In early May, Nancy Sebring, the superintendent of the Des Moines public school system, abruptly resigned; her resignation was accepted by the school board in a closed meeting.

The resignation was unusual, not just for its suddenness—Sebring was scheduled to introduce Iowa governor Terry Branstad at a time capsule unveiling ceremony the next morning—or its secrecy—the school board president told that press that private meetings were allowed by Iowa code to “prevent needless and irreparable injury to an individual’s reputation. But it was also strange for its timing: Sebring, who had presided over the Des Moines schools for six years, was scheduled to leave her job June 30 to become Omaha’s superintendent of schools. Sebring and the school board told the press that her early departure was due to family responsibilities that she needed to tend to before her move.

In reaction to the May 10 Des Moines Register story that reported Sebring’s resignation one reader commented: “Something doesn’t smell right about all of this.”

The Register’s story implied as much, and the paper, hot on the trail of this fishiness, filed a public records request for emails Sebring sent and received between February 1 and May 10 containing the words “Omaha” and “charter school.” (Six days later, the paper added the terms “Nina Rasmusson” and “Jennifer Kreashko.”) Nina Rasmusson is the name of Sebring’s twin sister, who was hired in 2010, amid controversy, to direct a new Des Moines Charter School, and whose boyfriend was hired in 2011, again amid controversy, to be principal of a Des Moines high school. Jennifer Kreashko is the name of a close family friend who was also hired for a position at the charter school.

Yet, while the Register’s inquiry was guided by somewhat routine suspicions surrounding a charter school, the results of their records request took them in a very different direction. In the end the inquiry would raise journalistic questions for two newsrooms, questions about how far is too far in exposing private behavior in public.

Among the 600 emails obtained by the Register in their records request were “at least 40” exchanged in a six-week period between Sebring and her recently acquired lover. (Both Sebring and her lover were married, though for all of her years in Iowa, Sebring lived at a state’s distance from her husband in Colorado.) A quarter of those emails were “sexually explicit”—mostly in that they contained ecstatic references to the new couple’s sex life. There was also a photo. At least as common as references to her sex life in these emails, were earnest comments about her work life and the Des Moines school district, about which she genuinely seems to care:

I really love our students and our schools and will miss it here. I don’t think I’ve been in any other job where I had such a tremendous opportunity to impact students and families and it feels good. Our kids appreciate everything they get and it makes you want to do more for them.

Some of these emails had been sent during the school day; others had been sent at night, on weekends, or while Sebring was on vacation. Because these emails were sent using a district email account and district equipment, Sebring was in violation of the district’s technology policy, and it’s for this reason that on May 10 she abruptly resigned.

On the night of June 1, the Register broke its story: “School district: Sexually explicit emails led to Nancy Sebring’s resignation.” On the morning of June 2, the Register published a sample of these emails.

Meanwhile, the Omaha World-Herald was not far behind with its own story, its own selection of ‘racy’ emails, and the page-one
assessment that Sebring had “proved a weakling against her own passions.” Sebring submitted her resignation to the Omaha school board not long after.

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.

While the Register has not made public the identity of Sebring’s lover (“it’s a live story” he told me), Green says it was not a question of whether to publish the emails as to how to do it in a tasteful way that aligned with the paper’s standards: “It was not enough just to say they were sexually explicit. We wanted to give readers a sense of what she had written.”

Reilly, who curated, the selection of emails for the World-Herald, said the same. “There wasn’t a lot of debate about it,” he said.” The emails were the reason she resigned and the reason there was a lie put out about why she resigned. There was no way to untether the graphic, sexual emails from the misleading of the public and the violation of policy in Des Moines,” he said.

“The goal of trying to give our readers sense of intimacy without being tasteless, giving out all the very graphic stuff.”

Both Reilly and Green felt the emails conveyed readers a sense of how just how astray and inappropriate Sebring’s communications were while she was on the job. And that readers, as the taxpayers Sebring ultimately works for, have a right to know about how those communications got in the way of her work. Both Reilly and Green wrote columns explaining the editorial decision-making behind the Sebring story: Reilly’s is available here; Green’s is available here.

“The Register doesn’t sneak around and peer behind bedroom doors or look under the blankets or dig into the personal lives of public officials,” Green told me. “What public officials do on their own time as it relates to private citizens really isn’t a matter of concern until it spills over into the public arena. We could not ignore the story, could not dismiss the fact that those emails were the reason that she did her sudden and abrupt resignation.”

“It’s like pornography.”

What’s the journalistic upshot here? Yes, Sebring’s emails were written on tax payer-funded equipment by a taxpayer funded public official. Green, for one, has no doubts about the Register’s handling of the story and the allowance of privacy to a public official. What’s the public right to know, I asked him?

“It’s like pornography, sometimes you know it when you see it. And in this case, we saw it and we knew it and we had to do something about it.”

And it is certainly true that neither paper could ignore the personal emails that got Nancy Sebring fired. But eight pages of them, annotated, as the Register ran online? And the World-Herald: even more of the back-and-forth (unlike the Register, the World-Herald included a selection of the lover’s responses, too). Beyond the sexually explicit parts, the reader gets a full view of Sebring’s emotional life.

Both papers insist they struck a balance. And indeed, what they printed is less than what was available to them. But personally, I’m not so sure it was necessary to give even a carefully curated and redacted set of the behind-bedroom-door details. Sebring was fired for breaking the district’s technology policy. Why, other than to feed prurience or heighten Sebring’s humiliation—wouldn’t a summary or selective excerpting of her emails do?

The Register deserves credit for breaking this story and uncovering the truth behind Sebring’s resignation, information that was owed both to the citizens who Sebring served in Des Moines, and those she was going to serve in Omaha. But the press also has a role to play—particularly as technology increases the expectation that we work and communicate around the clock—in establishing the line between a public official’s privacy and the public’s right to know. I’m not sure the Sebring case sets a good precedent.

Erika Fry is a former assistant editor at CJR.