Our favorite local journalism from 2015

Kaleigh Somers, Story Bleed Magazine; Treatment by CJR

Correspondents for CJR’s United States Project take in a lot of local journalism in the course of their work. With 2015 drawing to a close, they’ve selected some favorite examples from the past year:

“Did Caroline Small Have to Die?”
by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
and Channel 2 Action News

Over the past year, many news organizations have taken hard looks at police shootings, uncovering disturbing patterns and evidence of cover-ups in specific cases. But how many have uncovered a parade of people involved in a shooting investigation willing to go on the record to condemn the way it was handled? That’s what The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Brad Schrade, along with partner Channel 2 Action News, found in a memorable investigation of the case of Caroline Small, an unarmed woman shot in 2010 by two Glynn County officers in Brunswick, Georgia.

After the shooting, a grand jury concluded the offers were justified in pulling the trigger. The police were never disciplined, and a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Small’s family was dismissed.

But Schrade’s initial investigation, which ran in July, found that evidence was tampered with, that the rationale police officers gave for the shooting was “implausible,” and that the district attorney who handled the case—and shared the state’s case with the officers’ attorneys months before it went to a grand jury—had received support from the officers’ boss for her own political ambitions. Two grand jury members also expressed concern about how the case had been handled. “We failed the process,” said one.

It was compelling work, but the most remarkable thing might be what happened next: After the report ran, four former prosecutors who were familiar with the case came forward to denounce the official investigation. “I’ve lost many nights of sleep over it,” one of the prosecutors said, in a major follow-up piece published in November. “This was a murder and it was covered up. It shouldn’t have happened. It was wrong. It was a killing.”

— Susannah Nesmith

“The Scott Walker File,”
by the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Early expectations that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s bid for the White House would put the state’s press corps in the center of the presidential race didn’t quite pan out. But after the Walker campaign flamed out in September, reporters at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel pieced together a fascinating postmortem that shed light on both the national and local political landscape.

Reporters Jason Stein, Mary Spicuzza, and Patrick Marley wrote about Walker’s initial announcement at a hastily organized press conference—the governor spoke for only four minutes and took no questions—and Stein and Spicuzza later detailed the strange final hours of the Walker campaign. Washington bureau chief Craig Gilbert, who can always be counted on for thoughtful analysis, examined how Walker’s poor strategy and performance “haunts [the] ruins of a campaign.” In another piece, Gilbert questioned whether Walker, diminished by his bid for the White House, could bounce back in Wisconsin, given plummeting support among independents, and a tough editorial urged the governor to repair relationships back home after demonstrating the “hubris that typically comes with one-party rule.” The postmortem pieces, along with all other coverage on the presidential run, are collected in the “The Scott Walker File”—a comprehensive and cleanly designed online portal that survives the campaign.

— Anna Clark

Independent journalism in Chicago

In a remarkable show of force for independent media, an Uber-driving freelancer and a veteran education reporter at a small niche publication helped drive the political agenda in Chicago this year, with journalism that led to a federal indictment of the top schools chief and the firing of the police chief.

Freelancer Brandon Smith’s successful lawsuit against the Chicago Police Department forced the release last month of a damning video showing an officer shooting an African-American teenager 16 times. Though other media outlets had sought the footage after its existence was revealed by another independent journalist, Jamie Kalven, it was Smith’s lawsuit that got the video released, revealing what had happened and raising questions about how it had been covered up. The officer who fired the shots is now facing first-degree murder charges, the Justice Department is investigating the Chicago police, and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, under scrutiny himself, has dumped his police chief. It’s an enormous, far-reaching story. Meanwhile, as reporters and others probe more broadly into the use of force by police, they have a new resource: Kalven’s Invisible Institute recently published a searchable database with 56,000 police misconduct complaint records, obtained through separate FOIA litigation.

That’s not all. In October, former Chicago Public Schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett pleaded guilty to a felony following a federal investigation into a kickback scheme connected to a $20.5 million, no-bid contract. The federal charges echoed questions that had been first raised in July 2013 by reporter Sarah Karp in Catalyst Chicago, a newsmagazine devoted exclusively to public education. Justice in the case took two years—but it made 2015 a banner year for independent media in Chicago.

— Jackie Spinner

Bryan Lowry’s statehouse reporting
for The Wichita Eagle

It was a memorable legislative session in Kansas for Wichita Eagle Capitol correspondent Bryan Lowry. Not only did he join his fellow statehouse correspondents in staging a walkout of an off-the-record briefing, and later in working nights and weekends to cover the agonizing overtime budget negotiations that dragged into the summer, but Lowry also scored the biggest reporting coup of the session. In January, he revealed that Gov. Sam Brownback’s budget director had sent an email cc’ing lobbyists on the administration’s budget plans, using his private server and thereby circumventing the state’s open-records law.

Coming in the midst of the controversy over Hillary Clinton’s private email server, Lowry’s story struck a nerve in Topeka, prompting legislative proposals and even a recommendation from the state attorney general to close the private-email loophole in the Kansas open-records law. And throughout the year, Lowry kept scoring follow-up scoops on the story, debunking the budget director’s claim that he hadn’t had access to the state server when he sent the email to lobbyists over the holidays, and revealing that Brownback himself had used private email to conduct public business for years. With the budget and open-records battles sure to continue into the new year, it’s reassuring to know Lowry is on the job.

— Deron Lee

“Capitol Gains,”
by The Post and Courier
and the Center for Public Integrity

By any account, Charleston, South Carolina’s Post and Courier had a big and busy year. In April, the family-owned newspaper won a Pulitzer Prize for public service, in recognition of a project that forced the state to face its domestic violence problem. In June, the paper delivered powerful coverage of the murder of nine black parishioners at Emmanuel AME church. When that shooting sparked a movement to remove the Confederate flag from statehouse grounds, the P&C took a roll call of every member of the legislature.

It’s kind of a wonder, then, that the paper was able to embark on a hard-hitting series that laid bare a system for abusing campaign cash and other funds at the statehouse in Columbia, more than 100 miles away. With its series, called “Capitol Gains,” the paper partnered with the Center for Public Integrity to comb through records of more than 100,000 expenses, gifts, and reimbursements for state lawmakers and constitutional officers. The reporting—by the Post & Courier’s Tony Bartelme, Doug Pardue, Glenn Smith, and David Slade and CPI’s Rachel Baye and Ben Wieder—painted a picture that was perhaps unsurprising, if you follow the news in South Carolina, but still revealing: Many members of the state’s political elite use their campaign coffers like a personal piggy bank.

What did the reporters find? Lawmakers and candidates who used campaign money to buy a BMW, art from their spouse, and hunting retreats, among a litany of other dubious expenses. Some pols found ways to funnel campaign cash back into their own companies. Not only that, but “when candidates ran afoul of ethics laws,” the paper reported, “at least 26 used campaign money to pay their fines.” High-profile cases along these lines had rocked the capital before. But it took a local news organization ready to commit time and resources—and the savvy to partner with CPI—to drive home how pervasive the problem is. “Capitol Gains.” The name alone is worth an honor.

— Corey Hutchins

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The Editors are the staffers of Columbia Journalism Review.