By Chris Ison University of Minnesota
Even to seasoned reporters, long-term investigative projects look like mountains. The long climb will bring breaking news stories and beat duties that distract them, impatient editors who divert them, and months of digging that might turn up little to justify the time and expense. Combined, an exciting idea can turn into a tough and discouraging slog.
For a college newspaper, multiply those problems by 10. Constant turnover. Inexperienced reporters who graduate or change beats after only months on the job. Short institutional memories.
But a recent long-term investigation by the Minnesota Daily, the campus newspaper at the University of Minnesota, illustrates that none of those obstacles are insurmountable. The Daily's success was rooted in the basic investigative principles that are emphasized repeatedly in the pages of "The IRE Journal" and "The Investigative Reporters Handbook," and taught at the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting.
The article, "U wrestling makes real estate big business", involved seven reporters, three editors and more than three years of handoffs and start-and-stop research. By the time the story was published on Dec. 10, one of the reporters had been graduated for nearly three years, another for a year. But the integrity of their original research was preserved in an Excel spreadsheet and detailed files and flow charts documenting scores of property transactions and associations between wrestlers, coaches and real estate companies. Their organization and collaboration paved the way for a smooth process of writing, editing and line-by-line fact checking.
And the day the story was published, the university began its own investigation into possible violations of NCAA rules involving property transactions among wrestlers and their coaches.
An inadvertent discovery
Brady Gervais was a senior journalism student and Daily editor in 2005 when she began working on a project about housing code enforcement in the university area. Three students had died in a house fire, and Gervais (then Brady Averill) wanted to find out if a promise to ramp up inspections had led to tougher enforcement.
She obtained the city of Minneapolis inspections data digitally, and then attended NICAR's bootcamp in Columbia, Mo., where she learned how to analyze it using Microsoft Access and Excel. Gervais was trying to track landlords with the largest numbers of violations. But along the way, she spotted a familiar name: J Robinson, the coach of the three-time national champion Gophers wrestling team.
Robinson had bought and sold millions of dollars worth of real estate in neighborhoods surrounding the university. On a hunch, Gervais obtained the wrestling team roster and began searching for property in their names, finding a number of them owned houses as well.
Gervais finished her original story - a three-part series that showed that many landlords continued to own property with numerous code violations despite the increased code enforcement. The story was a finalist for an IRE student award. But she didn't have time to focus on the wrestling angle before graduating in May 2006.
Enter Mark Remme, who like Gervais was looking for an idea for an honors project that he also could publish in the Daily. Gervais handed off a spreadsheet listing dozens of properties that appeared to have connections to wrestlers, coaches and affiliated companies.
"Getting that stuff from her showed me how an experienced reporter utilizes CAR," said Remme, a Daily sports reporter at the time. "I was able to take that and expand on it and see what was going on. I don't think I could have had what I ended up with if she hadn't given me that spreadsheet in the beginning."
Remme expanded the list of wrestlers and their addresses and ran them through the city and county property databases. The result was startling.
"It was a very large web that seemed awfully unique to anything I'd ever heard of in an athletic program," Remme said. "We were talking about coaches selling to wrestlers and former wrestlers, and former wrestlers that had connections to coaches."
Remme mapped out the properties, showing that they were bunched closely together in university neighborhoods. He created a flow chart showing property transactions between wrestlers and coaches, wrestlers living in homes owned by other wrestlers, and one assistant coach who rented to a wrestler. In two cases, wrestlers had purchased property from the head coach within months after graduating.
None of the information proved wrongdoing. But Remme knew it raised questions. National Collegiate Athletic Association rules prohibit athletes from receiving any special benefits from coaches or boosters. If any wrestlers had received sweetheart deals on property or rental agreements, it could be considered a violation.
But proving a benefit was difficult. Wrestlers wouldn't talk, and though Remme got an interview with Robinson, the coach would say little about the transactions. He did acknowledge, however, that he often talked to wrestlers about the financial benefits of owning property.
By the spring of 2008, Remme felt he was closing in on a publishable story. But he was set to graduate in May and begin a baseball writing internship in Boston. If the story were to be published, it would have to survive another handoff. Two other Daily reporters grabbed the story that summer, but with a small staff publishing a weekly print edition and updating the online edition, they made little progress.
Handoff No. 3
The Daily may be one of the few college newspapers with a team devoted to long-term projects. But usually those projects are two or three-week efforts. In fall semester 2009, Projects Editor Andy Mannix made a key decision, recognizing that getting the best stories often require making creative staffing changes. He promoted one of his reporters to a reporter/assistant projects editor position to give himself more time to take over the wrestling investigation.
The project had begun to languish, and Mannix spent weeks combing through the old files. He found he needed to do much of the reporting over to fully understand the public records involved and the relationships between the various players. He rebuilt the spreadsheet with property transactions.
Two key steps helped inspire him. First, he began using the Accurint database to look for more property transactions and associations between wrestlers, coaches and real estate companies. He found two or three dozen more homes owned by wrestlers, coaches and their associates that previous reporters hadn't found or that had been purchased more recently.
The second discovery was one of those small facts that Mannix knew might never fit in the puzzle but that was interesting enough to energize him to keep pushing. It was a civil court filing from 2000 in which head Coach Robinson had appealed the denial of a gun permit. Robinson said in the filing that he needed the gun because he dealt with large amounts of cash, and he had looked into renting an armored car to make two pickups a week at a university dormitory. (It was never clear what the armored car was for, though Robinson runs a number of sports camps that are believed to produce large amounts of revenue.)
Then Mannix got a break. He found a wrestler who was willing to talk about the house he had bought, and who acknowledged that Robinson had brought up the issue of buying real estate when he recruited him. An assistant coach who had also helped recruit him served as his real estate agent shortly after stepping down as coach. The information, while still falling short of proving a violation, provided a closer link between real estate purchases, coaches and the recruiting process.
While the mounting evidence continued to suggest a potential for NCAA violations, the Daily still couldn't prove there were special benefits. Wrestlers, coaches and Robinson have consistently denied that real estate was being used to recruit or reward wrestlers. That raised a question typical in many such projects: go with the story now and keep chasing it, or continue digging? The school calendar added pressure. The end of the semester and last edition of the paper were approaching. If they didn't publish by then, the story would sit for more than a month. Mannix was graduating and moving on to a new job at City Pages, a weekly newspaper in Minneapolis.
Mannix, along with colleagues Briana Bierschbach and Mike Mullen, hit the phones, tracking down NCAA compliance experts around the country and explaining what they'd found. The responses convinced them they had enough to warrant publication.
One compliance expert, who also was an assistant athletics director at another university, said the activity raised a red flag and that she would never allow her coaches to do it. A Minnesota wrestler who owned property said he wouldn't rent to wrestlers because of the potential for problems. And Minnesota's own athletics director acknowledged concern and vowed to investigate. The reporters were careful, Mannix said, to be completely accurate and precise about their findings during interviews to ensure that quotes wouldn't be used out of context.
The interviews made the Daily's decision to publish an easy one. The newspaper didn't have to characterize the findings or say that they raised questions about possible violations. The experts had done that for them.
They wrote several story drafts, and then began a fact-checking process that lasted several days - the same line-by-line process taught in "The Investigative Reporters Handbook." They projected the story on a large screen while a team of reporters and editors, including Editor-in-Chief Holly Miller and Managing Editor Alex Robinson, forced Mannix to account for every fact, date and spelling using original records. Reporter Robert Downs was enlisted to handle last-minute document searches, looking for incorporation papers and Uniform Commercial Code filings at the Minnesota Secretary of State's Office.
The spreadsheet, organized files with property records and carefully transcribed interviews were crucial to a smooth process, Robinson said.
"I wouldn't have run the story, I don't think, without a fact-checking process like the one we had," he said. "Because if we'd made a mistake on a story that important, it would have crippled our story and the Daily. So it not only helped me sleep, it helped us get the story in the paper."
The day the story was published, the university announced it was launching its own investigation into the property transactions. Other major media outlets in the Twin Cities - and some national media - picked up on the story. The university's investigation, and the Daily's, are ongoing.
Chris Ison is an associate professor at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication, an IRE member and former projects editor at the Star Tribune in Minneapolis.