This article appeared first in Pro Publica
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When ProPublica publishes its most ambitious journalism, we want it to be read by the largest possible audience. But, as important, we want it to reach local communities affected by what we’re covering. All of this, of course, is with an eye toward getting our findings in front of the people in a position to make changes.
In a world that’s sliced itself into increasingly separate segments, no single news organization can accomplish these goals on its own. We do best when our stories are picked up by a wide range of other outlets, from television to radio to news sites. Sadly, the local news ecosystem around the country is collapsing faster than efforts to buttress it can be undertaken. According to the State of Local News 2022 report, more than two newspapers, on average, vanish each week. The report noted that 2,500 newspapers have shuttered since 2005, and many more are expected to close in the years to come.
That’s why we were so pleased at the end of last year that two consequential stories — one about the arrest of children at an Illinois school, the other about digging up a historic Black cemetery in Virginia — appeared on the front pages of newspapers in the communities where the events happened.
ProPublica reporter Jodi S. Cohen and Chicago Tribune reporter Jennifer Smith Richards, a member of our Local Reporting Network, revealed how administrators at the Garrison School called police to report student misbehavior every other school day, on average. Over the past five school years, officers arrested students more than 100 times, which is particularly stunning because the school has fewer than 65 students in most years.
No other school district in the nation had a higher student arrest rate, according to the most recent data. That school year, 2017-18, more than half of all Garrison students were arrested.
The story ran on the front page of the Chicago Tribune, which has a statewide readership. It also hit home for those living near the school — the story ran on the front page of the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, located about 2 miles from the school.
David Bauer, the newspaper’s editor and publisher, told me in an email that a lot of people in his community “are familiar with the school in passing only; this allowed readers to look at an aspect of what goes on behind the scenes on a deeper level. It helped that the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica were involved, because it made me comfortable that the story was solidly researched and reported.”
To tell the story about Garrison, our reporters analyzed U.S. Department of Education data and obtained records from the school district that included written narratives every time police were involved in the past five years. They also relied on Jacksonville Police Department records, including arrest reports and 911 calls from this school year. While reporting in Jacksonville and meeting students and their parents, the duo repeatedly heard that the student arrests were printed as part of the police blotter in the Journal-Courier. With help from the ProPublica research team, they compiled all the arrests of students in Jacksonville printed in the newspaper during the past decade, up to last year. Our newsroom subscribes to the Journal-Courier, and reporters were able to search the archives and see the blotter items in print. We published some of those in the story, “The School That Calls the Police on Students Every Other Day.”
Even before the story ran, it had an impact. The state superintendent of education at the time, Carmen Ayala, called the frequent arrests of students at Garrison “concerning.” An Illinois State Board of Education spokesperson said a state team visited the school and confirmed an overreliance on police. As a result, the state will provide training and other professional development.
Bauer said he expected some pushback from the story, but that really didn’t happen. “There was interest in the story pretty immediately. Many people said they were unaware; a few called for immediate change and asked us to do more about what has been taking place since 2017, which we did a week later, because there had been administrative and other changes both at the school and, I believe, within the police department.
“The reality is that it’s hard for many newspapers, particularly those with smaller staffs, to take on deep-dive projects like this, but they remain a crucial part of the watchdog mission of journalism. I think that any time there can be partnerships with trusted groups (certainly ProPublica is among them) to keep readers informed, the community benefits.”
Since 2017, ProPublica has opened up four regional offices, employing 27 local reporters. (Cohen works in our Midwest office.) We’re about to open a fifth this year.
In addition, we support the work of 20 more journalists at local news organizations through our Local Reporting Network, which pays the salary and benefits of journalists working at local outlets around the country so they can embark on accountability journalism projects that they otherwise could not have done.
We do this because we believe local audiences deserve coverage that holds elected officials, businesses and other powerful institutions to account for their actions and inactions. Reports show that communities with more access to news are more likely to participate in local elections and civic matters.
The power of a local audience was clear for Seth Freed Wessler’s story about the removal of Black graves from a cemetery in southern Virginia to make way for the expansion of a Microsoft data center.
Wessler, who works in our South office, found the story as he was looking into for-profit archaeology firms and their practices when conducting work on behalf of developers to comply with federal preservation laws. He came across a local news story about an archaeology firm in Virginia that had been challenged by tribal communities over the quality of a study the firm had performed at an important historical site. Indeed, Virginia had called into question the credentials of the firm’s owner, and a former employee had filed a whistleblower affidavit alleging that the company’s work was shoddy and unethical.
In the course of their conversations, the whistleblower told Wessler about the excavation of an African American cemetery that he’d worked on. He didn’t believe the work had been done with the care it deserved, and he raised concerns that he and the rest of the crew lacked meaningful expertise about Black cemeteries. He was also disturbed that no family members of the people buried in the cemetery had been contacted or consulted.
Wessler immediately requested records about the cemetery from the state and the county. There was no indication in any of the documents that descendants had been contacted. Indeed, internal county emails revealed that Mecklenburg County, Microsoft and its consultants all sought to downplay the cemetery’s significance and to dig it up and move it with as little outside knowledge or input as possible. Wessler then tracked down living relatives of the people whose names appeared on gravestones, and he reported out the story from Virginia.
The story got national and regional attention, including on the front page of the Richmond Times-Dispatch. But meaningfully, it also was published on the front page of The Mecklenburg Sun and its sister publication, the News & Record, in the community where the graves were removed. Ironically, one of the descendents is a reporter at the Sun and hadn’t known that his great-grandfather’s grave had been excavated and moved until Wessler contacted him.
Tom McLaughlin, editor and general manager of The Mecklenburg Sun, said he ran Wessler’s story because it was a compelling read about a topic of local interest.
“Wish we had the resources to do work like this ourselves, but the reality of local journalism is that we have a daily scramble on our hands keeping up with the basics. This was a deep dive piece and an excellent one at that,” he said in an email.
“In general, I think the public’s reaction to the story was along the lines of our in-house assessment: this was an eye-opening piece for anyone who thinks everything involving local government (and trillion-dollar corporations) is done correctly and completely above board,” he wrote. “Gravesite desecration is not something that is difficult to grasp, and in our old-school, largely conservative area, I think a fair number of people are outraged by what’s happened here.”
Prior to the publication of Wessler’s article, Microsoft had reached out to the newspaper about placing a quarter-page ad to publicize its community ventures, McLaughlin wrote. The ad was canceled without explanation after the Sun published the story.
In an email, a Microsoft spokesperson said the company “made the decision to not run the ad in December as it did not feel like the right time given the sensitivities of the story and impact on the community. This was in no way retribution for the newspaper carrying the story. We believe that local media plays a crucial role in helping to raise awareness of upcoming works and are always considering how best to incorporate it as part of our community engagement.”
I asked McLaughlin what ProPublica can do to support local newsrooms. “I wish I had a better answer for you,” he said. “We do our work because we think it’s important — it sure doesn’t pay much — and I think in fairness to ourselves, the problem of suboptimal government and outright corruption (not just government either) would be much worse in our absence. This is the problem with local journalism vanishing across much of the nation.”
I couldn’t agree more. While ProPublica can’t change the economic fundamentals of local news organizations, we’re doing what we can to help ensure readers, no matter where they live, have access to accountability journalism.