Randy Brubaker, the Register’s current managing editor, says the fact that Kauffman’s series could build on a paper trail that McGraw and Engel left helped give his stories the impact that their piece lacked. “We all write things that expose potential injustices,” Brubaker says, “but when news disappears from the front page, the urge for officials to act disappears.”
The Register deserves a LAUREL for hammering a forgotten story until the government finally did its job, but Brubaker’s statement underscores a significant problem in journalism. The fact that the tragedy of Atalissa was allowed to continue for thirty years after it was exposed is an indictment not just of government regulators but also of the media’s propensity to move relentlessly on to the next story, to fire a single bullet at massive, complex problems and consider the job done. This tendency is exacerbated in an era of shrinking newsroom resources and ambitions that erode an outlet’s institutional memory and make it even less likely that reporters will have the time and mandate to tackle these kinds of stories in the first place, let alone stick with them once they have. For that we bestow a DART, not to the Register but to the kind of ephemeral thinking and processes that infect newsrooms nationwide. We hope that this tale from Iowa—both cautionary and inspirational—prompts a thorough scouring of newspaper morgues everywhere. There are bound to be other Atalissas.