When an obscure real estate developer bounced a $25 million check at a local bank in the spring of 2006, it was one of those stories that could easily have been deemed the “weird news” item of the day and dispatched with a front-page brief.
A projects reporter for the Asbury Park (N.J.) Press thought otherwise. He soon uncovered a massive, $400 million real estate ploy that, in hindsight, proved to be one of the bellwethers of the 2007 subprime house market collapse. Signatures on mortgages were forged, millions of dollars were illegally shuffled, and allegations of physical threats between multimillionaires were all uncovered through painstaking research.
Could it have been a dull real estate story? Sure. But it wasn’t. That topic became the most searched item on our Web site. Subsequent investigative stories in 2007 and 2008 about the subprime foreclosures in our area were consistent high-traffic generators on the Web, beating out fire and traffic accidents that traditionally drive most of the Web-based news.
The bottom line for these stories was relevance—the mantra for our four-member projects team that I have led since 1999. In the shifting sands of modern-day journalism, in which reporters and editors strive to stay current both on the Web and in print, project reporting at the Press has thrived in recent years. Gannett, which owns the Press, and Press management have strongly stated that investigative reporting is an important First Amendment mandate for us. It is also a niche no one else can fill. Bloggers can’t do it, and community Web sites don’t have the resources to do it well.
To put theory into practice, our project team operates like most others: We look for issues that affect our readership. But how do we do this efficiently and effectively? How do we merge the benefits of the Web with the robust reporting that we prepare for print?
We avoid the “he said, she said” stories that lack conclusions.
We try to look for stories with high impact—those that will change laws and attitudes. A story has to have a definitive feel that shows an ill that needs to be corrected.
To this end, we are highly focused on computer-assisted reporting at the Press. We vacuum up millions of records a year from local, county, state and federal governments to use as our base sources. This gives us a powerful way to look for trends, compile questions, and check information without wasting a lot of time. We are able to place at least one investigative piece in the paper each week, usually on a Sunday. This also helps keep our reporters’ names in the community, which can lead to additional news tips. I also keep a log of people who call and write, which proves useful when we need sources for stories. We’ve also developed a rapport with our Web users, who know a lot about what’s not working the way it should in their community.
We have successfully merged projects with the Web by placing a vast amount of searchable data on our Web site (www.app.com). The Press’s most popular Web offering is our DataUniverse.com brand, which receives an average of one million page views per week. This searchable bank of government records provides everything from home assessments to public salaries to criminal records.
By having this useful resource on our Web site—for us and community members to use—we are building a good rapport with potential sources. DataUniverse provides the Press—and our projects team—with a high community profile. Citizens, government employees, and union members clamor when updates are delayed. One reader wrote these words on our forum: “DataUniverse: Fantastic tool for the ordinary citizen!” As an example of how having this resource available can work to our advantage, a state employee used our site to check the overtime payments to the agency’s overtime chief. It turned out that the chief averaged $40,000 a year in overtime pay, an amount that immediately raised suspicions. The curious employee informed the overtime chief’s superiors and then called us. The overtime chief was later suspended, and we, of course, wrote the story.
Relevance to Readers
This all circles back to our mantra—relevance. Our story selection is attuned to answering the question a reader might ask: How does this affect me? We can’t expect readers to wade through hundreds of inches of copy in an investigative series if we can’t tell them, as part of the story, what the impact of this issue is on their lives.
Our most recent series, “Fixing New Jersey,” seeks to answer how the state’s debt affects every citizen. On four successive Sundays our reporters took a close look at the winners and losers in the political battle over the debt, at the state’s massive tax collection machine, at the state’s addiction to runaway spending, and at the most likely solutions to the tangled issues at hand.
We avoid flopping an issue on the table and then running away, as if to say it is someone else’s problem now. So we have a proactive approach to the investigative series that we publish. Through the years, we’ve called for a better hospital health reporting system, more openness in the lawyer and physician discipline processes, and fuller public access of government records. And we’ve stayed with these stories until we’ve seen improvements happen in one way or another.
In 2003, our eight-day “Profiting From Public Service” series exposed the outrage of lawmakers using the government as a piggy bank for themselves, their families, and their friends. The final chapter outlined the role citizens can play to fix their government, and the residents of New Jersey eagerly responded at the polls. The state Senate president, who set up a series of part-time government jobs that paid him more than $200,000 each year, lost reelection along with others who had blurred the line between public service and private gain.
If there is a corollary to relevance, it is this: avoid complacency. It’s easy to withdraw into a comfort zone and dismiss story ideas as “been there, done that.” Like book plots, there are perhaps only seven story topics in the world. But what exists in all of our communities is an infinite combination of people, bureaucratic bungling, and ill will—more than enough to keep investigative reporters occupied for quite some time.
The lack of affordable health care for the working poor is a well-reported topic. But I felt it would be interesting to revisit it in light of the Democratic presidential primaries. My sense was that we would find some key examples of local citizens falling through the cracks and stimulate a debate about the role of government in protecting the health of all.
In one family we profiled, the father was employed, yet struggled each month to pay the bills. Should he pay the rent or buy medicine for his chronically sick child? Should his wife, who had the flu, suffer at home or seek relief at a hospital? Yet if this father earned too much money, Social Security would cut off his child’s benefits, putting the family further in the hole.
What happened next surprised me, as I discovered how our story had hit community members squarely in the heart. The family received more than $4,000 in unsolicited contributions, even though we didn’t put their address in the paper. The doctors offered to treat the family for free. It was an unexpected ending to what I’d thought was a routine story. But what it reminded me is that writing about relevant issues in our community never grows stale.
Paul D’Ambrosio is the investigations editor for the Asbury Park (N.J.) Press. He and his team have won the Selden Ring Award, the Farfel Prize, the National Headliner Award for Public Service, and more than a dozen other national awards in the past few years. They were a finalist for The Shorenstein Center’s Goldsmith Prize in 2004 at Harvard University.