Late last month, Gannett’s papers in Wisconsin began to roll out a major project that examines widespread disparities in criminal sentencing among the state’s judges. Wedding reported analysis to interactive databases, the series highlighted worrying discrepancies in sentences, compiled a first-of-its-kind assessment of the state’s circuit court judges, and explained how judges face little accountability for poor performance. It is ambitious, noteworthy work—made even more so when you consider that the team that produced it has operated without a full-time editor for nearly all of 2015.
Gannett’s I-team in Wisconsin was founded in January 2012, inspired by a successful push into enterprise reporting at the state’s largest paper, the then-locally-owned Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Working from separate newsrooms—Madison, Sheboygan, Appleton, and, until recently, Wausau—its members make up the only statewide investigative unit in the company’s portfolio. They provide deep-dive journalism, searchable databases, and shorter watchdog pieces to 10 Gannett publications in the state, mostly smaller papers that otherwise wouldn’t be able to pursue that sort of coverage.
It’s a model that “will become the standard for investigative reporting” at small and midsize dailies, predicts Joel Christopher, the VP of news for Gannett Wisconsin, and there’s a good chance that he’s right—though there have also been some speed bumps along the way.
The recent project on sentencing disparities was self-directed in concept, research, and execution, largely by Eric Litke, the lone remaining founding member of the I-team, who spent nine months on it. To establish a rating system of the state’s judges, the team created a survey, with input from the American Bar Association and local law professors, and sent it to thousands of lawyers across the state. The project represented a significant investment: The mailings alone cost thousands of dollars. Between staff time, open record costs, and postal expenses, Christopher said that the total dollar amount was in the “many tens of thousands.”
When the series was getting close to publication, Robert Zizzo, the top editor at the Green Bay Press-Gazette, was brought in to look over copy. Other Gannett editors have played the same role for other projects, and Christopher, the VP of news, currently supervises team members and edits their work. But he cannot give them his full attention: He also oversees editorial operations for all 10 papers, several non-daily publications, and a site dedicated to the Green Bay Packers. (Packers coverage is the one other area where Gannett has instituted a statewide editorial model; the company has also set up a similar structure for its production and business development teams, which work in Appleton on behalf of all 10 dailies.)
The investigative unit’s last full-time editor was John Ferak, who had the role for about two years before being moved to a reporter position on the team in February as part of Gannett’s broader “newsroom of the future” restructuring. Job postings for a new editor date back at least to April. But, Christopher said, it hasn’t been easy to find the right person.
“It’s really hard to find qualified investigative reporters and editors right now,” he said. “The main thing missing… is any kind of data experience. It’s mind-blowing. All you ever hear from journalists is that there’s no commitment to investigative journalism anymore, no commitment to deep reporting. But when you actually create jobs and put resources behind it, you find there aren’t many people trained to do it.”
“While I love playing a role in [the I-team], I can’t imagine what we’d able to do once we have someone fully in the role,” Christopher added. “It’s a testament again to the self-motivation of the reporters on the team, because they’re certainly not getting the editing attention they would under the direction of a full-time editor.”
Following the restructuring, there were other changes as well. In the past, each Gannett paper would make its own decisions about how to present a project like the sentencing series—when it ran, how prominently to feature it, and how (or if) to distribute it on social media. That satisfied each outlet’s interest in autonomy, but it also diminished the overall impact of the project, said Christopher.
Now, Gannett outlets feature these packages on the front page, along with a concerted social media push. In turn, the I-team is making more of a point to choose topics that will resonate statewide. At the weekly Gannett editors’ meetings, held at sites across the state, time is set aside to discuss topics that the team might tackle. The team also sometimes partners with a reporter or videographer at one of the dailies.
Litke called it a “unique challenge and opportunity” to be writing for 10 papers and websites at once, each with a different set of editors and readers. Early on, he said, the team ran into obstacles trying to please everyone, and spent too much time on conference calls.
“The challenge is deciding what level of input to accept,” Litke said. “Each of those papers has a lot of experienced journalists with important ideas to add, but at some point, it feels like every individual story is vetted by 10 different people with 10 different visions of what the story is and what this team should be doing.”
That’s improved over time, team members say. Ferak likens the I-team to a wire service, and says the group has grown more efficient in that role over the last year. The team’s reporters also communicate frequently with one another, though they don’t often see each other in person. Reporter Keegan Kyle, who joined the team in June, hasn’t seen Ferak or Litke since he drove to Appleton for a training right after he was hired. They talk instead by emails, online chats, and phone, communicating “every other day at least,” Kyle said.
Even as the team has worked through many of the little challenges that surround any collaborative effort, another potential transition is on the horizon: Gannett is in the process of purchasing the Journal Sentinel, whose acclaimed investigative work, Christopher said, was the inspiration for the Gannett unit.
The process of searching for an editor—and replacing a fourth reporter, who recently left for another job—is ongoing but has been slowed as that transaction concludes, Christopher said, and it’s an open question how the 11 watchdog editors and reporters in Milwaukee will be reconciled with Gannett’s team. When I asked Journal Sentinel editor George Stanley about it, he said the paper is “looking forward to working with a new set of partners in Gannett and to be able to leverage stories that matter across a national network of local news outlets and USA Today.”
In the meantime, these investigative reporters have learned to be agile, adapting to the Gannett restructuring and developing the statewide model. It’s easy to see potential for bigger and better things to come.
Ferak said that he hopes each team has, through its work, made a case for future success. “Investigative journalism at the highest level is being done in Wisconsin,” he said. “Why not keep that and build upon that as an example to any and all papers around the country?”