Show Your Work

If there's one thing that makes me go from zero to apoplectic in 2.5 seconds, it's the ongoing insistence that journalism is dead or dying, that no one does serious investigative work anymore, and that it doesn't matter.

I have long and generally profane rants that launch on automatic at such statements. In the interest of preserving my stomach lining, I've tried to avoid them of late. One must be on social media, but one must also learn to "walk away, walk away..." Yet I seem to have gotten into several of these discussions this week, because once again we're named as "worst job in America." As if that hasn't been happening for decades. It's hard work, and enormously underappreciated. So we all just snicker ruefully at that damn list and go back to our desks.

This time, I'm going to show our work. Here is some of the "useless, unnecessary" journalism of the past year, from that "dying" newspaper industry:

• The Charlotte Observer conducted an investigation of the failings of medical examiners to effectively investigate deaths in North Carolina, which lead to uncertainties for grieving families, faulty insurance decisions, and in some cases, unsolved homicides. It followed up on an investigation of one coroner in particular, then discovered that the careless work was a pattern widespread in the state.

• The Boston Globe exposed a poorly-regulated and profit-driven housing system that left thousands of college students in Boston living in unsafe, even deadly conditions. Scofflaw landlords rented apartments that didn't come close to meeting safety standards, and one student died trapped in an illegal attic apartment when a fire broke out.

• The Miami Herald dug into tens of thousands of public records, lawsuits and hundreds of interviews over two years to investigate the failures of the child protective services division in Florida (not unlike the Belleville News-Democrat's "Lethal Lapses" investigation, which won the Robert F. Kennedy Award in 2007). The coverage spurred $50 million in new protective services, rewriting the state's laws and toughening requirements for the agency.

• The Wall Street Journal documented a significant cancer risk to women of a routine uterine fibroid treatment, which led to a change in the prescribed medical treatment, and won a Pulitzer for its "Medicare Unmasked" project compiling a database of Medicare payments to specific providers. Want to find out the top 200 billing names for Medicare in Illinois? Just enter it in the database. Quest Diagnostics comes first, in case you were wondering.

• The Rock Hill, S.C. Herald investigated the misdeeds of a university president, including huge raises granted outside legal channels and hiring her own husband. This led to the resignation of the Winthrop University president.

• The Baltimore Sun uncovered a pattern of teachers being physically attacked by students in Baltimore city schools. Sometimes they were the targets of violence, other times injured while physically breaking up fights between students. It began as a look at the district's rising worker's compensation costs, until they discovered the number of students suspended for physically attacking staff was triple the number of worker's comp claims. Some teachers reported having to break up fights three times a day or more, but were being discouraged from filing reports.

• The Modesto Bee and Merced Sun-Star in California investigated two areas of conflict surrounding services for the handicapped in a five-part series. They documented stores and restaurants that failed to follow the law, and also uncovered fabricated claims from some plaintiffs abusing the law.

• The Kansas City Star dug into the death of a college student following a DUI boating accident. In the process they uncovered a series of mistakes by the arresting officer and a cover-up by his superiors, spurring a reexamination of agency procedures by the state.

• The Post and Courier of Charlotte, S.C. examined a horrifying domestic violence rate of one death every twelve days, putting the state among the top ten for women murdered by men. The series spurred new proposals to increase domestic violence penalties and take guns away from convicted batterers (stalled in the legislature). The paper won the Pulitzer Prize on Monday for this series.

• The Sacramento Bee investigated the service records of area nursing homes and a practice of hiding the homes' full ownership to keep patients and families from assessing their true quality.

• The Los Angeles Times has chronicled the four-year California drought with dozens of stories compiled on its site, detailing every aspect of the long-running drought and the historic water restrictions recently imposed by the state. They also were Pulitzer finalists for a minute-by-minute breaking coverage of a shooting spree online that "evolved into print coverage that delved into the impact of the tragedy," according to the Pulitzer committee.

• The Hilton Head Island Packet fought in court to unseal case files where local judges had bowed to rich and powerful developers and politicians to hide the cases from the public's eye.

• The Tulsa (Okla.) World investigated the botched execution of a death-row inmate, focusing not only on the execution, but on the crimes that led him to that room. It followed through the repercussions of the botched execution and started a national debate on the death penalty and the methods by which it is carried out.

• The Oregonian uncovered the prevalence of Mexican drug cartels in Oregon - yes, really - that were responsible for multiple deaths by bombs and execution-style murders. Reporter Les Zaitz conducted more than 250 interviews, including convicted traffickers and former DEA agents, continuing at the risk to his own life.

• McClatchy's Washington bureau uncovered a back-room dispute between Congress and the CIA of policies regarding torture of suspected terrorists, a "destructive standoff" during the investigation leading up to release of the controversial report.

• A coordinated effort among eight newspapers investigated a huge number of contractors on federal projects that broke the rules, costing taxpayers billions of dollars and costing workers benefits and protections. The newspapers involved in "Contract to Cheat" included the Raleigh News and Observer, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, the Charlotte Observer, the Columbia State, the Fresno Bee, the Kansas City Star, the McClatchy Washington Bureau and of course, the Belleville News-Democrat.

• As you probably know if you're in this area, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch won a Pulitzer for its photography during the Ferguson riots, including this photo below. If you were here, and you work in the business, you know what the reporters and photographers covering Ferguson went through. They were attacked, beaten, robbed, tear-gassed - and those are just the reporters I know personally.

Photo by Robert Cohen, St. Louis Post-Dispatch, Aug. 13, 2014

• At the risk of crowing about my own colleagues, the Belleville News-Democrat recently published a massive investigation of rape cases in southern Illinois. Some rape allegations were "cleared" by responding police within five minutes - barely time for the victim to say hello - and others dismissed for reasons like "victim uncooperative," which was a hell of a shock to the victim who reported it, endured the rape kit, agreed to testify and whose attacker had confessed. In fact, over the last eight years, 70 percent of rape cases never made it to a courtroom, even though 95 percent were able to identify their attackers. The investigation has spurred a state task force to reexamine how police and prosecutors approach sex crimes in Illinois.

• And our current heroes, the tiny seven-member newsroom of the Daily Breeze in Torrance, Calif. They conducted a six-month investigation of corruption at Centinela Valley Union High School, despite having their newsroom reduced from 14 in the past five years. (Also, only seven reporters for a 65,000-circulation paper? Holy crow. Even by newspaper journalism standards, that's insane.) The superintendent resigned and there is now a criminal investigation of widespread corruption in the school district.

This is just a sampling, drawn from the awards season of one year. It doesn't include the dogged resilience of newspaper reporters day after day for stories that don't win plaques and trophies. Reading this list fills me with pride; but not because I had a damn thing to do with it besides shoveling coal into the furnace every day along with the rest of us. I'm proud to be part of it in my own small way.

And I wanted, just once, for everyone else to see it. I might very well go full-metal reporter-rant on the next person who bitches about the so-called "mainstream media," about how we're useless and don't do anything important and newspapers are dead anyway. I am beyond apoplectic when people consider today's news to be only what someone else already posted on their goddamn Facebook feed. When I see people complaining about the news, and then backpedaling to say, "Well, it wasn't on CNN," I want to slap people. I'm not a very good politician.

Frankly, I don't know which pisses me off more: the people who have never worked in journalism and still think they know how it really works more than those of us in the trenches, or some disillusioned people in the industry who whine about our "dying" newspapers when they should damn well know better. Or they can get out. Go work in public relations, and good riddance.

We have problems. We lost the classified ad world to Craigslist, and we were slow to adapt to the internet. Are we underpaid? Oh, hell yes. We have one of the lowest-paying jobs in America that requires a college degree. And it hurts us, because we lose good people to other industries - not because they don't love the work, but because they simply can't afford to work at such a discount. These are issues that must be addressed. We were the canaries in the coal mine of the recession - when Circuit City went under, every newspaper in the nation lost an ad circular from its Sunday edition. That's the part nobody thinks about. And we will be the last to recover.

But if someone asked me what I do for a living, I could reply, "I work for a 24/7 news site. We provide local, regional, national and international news online in various formats, with a heavy emphasis on local and investigative news and features in text, graphics and video. More than 80 percent of adults in our coverage area read us, and those numbers are increasing by double-digit percentages every year. And we have a paper edition that is delivered to 50,000 locations every morning without fail."

That takes a long time to say, so I just say, "I'm a newspaper reporter." And I invariably get, "Aren't those dead?"

So read this list. And then consider how many other newspapers are doing work like this, investigating the things that cost jobs, dollars and lives in your own frigging town. Consider how many overworked, underpaid reporters are sitting at their desks on overtime pouring through ten thousand public documents to find the data on which they base their stories, only to be told that they literally don't exist. Because if it isn't on TV, it doesn't matter?

Think about that. And then think about what happens if there isn't a newspaper to unravel the ownership of the nursing home ducking its regulations, if nobody looks at the failures of a child protection agency to actually protect children, if nobody even asks if federal contractors are following the law when they take your tax dollars. Do you think CNN or some faraway news blogger gives a rat's ass about the layoffs in your kid's school district, or the proposed sales tax about to be enacted in your town?

Newspapers are not dead, dying, meaningless or invisible. Evolution always looks like death from the outside. We're just a little too busy doing the job to crow about it on late night.

But if we were gone, you wouldn't like the America you have left.

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