First Person

Op-ed: If you want to see the contours of a national crisis, look at local reporting

July 24, 2020
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Jamie Satterfield’s husband of thirty years died of cancer in 2015. After his death, the hospital that treated him sued Satterfield for falling behind on her late husband’s medical bills. Satterfield, a veteran reporter for the Knoxville News Sentinel in Tennessee, grew increasingly depressed, and could hardly get out of bed. She saw the career she loved drifting away. 

In early 2017, on her way to see her lawyer, Satterfield got a tip from a private investigator. Dozens of industrial-cleanup workers at a nearby power plant were either dead or dying after exposure to coal ash that contractors for the state’s largest energy producer had promised was safe. 

“I was energized by that—the opportunity to shed light on the plight of the workingman,” says Satterfield. She saw her late husband in those workers.

For the next three years, she reported a series of investigations documenting how company and government officials failed to protect workers and lied to the public about it after a 2008 ash spill. She interviewed dozens of independent witnesses, victims, and experts and filed records requests to verify testimony. She enlisted workers to collect ash into empty prescription pill bottles that she mailed to labs for testing. 

“They showed up for work and they trusted their boss,” she says. “And they paid with their lives.” 

Satterfield’s reporting culminated in a story published in May—ten days before George Floyd was killed by police in Minneapolis—with these remarkable facts: The state’s worker protection agency admitted that government officials had altered and deleted radiological data in test results on coal ash following the spill. At least forty-eight cleanup workers have died from ailments their families say are linked to the exposure, according to Satterfield’s tally of the dead.

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The story likely registered with few outside Tennessee, swept away by the tide of covid-19 coverage. When I asked Satterfield whether she considered waiting to publish her investigation until after pandemic news no longer dominated, her response was unequivocal.

“I’ve attended funerals of workers and held their widows’ hands,” she told me. “We decided to publish when we did because the community needs to know. People need to know this is dangerous so they can demand the government take action.” 

Satterfield’s investigation was one of eleven featured in the May 17 edition of Local Matters, a weekly newsletter digest of the best local watchdog reporting around the country. 

Alexandra Glorioso, Joe Cranney, and I started the newsletter in December 2016 while we were beat reporters at the Naples Daily News in Florida. The idea was Cranney’s, and it was simple enough: celebrate local investigations for an audience outside the normal, local readership. Reporters who bleed for the ink, we thought, deserved greater recognition. 

Each week, the Local Matters team—me; Cranney, who is now at the Charleston, South Carolina Post and Courier; Melissa Gomez, of the Los Angeles Times; Lulu Ramadan, of the Palm Beach Post; and Bethany Barnes, of the Tampa Bay Times—combs through about thirty-five newspapers apiece. We look at print, radio, digital, and TV news outlets in every state, every day. We use the Newseum app to canvass front pages, scan social media for stories, and collect reader submissions. On Sunday morning, the crew jumps into a Google doc to type up our blurbs of the best stories, which we then send to 4,600 subscribers.

We don’t make any money off of the newsletter, and nobody gets paid. There are no advertisements or subscription fees. (The fees are sponsored by Investigative Reporters and Editors.) 

Investigative journalism is a luxury that small newsrooms cherish but fewer and fewer can actually afford. Right now, reporters around the country are under quarantine, in the unemployment line, or, like me, Ramadan, and Gomez, on periodic furlough. They have been arrested, teargassed, beaten, and mugged while covering protests. They have lost loved ones to covid-19, and fallen ill themselves. The outbreak shuttered businesses, which froze what little advertising revenue was left and accelerated years of industry decline brought on by stagnant subscriptions, social media giants, and the predations of private equity. At least 170 individual news outlets, along with chains such as Gannett, which publishes more than 260 newspapers, have laid off journalists or cut their pay since March, according to Poynter.

Deep reporting costs time and money. When both are especially tight—as is the case now—reporters often are forced to take on the burden themselves because they believe so strongly in the work. They sneak interviews and send records requests whenever they find a spare moment, when the other stories are cleared off the desk and editors aren’t looking. They squeeze two hours of work into one, and four weeks into three. Many, like Satterfield, are responsible for covering a beat as a day job, and moonlight investigations on the side. It’s untenable even in normal times.

In March, our newsletter crew worried watchdog journalism might ebb because of the breathless news cycle and financial free fall across the industry. We also worried about attention. Readers face a fire hose every time they look at their phones. Would they stomach more “negative news” in their own backyards when tuning out feels so much easier?

To our relief, week after week, the pistons keep moving. This spring, local journalists have broken national stories, laid bare institutional racism, and exposed government officials who are failing to protect communities from the worst impacts of the covid-19 pandemic. 

In Minneapolis, Libor Jany and Andy Mannix at the Star Tribune found that the police department currently under international scrutiny has a history of officers beating and harassing suspects—often Black suspects—accused of nonviolent crimes. In Texas, hospitals that received covid-19 bailout money continue to sue poor patients for unpaid medical bills, Jenny Deam and John Tedesco reported in the Houston Chronicle. They turned the story in one day. In Utah, Bethany Rodgers and Erin Alberty of the Salt Lake Tribune reported on officials who stripped the state public health lab director of her position because she refused to send coronavirus test samples to a lab that fell short of federal guidelines. 

Local reporters have also continued to report on non-covid subjects, holding the powerful to account when and where no one else is looking. Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter Joshua Sharpe uncovered holes in a murder suspect’s alibi after another man was convicted of the crime. Sharpe’s reporting prompted the convicted man’s lawyers to push for a DNA test that linked the crime to the other suspect. Julie K. Brown of the Miami Herald untangled another knot in the Jeffrey Epstein saga: the judge who has thus far refused to release grand jury records in the case has both professional and family ties to three of the politicians who have a stake in keeping those records secret. Major television networks retread her work with little or no acknowledgment. 

National outlets simply don’t have the local experience, context, and connections to report such stories with comparable depth, especially in a tight time frame. Weeks before video of the Ahmaud Arbery shooting in Georgia went viral, the Brunswick News had written extensively about it. The paper, which has a staff of four news reporters, pressed local officials when they didn’t identify who shot Arbery, and published editorials calling for authorities to take action. Likewise, the New York Times’ project memorializing one hundred thousand coronavirus deaths—and the jarring front page that accompanied it—was drawn from obituaries in about 270 local news outlets. To build its database of police shootings, the Washington Post relied on local news coverage. 

“The institutional knowledge of a local newsroom cannot be replaced,” Cranney wrote me in an email. When we started the newsletter, he hoped to show people that this work serves local democracy in a way national media can’t. Readers, maybe now more than ever, need accurate information to inform their votes for city councils, district attorneys, and community referenda.  

“When crises hit, local reporters know exactly where to look first,” Cranney wrote. “A meatpacking plant in Wisconsin; a vulnerable African American community in West Virginia; a poorly-run jail in Texas.” 

Jim Neff, the Philadelphia Inquirer’s investigations editor, told me that after the pandemic displaced a large amount of other coverage, his reporters embedded with teams across the newsroom. Some have circumvented Pennsylvania’s disgraceful public records laws by creating their own database of possible nursing home deaths, populated with entries from obituaries scraped from the internet. They tracked down family members who shared how their loved ones died and institutions failed to protect them. Earlier this month, a team of Inquirer reporters exposed administrators at a veterans home who, according to one employee, encouraged staff not to wear masks out of concern it would frighten residents. Thirty-eight residents have died—more than at any other veterans nursing home in the state.

“People think of investigative reporters and long, tricky stories,” Neff told me. “But nowadays, to be a really good investigative reporter, you have to be really adept at explanatory journalism—explain the process and how it broke down.” 

At the Tampa Bay Times, reporters have flexed their data chops to document cuts to state health budgets, an unemployment system in ruins, and widespread undercounting of covid-19 deaths. The outbreak requires data-literate reporters who can explain the numbers behind the disease, Adam Playford, the Times’ deputy editor overseeing investigations, told me. His team analyzed cellphone and testing data to explain why Florida did not initially explode with an outbreak at the onset, as many predicted. Residents took it upon themselves to stay at home well before politicians decided on any action, the team found. 

“I’ve never worked on a story where data is so fundamental,” said Playford, whose background is in data journalism. “I’ve been peeling off and co-reporting.”

Today’s public health and civil rights crises have given rise to remarkable feats of local accountability journalism. Such fast-twitch work shows readers where to channel their attention, ire, and activism. Editors have been creative and flexible to stretch expertise where it’s needed most during the pandemic and mass civil unrest. That local reporters continue to publish investigations under the circumstances is a testament to their mettle.

But it’s impossible to celebrate that work without recognizing the personal burden, precarious future, and uneven opportunities across local media. Our moment has exposed racial fault lines and double standards in our industry that have been upheld for too long: who gets to tweet about racism, and who has to bite their tongue; who has a reputation for tenacity, and who is known around the newsroom for being obstinate or difficult; who is applauded for investigating racial injustice, and who is labeled an activist when they pitch those same types of stories. “The overall number of journalists of color in investigative reporting remains abysmally low,” Ron Nixon, international investigations editor at the Associated Press, recently wrote for Investigative Reporters and Editors. “Diversity must be seen as more than a numbers game. The hiring and promotion of journalists of color are essential for the long-term viability of the American press.”

An alarming number of journalists will likely be forced out of the industry this year. Others will continue to encounter those selective institutional barriers to entry that reach to journalism’s foundations. We’ll never get to read what they don’t report. And those who abuse their power—including police departments in Minnesota and energy companies in Tennessee—will do so with impunity.

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Brett Murphy is a reporter on USA Today’s investigations desk and an adjunct journalism professor at George Washington University. He co-founded Local Matters, a weekly newsletter curating the best local investigative reporting around the country. Murphy has won numerous journalism awards and was a 2018 Pulitzer finalist for his series on worker exploitation in the port trucking industry. He is based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.