DETROIT, MI — In May 2013, two weeks after investigative reporter James Pilcher returned to The Cincinnati Enquirer after a stint working for a local telephone company, news broke that the Internal Revenue Service had apologized for singling out for scrutiny certain groups applying for nonprofit status—namely, Tea Party groups.
What came next was a firestorm of media attention and political showmanship, headed straight for the Queen City. “I had just gotten back to journalism, and I was handed the biggest story in the country,” Pilcher said. “So I knew, okay, this is baptism by fire.”
The IRS apology sparked a national political controversy, but it was also a local story for the Gannett-owned Enquirer in two ways: the IRS office that reviewed the nonprofit applications is based in Cincinnati, and the city is also one of the earliest and staunchest homes of the Tea Party.
And the paper took on the story, and took advantage of its local resources—to a point. But with the story still in the news as the legal battle unfolds and investigations in Washington continue, the Enquirer’s coverage offers an interesting case study for local journalists that find a national story breaking in their market. What are the limits of the local angle? What if the advantages of being the hometown media outlet aren’t what you might have hoped? (As a Gannett publication, the Enquirer is in the news itself: The company announced this week that it is spinning off its print business, several newsrooms across the chain are now being overhauled, and staff in Cincinnati reportedly learned that today they would have to reapply for their jobs.)
The big target Pilcher and the Enquirer pursued was an interview with someone in the relevant IRS office. National media outlets were trying, without success, for the same thing—Pilcher saw business cards from New York Times and Wall Street Journalreports left at the unanswered doors of local IRS employees. But if there was any hope that even one of those workers would be more willing to talk to a reporter at their familiar hometown publication, or that an inside source could be secured through, say, a friend of a friend, it was futile.
“All those trips and phone calls didn’t amount to much, because nobody talked,” Pilcher said. “They all lawyered up. Even the lawyers don’t want to talk about it.”
At one house, a neighbor told Pilcher that the employee and his family had left, probably to a hotel, to get away from the media spotlight. “The neighbor was taking care of his dog,” Pilcher said. “I stuck that in a story.”
Carolyn Wasbhurn, the Enquirer’s executive editor, said the paper found that local sources might actually be less willing to talk to a local newspaper, especially on a politically prickly story like this one. “They don’t want to be on the front page of a local paper, in front of all their neighbors.”
That meant, Washburn said, that the staff had to “build experience really quickly to compete nationally.”
“When you have a big story break in your town, you and everyone else wants to make sure you’re digging into it, breaking news, beating national publications,” Washburn said. “But we don’t have the expertise or sources in the background here. We don’t have someone reporting on the IRS facility in Cincinnati day-to-day.”
Without the inside scoop, the Enquirer’s coverage focused on context and local impact. One notable piece by Pilcher detailed how a short-lived conservative group based in Cincinnati’s suburbs served as an “early test case” for the IRS. Another took a look at how deep the IRS’ roots are in the region, stretching back 60 years.
And, Pilcher said, the reporting enabled the paper’s to get a better understanding of “who’s really behind the Tea Party and dark money in Cincinnati and the region.” The controversy prompted them to dig up dozens of Form 990s and Articles of Incorporation for groups that want to wield influence in this politically pivotal state.
But especially as time went on, more and more of the coverage the paper ran came from Washington—where, ironically, sources appeared to be more plentiful.
That meant readers saw plenty of bylines for DC-based Gannett reporter Deirdre Shesgreen, who wrote about possible IRS targeting of groups for the Enquirer as early as 2012, and USA Today reporter Gregory Korte, an Enquirer veteran who sometimes shared information with reporters in Cincinnati. It was an article by Korte, based on transcripts of an interview with congressional investigators, that revealed that it was IRS employees in Cincinnati that first raised concerns about Tea Party applications.
Throughout, the coverage generally stayed solid. Over the summer of 2013, the original storyline of the scandal shifted in ways that had political implications, as it emerged that some liberal groups had come in for similar scrutiny. As CJR noted then, after initial round of overheated coverage many outlets failed to follow the shifting story. But Gannett tracked the developing news, and the Enquirer’s coverage didn’t indulge unsubstantiated claims of White House interference, even as some of the paper’s readers apparently were clamoring for it.
Like the local reporting, much of the national coverage took a step-back approach, as in Shesgreen’s articles on the lack of far-reaching fixes at the IRS, or another about the roots of the rule governing nonprofit groups’ political activity.
“Part of what we really wanted to accomplish was some clarity,” said Washburn, the Enquirer editor.
“I think the underlying policy and tax questions were completely lost as part of this,” Pilcher said, adding that he’s proud of theEnquirer for keeping its eye on the ball.
As for where the story might go from here, Pilcher has four pending FOIA requests to the IRS, all delayed. But while he and the Enquirer staff have their ears perked to any locally relevant information that comes out of the DC investigations, they’ve largely stopped pursuing local sources.
“What we didn’t do is put a face on it locally,” Pilcher said. “I understand the legal reasons. If I’m in a position they’re in, I wouldn’t talk either.” It would have been great, he said, to share the stories of people who worked for the IRS and found themselves and their families at the eyes of the storm, “to tell, outside testimony, how lives had been ripped apart by this. We could never get that. Lord knows we tried.”
That would have been a great story—in part because it reveals the personal consequences of both actual missteps and the political scandal machine. And it still would be a great story, if the paper can find a way to crack it. It’s possible that local sources would be more willing to talk now, exactly because the national spotlight has largely passed. No doubt there are a number of important stories for the Enquirer to pursue, and as the IRS story winds down, it’s wise to pull back on local resources. Still, I hope they keep checking in on this one.