It was June 2005, and The Blade was in the middle of unraveling Ohio’s rare-coin investment scandal—the biggest investigation the Toledo, Ohio newspaper had ever undertaken. Blade reporters uncovered that dozens of rare coins the state had purchased were missing and, as they continued to investigate, they brought to light an extensive pay-to-play system in state government. The Blade’s probe prompted the formation of a state and federal law enforcement task force and the eventual acknowledgement that millions of dollars were missing from a state agency’s $50 million rare-coin fund.
Reporters were pulled from the city desk, business desk, regional desk, and statehouse bureau to build a team that would unmask the scandal that would eventually be called “Coingate.” Shortly after state officials acknowledged that $10 to $12 million was missing from state coin funds, they admitted they’d concealed a separate $215 million investment loss in an offshore hedge fund.
As the newspaper’s special assignments editor, I needed another reporter to cover the development, so I turned to Joshua Boak, who had just been hired. I asked him if he knew anything about hedge funds. He began telling me about risk aversion and hedging against market upturns or downturns. He had never worked for a newspaper before, but I knew he had graduated from Princeton and Columbia. He was smart, and I needed somebody like him to explain hedge funds to our readers. I had no idea what they were; all I knew was that Ohio had just lost almost a quarter billion dollars in one of them.
I had edited and managed several investigative projects at The Blade before but never a story like Coingate. The team eventually expanded to six reporters, an editorial librarian, a forensic accountant, and a file clerk. After The Blade successfully sued the state for access to coin-fund records, the team was moved to Columbus to report on the 500,000 records that were eventually released by the state.
The Coingate investigation led to the criminal convictions of Governor Bob Taft, several former aides, and prominent Republican officeholders for violating state ethics statutes. The Blade’s reporting unraveled a web of corruption in Ohio and resulted in the state turning from red to blue in November 2006, with the Republicans losing all but one statewide executive office to Democrats. The political careers of Taft and his cronies were over. Boak’s career had just taken off, along with the careers of the five other reporters on the Coingate team. The investigation was named a Pulitzer finalist in 2006 for public service and won other national journalism awards.
Awards, Then Defections
By the end of 2007, Boak and four other team members departed The Blade for newspapers in Chicago, Baltimore, Detroit and Charlotte. The Blade was the victim of its own success, but that was nothing new. The Blade has maintained its commitment to investigative reporting, but during the past 10 years we have had to form four new investigative teams as we’ve watched some of our better reporters depart for bigger papers after their investigative work was recognized with national awards.
- Sam Roe’s groundbreaking Blade investigation into the death and injury caused by the American beryllium industry earned him several national awards as well as being named a Pulitzer finalist in investigative reporting in 2000. He soon left for the Chicago Tribune. In April, he was part of the team at the Tribune that won the Pulitzer for investigative reporting for its product safety series.
- After The Blade won a Pulitzer for investigative reporting in 2004 for its Tiger Force investigation into Vietnam War atrocities, writers Mike Sallah, Mitch Weiss, and Joe Mahr left for jobs at The Miami Herald, The Charlotte Observer, and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
- The pattern repeated itself after the success of the Coingate investigation. Each time an award was won, a team was lost. And each time, The Blade began building another team and looking for the next great investigative story. It’s a frustrating situation for editors, but one that has worked in Toledo.
Shrinking Pay, Departing Reporters
While The Blade was racking up awards for its investigative journalism, financial losses were also piling up. In 2006, Blade executives decided they had to stop the losses, so they hired the Nashville law firm of King & Ballow to negotiate with the paper’s labor unions. At his first meeting with newsroom editors and managers, Bob Ballow told stories about how he broke into the newspaper business as a boy and his life in the South. He also said unions had been running The Blade for far too long and now it was “our turn.”
Here was a well-dressed southern gentleman hired to save The Blade from financial ruin. He handed out Goo Goo Clusters, Nashville’s signature chocolate confection, and a completely new contract for The Blade’s union workforce that he said he wrote himself. It called for cuts in pay, vacation, sick time, personal days, and for a longer workweek.
Over the next year, labor turmoil roiled The Blade. Ballow locked out five production unions at the paper, with reporters crossing daily picket lines with the permission of their union. Months dragged by, the unions held rallies, called for circulation and advertising boycotts, and Ballow and Blade owners didn’t budge. In the end, the unions capitulated, agreeing to wage and benefit cuts and a two-tiered salary structure that drastically lowered pay for new reporters in return for an end to the lockouts.
During this protracted labor dispute, reporters realized they would soon face pay cuts, and many of them left for other jobs, including five of the six Coingate team reporters, fresh from picking up awards for their investigation. Early on, I had informed Ballow that it had taken years to build a culture of investigative reporting at The Blade, and I feared that would be lost if he was successful. I still remember what he told me after one of our first meetings, “Son, we’ll get you a new team when this is all over.”
Ballow has returned to Nashville, and The Blade’s investigative team has been reduced to one reporter. It is time to rebuild.
The Value of Support
By nature, an investigative editor wakes up feeling cynical—always looking for what’s wrong with government, with business, with the institutions that impact readers’ lives. To get through the day, however, requires that the editor also be an optimist. Time and time again, The Blade has watched reporters head to bigger papers, but we’ve come back stronger. Years ago I learned that successful investigative reporting is a team sport, only possible with smart and hard-working reporters being well supported by top editors. And despite our loss of reporters, we have been able to maintain our editing and newsroom management team.
The Blade’s executive editor, Ron Royhab, and managing editor, Kurt Franck, have spent many nights reading copy behind me, asking the hard questions I don’t always think to ask and running interference with the bean counters on the business side who always want to cut space and budgets. And any honest editor will admit that the copy desk and design desk catch mistakes and transform what investigative teams produce into pages that look amazingly good.
The top editor at The Blade is John Robinson Block, the newspaper’s co-publisher and editor in chief, and the grandson of Paul Block, Sr., who bought the paper in 1926. John Block is a hands-on editor who is a driving force behind his newspaper’s investigations. During the Coingate investigation, he called me daily asking for “coin team updates.” I considered him the seventh reporter on the team because of his extensive knowledge of Ohio politics. Many of his ideas and tips turned into Page One stories.
One of the benefits of having the publisher on your I-team is that scarce resources become available. As with most great newspaper investigations, Coingate coverage was not planned or budgeted and happened during a year when The Blade was losing money.
After Blade attorney Fritz Byers, who had won numerous public records lawsuits for the newspaper, sued the state and the Ohio Supreme Court ordered the release of all records documenting its rare-coin investment, the Ohio attorney general began releasing several boxes of records each day to The Blade, the Columbus Dispatch, and the (Cleveland) Plain Dealer. By this point, the other big Ohio papers had assembled teams of their own to cover the expanding state government scandal.
On the third day of the records release, Blade reporters came across a document that would make a great story if we could only remember where we’d put a related document we’d read three days earlier. Our small office was filling up with stacks of paper, and state officials told us there were hundreds of thousands of records yet to be released.
The phone rang, and it was Block asking for his daily update. I was frustrated, and he could sense it. He asked me what was wrong, so I told him what I was facing. I told him the coin team needed a bigger office and a file clerk to create a record system to help reporters stay organized. He told me to rent more space, hire a file clerk, and said he was hiring a forensic accountant to help the team find the fraudulent transactions he was sure were documented in the records.
The Blade continued to cover the unfolding scandal, most days staying ahead of state investigators and our competition. Within months, Republican fundraiser and Bush Pioneer Tom Noe had been charged with fraud, money laundering, and stealing more than $13 million from the rare-coin funds he founded and managed for the Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation. Noe now sits in a federal prison in Florida. After serving a 27-month sentence for illegally funneling cash to President Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign, he will be transferred to an Ohio prison to serve an 18-year state sentence for his state crimes.
The only thing I know to do after an investigation ends is to find another one to begin. It’s that simple.
Before Coingate was published in The Blade in 2005, I fielded a call from a former employee of National Machinery Company in Tiffin, Ohio. The worker explained that he was part of a group of employees who sued the company when the factory they had worked at for years closed without warning. The Blade had written a news story about the settlement the employees received, and I recall being struck by a comment in that story by the federal judge who approved the settlement. He said the money the workers were to receive was a “pittance,” but it was all they could hope for.
By early last year, as the entire Coingate investigation wound down, two of the remaining reporters on the team—James Drew and Steve Eder—were looking for their next investigation. I asked them to contact the workers to get their side of the story. In July 2007, The Blade published “Without Warning,” an investigative series that showed how corporations across the country routinely violated the federal Worker Adjustment and Retraining Notification (WARN) Act, which requires a 60-day notice to workers whose plants are closing.
“Changing Circumstances Delay Investigation — and Lead to a New Approach”
— Steve EderOn the second day of the series, Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown introduced legislation in the U.S. Senate to reform and strengthen the WARN Act. By the end of that year, the U.S. House had approved a WARN Reform Act, which remains bottled-up in the Senate. After this investigation, Drew left for The (Baltimore) Sun.
The Blade is trying a different tactic with our remaining projects reporter, Steve Eder. We are pairing him with other reporters on staff to conduct investigations. This arrangement takes more planning, but so far it’s working well. He’s been working with our health reporter on a project we recently published as a four-part series, will soon travel overseas—a trip made possible by funding from a nonprofit foundation—and he is already laying the groundwork for an investigation he’ll do with one of our sports reporters.
And we’ve finally begun to hire reporters again. Most have limited experience, but they want to be at The Blade in large part because of our tradition of investigative reporting. I’ve begun working with several of them on Sunday stories, as well as with beat reporters. It is in these moments that my optimism surfaces. Many of them have the potential to join Eder on what could be the resurgence of The Blade’s I-team.
So it begins anew.
Dave Murray is the special assignments editor for The Blade, where he has been a reporter and editor for 28 years.