Watchdog reporting in East St. Louis highlights potential in under-covered areas

Downtown East St. Louis, circa October 2016. Paul Sableman, via Flickr

THE STORY STARTED WITH A TIP from a trusted source in a community that doesn’t much trust reporters. The top elected officials in impoverished East St. Louis Township in southwestern Illinois were “covering up trips to Las Vegas,” the source told George Pawlaczyk, an investigative reporter at the Belleville News-Democrat.

In a series that earned Pawlaczyk and his reporting partner, Beth Hundsdorfer, McClatchy’s top prize for the second year in a row, the team revealed that elected officials charged more than $200,000 over four years to a taxpayer-supported American Express card, which was used to pay for gas, construction materials, and dinners and gifts for political allies. The scandal led to felony charges for six people and an overhaul of how the township government conducts business.

The township’s former supervisor was recently sentenced to five years in prison for his role. “I can think of nothing worse than taking from the indigent,” said the judge, who doubled the 30-month sentence prosecutors had recommended. “This community in some places looks like Dresden in World War II.”

The News-Democrat investigation of East St. Louis township is more than an example of good local investigative journalism. It’s a rare bright spot for a community that needs reporters—the kind increasingly in short supply in financially strapped newsrooms—who show up at zoning meetings and ribbon cuttings and get to know officials and residents through feature stories and police blotters, the kind of reporters who spotlight both good news and bad.

The courtroom was packed with community members for the sentencing, Hundsdorfer recalls, but not with reporters.  With the exception of the News-Democrat, from the county seat in nearby Belleville, East St. Louis has no steady journalistic presence anymore.

“Larger news organizations stopped covering it as a community because of lack of resources,” Shula Neuman, executive editor of St. Louis Public Radio, says of East St. Louis. “How many times can you tell a story about a city that is fraught with corruption and down on its luck? We pay attention to it when there is a scandal there. I’m ashamed to say that because my own newsroom is guilty. But it’s like that.”

Sign up for weekly emails from the United States Project

 

EAST ST. LOUIS IS LOCATED ACROSS the Mississippi River from St. Louis. Most of the city’s 27,000 or so residents are black; nearly half live below the poverty line. The eight percent unemployment rate is roughly twice the national rate.

“You’re looking at a community where prosperity is just missing,” Pawlaczyk tells CJR. “There’s vacant houses, places where houses have burned down.The poverty is just everywhere.”

The city is severely blighted, a place “without shoes, let alone any bootstraps,” wrote Goldie Taylor, editor at large for The Daily Beast, last year. In 2015, East St. Louis had 889 violent crimes, according to the FBI Uniform Crime Report. (East Peoria, a similarly sized city in central Illinois, had 96 reported violent crimes.) Taylor, who grew up in the city, wrote, “I always knew I would leave. I simply didn’t know whether it would be in the back of a police car, a coroner’s wagon, or my mother’s used Pontiac.”

The Belleville News-Democrat is one of the few media organizations that pays regular attention to East St. Louis. Much (though certainly not all) of the coverage is related to crime—something the Riverfront Times, a St. Louis alt-weekly, noted in 2008 when it awarded its “Best Reporter” title to Carolyn P. Smith, the News-Democrat’s East St. Louis beat reporter: “This has to rank as one of the most depressing, frightening and, to put it mildly, lively beats on the planet.”

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the major regional newspaper that covers the metropolitan area, does not have a reporter assigned to East St. Louis. Instead, it covers the city through its topical beat reporters, says Marcia Koenig, the paper’s assistant managing editor of Metro. Tim O’Neil, who had covered East. St. Louis for the paper as part of his beat covering the east side of the metro area, recently took a buyout.

Jay Tebbe, president and publisher of the Belleville paper, says the News-Democrat considers the east side of the St. Louis metro area to be the “front porch” of its community. (Belleville and East St. Louis share a county government.)

“One of the reasons we remain very focused on East St. Louis coverage is that it does directly impact and affect what goes on in St. Clair County,” he says. “For a lot of the St. Louis media, it’s not that they don’t come to this side of the river, it’s that there’s plenty to focus on the Missouri side.”

The community’s relationship with the press is an uneasy one, in part, because it seems like reporters only show up when something bad happens. That’s one of the reasons why Charmaine Savage started I Am EStL in 2016. The purpose of the magazine is to counter the narrative that East St. Louis is a bad place, says Savage, who grew up there and returned after retiring from a career in the US Navy.

“To be honest with you, we despise the Belleville News-Democrat because there’s only a  sprinkling of good stories about East St. Louis,” she says. “They’ve done stories on a couple of people I’ve featured in the magazine. To us, it looks like them going out of their way to find something or to do a story about us here in East St. Louis that makes us look bad.”

Savage tells CJR that the News-Democrat “did a very nice story on me when I started the magazine. But it’s sprinklings, and they are supposed to be the preeminent publication for St. Clair County.”

Savage isn’t dismissive of the township fraud that the investigation team uncovered. “They did some amazing work,” she says. “We need watchdog groups.” But the city also is more nuanced than its worst scandals, and journalism that only focuses on corruption misses all of the other stories that make up a community.

 

ANDREW THEISING, ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR and chair of the political science department at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville, says places like East St. Louis are easy to ignore. Even the state does not provide the appropriate oversight, he says, which makes it all the more important for the news media to keep watch.

“Something I believe strongly in and have tried to include in my research is this idea that states need to be responsible for their cities that they create, all the government they’ve created,” Theising says. “Local government is a creation of the state.”

He says the News-Democrat investigation was important because state oversight panels created for places like East St. Louis are not effective. “This is where the news media plays an important role,” he says. “Frequently the media point these institutions in the right direction.”

Neuman, the St. Louis Public Radio editor, says there are good stories to tell in East St. Louis, like why people choose to stay in spite of the city’s problems or why they come back, like Savage did.

But it’s hard for her to imagine how news organizations will cover the stories that need to be covered, given how limited newsroom resources are. In the last several years, the venerable Post-Dispatch has reduced its newsroom through buyouts and layoffs, and in 2015, Gannett closed its St. Louis printing plant. Like many areas of the country, St. Louis is not immune to the shrinking and shifting within the media industry.

“It’s hard enough for us to cover enough the heavily populated suburbs, must less the east side,” Neuman says.

What would it take, then, to tell more of East St. Louis’ stories?

“Somebody who shows up at the same meetings again and again,” Neuman says. “Nobody is keeping an eye on a city known to have problems. Where is that public accountability?”

For now, it’s with the Belleville paper, although newcomers like I Am EStL can help tell stories that the community wants and needs to hear, too. “Unfortunately there are issues,” says Tebbe, the News-Democrat publisher. “Obviously there is a history and track record that just begs for folks to pay attention.”

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Jackie Spinner is CJR’s correspondent for Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin. She is an associate journalism professor at Columbia College Chicago and a former staff writer for The Washington Post. Follow her on Twitter @jackiespinner.