The Register did some good journalism to uncover this truth, and both the Register and the World-Herald are emphatic that their coverage of the Sebring case was thoughtful and deliberate, never a witch hunt into Nancy Sebring’s sex life—watchdog journalism, not voyeuristic journalism. And yet, now that the mildly titillating content of the 57-year old educator’s emails have turned up in all the predictable places and then some, it feels like a little bit of both. How did this happen?
“That Weird Resignation”
Sebring’s violation, in fact, had been discovered as a result of another public records request—this one made by World Herald reporter Jonathon Braden on May 7. Braden was not looking for sexually-explicit emails either, but according to Mike Reilly, executive editor of the World-Herald, the request had been made to look into rumors that Sebring had already received lots of unsolicited advice from Omaha’s community leaders. Reilly noted that there had been also been issues between Omaha’s outgoing superintendent and the school board over how they share authority, and that Sebring’s emails might shed light about her future tenure.
Officials with the Des Moines school district, having discovered Sebring’s emails while reviewing the World-Herald’s request, confronted the superintendent about them. She resigned within minutes. Later that day, she contacted Braden at the World-Herald, asking that he narrow his records request so that it would not capture unnecessary personal emails. The World-Herald’s record request was amended accordingly.
Reilly says that negotiations like this over records are not uncommon and that public officials or agencies will contact the paper and say, “’Hey you just asked for the moon. What are you really interested in? Let’s figure out a way we can get this to you in less than six months.’”
Reilly adds that regretfully the paper interpreted Sebring’s request in this light. “We narrowed the request because we knew what were looking for. We had no idea this other issue was looming out there.”
He says, the lesson for the newsroom has been, when such requests come in, take a moment and pause. “The decision was made without anyone kind of stepping back and saying, ‘Hmm, this isn’t just some records manager asking for this. This is a request from that superintendent who just had that weird resignation. Maybe we don’t want to narrow it.”
Though both the Register and the World-Herald were pursuing investigative stories involving Sebring, neither paper anticipated anything like the story that ultimately landed last week on their front pages. They also knew, however vague their notions of the story were, that it was competitive. The Register, having made a broader request for Sebring’s email, had the initial edge.
Once the Register had Sebring’s emails, they planned two stories that they would break June 2 and June 3. The first story, on June 2, would reveal the superintendent’s intimate involvement in the operation of the charter school; the second would run on Sunday, June 3 and explain the real reason Sebring resigned—the sexually explicit emails.
But at 7:30 on the night of Friday, June 1, the Register learned the World-Herald had been leaked a crisis management memo from Des Moines School distict addressing the Register’s big Sunday scoop. In order to keep their scoop, the Register decided to break the story online—Rick Green, the Register’s editor and vice president of news calls it a “breaking investigative story”—and they did so only an hour or so later.
Register reporters updated the story throughout the night, while Green, worked with other staff and the Register’s attorney to prepare a selection of Sebring’s emails to publish on the web the next morning. (They had also learned the World-Herald had requested the full set of emails and the school district was working to fill the request that night.)
Green had several conversations with Sebring on Friday and Saturday morning—she asked that the Register to not publish the story, her emails, or the identity of her lover.