CHICAGO, IL — In February, Illinois Auditor General William Holland dropped what amounted to a political bombshell: a scathing audit of an anti-violence program created by Gov. Pat Quinn, who still casts himself as a political outsider as he prepares for his second re-election bid in November.
The $54.5 million program—formally called the Neighborhood Recovery Initiative—had telltale signs of Illinois-style politics written all over it, according to the audit’s findings and ensuing news reports. At best, the now-defunct program was a smattering of well-intentioned but poorly managed initiatives with leaky finances that profited Quinn’s political allies while offering uncertain social benefits. At worst, it was a vehicle for a blatant scheme to curry favor for the governor’s re-election campaign that cynically squandered anti-violence funds.
Since the audit’s release, reporters all over the state have been on a feeding frenzy. The Chicago Sun-Times, in particular, has been doing a stellar job of diving deep to report on the NRI, breaking a number of stories along the way.
All good, except that the NRI was created way back in 2010—a few weeks before the last time Quinn stood for governor. (The former lieutenant governor, Quinn had assumed the top seat in 2009 after Rod Blagojevich was indicted.)
So why did it take so long for reporters to look closely into the NRI? A busy news agenda and a sense that the program was “business as usual” may have been part of it—but it’s hard not to see a connection to the diminished condition of most newsrooms. The big Chicago papers have shown this spring that they can still dig into a juicy story. But having the firepower to perform bread-and-butter watchdog work on every major policy initiative, checking in just to see if a story is there, is another matter.
A “good old-fashioned follow-the-money” story
During the course of reporting for this story, I reached out to journalists and media observers across Chicago and the state. Ten reporters from Illinois’ two biggest newspapers—the Chicago Tribune and Sun-Times—either declined to comment on the record or did not respond to repeated requests for comment. Among the journalists who did reply, not everyone sees much sign that reporters were slow to the story.
Rich Miller, a veteran statehouse reporter known for his widely circulated Capitol Fax newsletter and column, said the issue is fairly simple: “The answer to your question is pretty self-evident,” Miller told me in an email. “We didn’t have an official audit result” until this year.
But the NRI warranted earlier, more proactive reporting, says Mick Dumke, a senior writer at Chicago Reader, an alt-weekly for which he covers Chicago’s City Hall. “In retrospect, this seems like a big deal; a lot of money was put into it, and the timing of it—right before the election, of course—raises a red flag,” says Dumke, who rarely ventures out to cover state politics but has written about Chicago’s violence extensively.
Steve Rhodes, editor and publisher of The Beachwood Reporter, a Chicago-centric news site, chalks up the paucity of pre-audit coverage to the tendency among journalists to forget to follow up on important news developments—a pattern he has dubbed “jour-nesia.”
But the NRI “was created at the time when violence in Chicago was making all kinds of headlines, so it seems a little surprising that it was kind of forgotten about,” says Rhodes, who posted his take on the issue on his site last month.
And there was at least one point when Illinois journalists got a reminder to check in on the NRI. In December 2012, CNN published a story titled, “Questions surround $55 million program to cut violence in Chicago.” The story wasn’t as damning as the state audit, or the local coverage that followed in the audit’s wake, but it highlighted many of the same concerns, from hasty implementation to poor record-keeping to the lack of any real attempt to measure whether the program was working.
“Our focus was a good old-fashioned follow-the-money: What was the intent of the program, and how was the money being spent?” says Scott Zamost, a senior investigative producer who worked on the story.
Though the CNN piece was the most comprehensive media examination of the NRI until this year, it didn’t prompt aggressive local follow-up. (Full disclosure: At the time, I was the interim editor at The Chicago Reporter, an investigative magazine, and I count myself as guilty as anyone for not being on top of the story.)
For Brant Houston, the Knight Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Reporting at University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the fact that a national network was out ahead on a local story “is another manifestation of the fact that we’ve lost a lot of journalists, particularly in the newspaper business.”