional center.

The paper eventually went to court, at its expense, to fight for the records. “The state hired a Chicago firm to defend their stance,” Hundsdorfer said. “So we, as in taxpayers, were paying for that, too.” In the end, the paper won and got the records

“If this new law offers a disincentive to stall, I think it’s probably a good thing,” she said. “But there are a lot of small, poor municipalities, that simply ignore FOIA requests. I don’t know how I would feel about socking a village that doesn’t have money to fill potholes in the street with a fine for not answering a FOIA. And, as a journalist, what happens to the money? It’s taxpayer money. I don’t want it. So, it’s interesting and definitely an incentive for open records release, but, as with all things, the devil is in the details.”

In the cases mentioned above, the Daily Herald and the News-Democratreceived binding opinions from the attorney general’s Public Access Bureau, meaning the public agencies were required to comply. That forum is designed to provide a less costly alternative than the court system to settling disputes. In 2015, the bureau received more than 4,700 requests for assistance with records requests from members of the public and the media; it released more than 1,200 binding and non-binding determinations. (The majority are non-binding).

One provision in the new law sets out guidelines for how public agencies can be penalized for failing to abide by an attorney general’s binding opinion. If the agency does not comply with or appeal the decision within 35 days, there is now a “rebuttable presumption” of a willful violation, triggering a potential penalty. 

But even in that case, a records requester has to file an action in court—and the amount of the fine ultimately depends in part on the discretion of a judge. 

“This is the point and the rub,” said Maryam Judar, executive director of the Citizen Advocacy Center, a nonprofit group focused on government accountability. “There always has to be a lawsuit.”

By Deron Lee, CJR

Editor's Note:

This article first ran on August 15, 2016 on the Columbia Journalism Review's website.

Not long after taking over as editor of the Des Moines Register in 2014, Amalie Nash told CJR that she was determined to uphold the paper’s “longstanding tradition of standing up for public records.”

So now, as she prepares to leave the Register after being promoted to the new position of West Region executive editor for Gannett, it’s fitting that the paper has just won a meaningful battle on the open-records front. The state of Iowa announced last week that it would no longer allow companies to unilaterally redact information from the public copies of bids for government contracts. The move was the result of a 2015 story by Register reporter Jason Clayworth that first revealed the practice, and a subsequent complaint Clayworth filed with the Iowa Public Information Board.

It’s the latest in a series of open-records victories during Nash’s tenure, during which the paper has filed numerous complaints with the Public Information Board and multiple lawsuits to gain access to public records. But Nash is the first to admit that the paper has lost some battles in the fight for transparency too, and even the wins can amount to just holding the line.

“I would love to say we’ve made a lot of progress,” Nash says. “We certainly have in many cases. … We continue to claw and claw. Unfortunately, it does continue to be more of a defensive battle.”

Indeed, the fight over better access to bids for state contracts was a defensive one. According to Clayworth, it was only in recent years that the state started to allow companies to choose what to redact from public view in their bids.

In the process of reporting on the state’s newly privatized Medicaid system, Clayworth sought records of public bids and discovered that would-be contractors were being allowed to redact whole pages and sections of documents. Redaction is permitted to protect trade secrets, but the missing material included company mission statements, executive summaries, even the names of executives.

“That Medicaid plan was highly controversial,” he says. “For there not to be complete transparency in the process is ridiculous.”

Last year, after Clayworth reported on the redacted bids and asked for an advisory opinion from the Iowa Public Information Board to resolve the issue, the administration of Gov. Terry Branstad said that it was reevaluating the policy. Last week, Branstad’s office announced that companies bidding on state contracts will no longer be allowed to unilaterally choose what to redact from public view; now, they will have to individually request any redactions they feel are needed to protect trade secrets, and they must cite specific provisions in law to justify each one. Fewer redactions should lead to stronger oversight by the media and the public of the bidding process.

In his effort to get the state to shift course, Clayworth had at least two factors working in his favor. One was the existence of the public information board, an agency that was created by the legislature in 2012 and charged with resolving open-records disputes out of court. Iowa is one of just a few states in which such a board has enforcement powers.

Another motivating factor for Clayworth was the knowledge that Nash, and the Register’s legal team if necessary, would have his back.

Clayworth, who has been at the paper for 18 years, says Nash brought a more aggressive approach to transparency issues, noting that she spearheaded two open-records lawsuits soon after arriving in 2014.

“We hadn’t filed a lawsuit for a number of years before she got here,” he says. “I don’t believe those would have been filed without her.”

Herb Strentz, a longtime transparency advocate and former director of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, is more measured in his praise. Strentz has been critical of the Register under the Gannett regime, arguing that the paper has never fully regained the commitment to open government that it had under the longtime leadership of the Cowles family, which owned the paper until 1985.

But, he says, “Happily, Amalie has picked up some of that stuff that has gone by the wayside.” Strentz said he sees reason to hope “that Amalie has gotten the paper back on track.”

One of the 2014 lawsuits spearheaded by Nash, for a story also reported by Clayworth, ended in a settlement in which the state released videos and other records related to the death of an inmate in a Taser incident. The Register has also been successful in efforts to open up a hearing in a high-profile sex-abuse case and access meeting records for a nonprofit casino facing an IRS audit.

But not all the transparency fights have led to wins. The second 2014 lawsuit, in which the paper filed suit against the public information board in seeking video footage of alleged abuse at a juvenile home, ended in a court ruling against the Register.

And then there are the ongoing, multi-front struggles that seem to have no end in sight. Nash says she is concerned about access to police investigation records, which have become increasingly inaccessible in recent years as some Iowa law enforcement agencies rely on a narrow reading of the law. Access to investigative records will be the subject of the Register’s third annual transparency roundtable, in September.

“If you look at what’s going on with policing in our nation, the idea that these law enforcement agencies don’t have to turn over anything is just wrong,” Nash says.

The issue has come to the fore in the case of an accidental police shooting in Burlington, Iowa, for which the Burlington Hawk Eye is seeking accessto body-cam video. The Register is not directly involved in the case, butRegister attorney Michael Giudicessi has been representing the Hawk Eye, and Nash and Clayworth have followed the case closely. The same interpretation of the law that police are using to bottle up body-cam footage in Burlington, they say, is also frustrating the Register’s attempt to gain access to investigative files for other, lower-profile stories—even blocking access to such basic information as case-file numbers.

The Register has lobbied for a legislative fix that would open up investigative records to public view, Nash says, but that effort has been blocked in the statehouse so far, and it remains unclear whether the Burlington case, set to be heard in October, will help resolve the issue.

As she prepares to leave the Register, Nash says she plans to make transparency issues a priority in her new role as well. But she knows her new job will probably not give her the opportunity to take such an active part in open-records fights.

“I will miss that aspect of it,” she says. “It’s one of the things that keep me most motivated. I will miss the day-to-day decision-making.”

For the time being, with her start date and even her new location not yet set, she is still at the Register, still serving as vice president of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council. And even if the push for public records often remains an uphill battle, Clayworth says there’s no question that Nash has revitalized a culture of fighting for transparency at the Register.

“From my perspective, that’s her legacy.”

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