What a hyperlocal investigative powerhouse looks like

Via Pixabay

SINCE JEFF EGBERT STARTED PUBLISHING the Pinckneyville Press eight years ago, the southern Illinois weekly has exposed a police coverup involving a mayor’s son, discovered high school teachers hauling off air conditioners and desks that were intended for public auction, and caught an employee from the county assessor’s office stealing gas and hiding the cans behind his house. More recently, a Pinckneyville Press investigation found that a county schools resource officer lost his job for alleged email and social media contact with female students.

Pinckneyville is “between the Carbondale and St. Louis media market, kind of an island,” says Egbert. Before he began publishing the Press, Egbert says, “There was nobody really paying attention.” Now, Pinckneyville Press’s 11-person staff publishes a paper that reaches a weekly audience of about 1,800—a little more than half of the town’s population, if you exclude the 2,274 inmates at the medium-security Pinckneyville Correctional Center.

Newsrooms devoted to covering communities as small as Pinckneyville often do so with pinched resources and staffs that number in the single digits—when such newsrooms exist at all. And strong accountability reporting in a small town comes with its own challenges. A local paper reliant on local advertising can too easily function as an unofficial extension of a town’s economic development office. The Pinckneyville Press is an exceptional example of dedicated watchdog journalism in the sort of community that too often lacks watchdogs.

A map of America’s growing news deserts

“The city went without a real newspaper for so long that people were not used to being held accountable,” says Jessica Holder, a former Pinckneyville Press editor. “They saw the Press coming in and ruining their normal day-to-day activities, which happened to be illegal.”

ICYMI: Headlines editors probably wish they could take back

The Press is active on Facebook, but the paper’s archives are not online, so we can’t link to their stories. When I spoke with Egbert, I asked him to send recent news clippings. Egbert chuckled and told me he was a bit embarrassed. “It’s small town journalism,” he said. “I’m not a trained journalist. I’m just a newspaper guy.”

 

Without journalists in small towns, or in large communities for that matter, no one is held accountable. It’s like having laws without anybody to enforce them.

 

EGBERT IS NOT PINCKNEYVILLE’S first “newsman”—a throwback term that people still use around the region. Nor is “newsman” necessarily a compliment: Egbert’s business partner Jerry Reppert, who owns other southern Illinois publications, once found a grenade on his desk in a newsroom in Anna, south of Pinckneyville.

Sign up for weekly emails from the United States Project

The “first lady” of Illinois journalism, Virginia Marmaduke, spent her first years in southern Illinois, and lived in Pinckneyville after her retirement. Marmaduke—or “The Duchess,” as she was known—was the first woman on the Chicago Sun‘s editorial staff and the first woman in Chicago with a sports byline. She once hit a gangster with her high-heeled shoe.

Throughout Marmaduke’s life, Pinckneyville had the Democrat, a 140-year-old paper. In 2008, after closing its office and terminating most of its staff, the Democrat became a weekly section of the Belleville News-Democrat. It ceased publishing altogether the following year, when McClatchy bought the Belleville paper.

Egbert worked in advertising sales at the News-Democrat for nine years and published the Waterloo Republic-Times. He was selling ads at the Missouri Lawyers Weekly when his local newspaper folded. Egbert tells CJR he was restless. He started asking around and found out that Reppert also was interested in starting a paper. The two met at a McDonald’s in nearby Murphysboro and agreed to start one together.

Egbert’s mother tried to discourage him. “Oh Jeff,” he remembers her telling him. “We’re not from Pinckneyville.” The farm where Egbert grew up and now lives with his father is eight miles from the city. “It’s that kind of that mentality,” he says. “It’s a closed community.”

 

Pinckneyville’s mayor acknowledges that the Press is an ‘adversary.’ But he also says the paper plays a vital role.

 

EXPOSING WRONGDOING in a tight-knit community hasn’t been easy. “I go up against politicians who want me to leave them alone,” he says. “Our police chief hasn’t spoken to me in months. There are relationships strained because of this.”

Holder, who edited the Press for two years, recalls a local charity event for which she sponsored a table. Nobody would sit with her.

“Without journalists in small towns, or in large communities for that matter, no one is held accountable,” says Holder, who is now a financial adviser. “It’s like having laws without anybody to enforce them.”

Holder exposed the scandal involving the school superintendent’s mishandling of surplus equipment. The superintendent later apologized to her, “falls on his sword and says he didn’t know it was wrong,” Holder says. The superintendent resigned and left town; someone tipped off the Press after seeing a moving van in front of his house.

Where is the superintendent now? “Just a minute, and I’ll check,” Holder tells me. “We’re friends on Facebook. He added me.”

She pauses to look. He is still a superintendent, Holder tells me, in another small town in suburban St. Louis.

 

DURING HOLDER’S TENURE AS EDITOR, the Pinckneyville Press published a story about how police had allegedly covered up a drunk driving incident involving the mayor’s son. The story put Holder in a difficult situation: She is the daughter of a former mayor, and the alleged drunk driver happened to date her best friend.

“We lost revenue and subscriptions when we initially ran our stories and asked our questions,” Egbert says. “The mayor and his family called me every name they could and tried to trash me for 11 weeks,” until the paper was able to prove that the questions it raised had merit.

The police ultimately responded to a FOIA request from the paper and turned over the dash-cam video from the night of the incident. The video showed that the mayor’s son, a high school teacher, admitted to an officer that he had been drinking but was not given a field sobriety test or ticketed.

TRENDING: Equipment you’ll need to start your own podcast

“The big turning point for us was when that video was released,” Holder says. “Before the video, we had haters on Facebook saying the Press was running people out of town. When that video came out, everyone just shut up.”

Esther J. Seitz, a former attorney with the Illinois Press Association who helped Egbert and the Press with its FOIA requests, says city and county agencies routinely denied such requests without giving proper explanations, as is required under Illinois law.

“I don’t think, before Jeff, anyone was pushing hard enough,” she says. “It takes a bunch of resources. It takes time. It required him to get counsel. I think a lot of the requesters in his area were not following up. In a way, he was educating the local public bodies.”

Over time, the responses from public agencies became more detailed, says Seitz, now with Hinshaw & Culbertson in Springfield. “They become more sophisticated as a result of Jeff’s insistence that they follow the law.”

The current Pinckneyville mayor, Robert Spencer, acknowledges that the Press is an “adversary.” But in a soft-spoken voice, his words carefully chosen, Spencer also says the Press plays a vital role.

“People don’t agree with a lot of that stuff it prints, but for the community I do think it’s asset,” he says. “It’s a good thing for us, for any town, to have a paper.”

Gary Dotson, senior editor at the Belleville News-Democrat, doesn’t follow the Press closely, but knows Egbert and is familiar with some of the paper’s stories. A few months ago, says Dotson, Egbert called the News-Democrat to offer a tip on a story the Press didn’t have the time or resources to cover itself.

“Even though his background was in sales here, I know he’s a good newsman,” Dotson says. “He’s an aggressive watchdog publisher.”

Egbert says he intends to keep up the fight.

“There are a lot of people who think we have done damage to our town by talking about the corruption we’ve found,” he says. “I obviously disagree with that. I don’t think a certain group of people, based on your name or economic status or stature in the community, should allow you to get away with things. They are there to serve the public.”

ICYMI: The hidden message in memo justifying Comey’s firing

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.