After 16 months of studying hundreds of documents, beat reporter Tracy Loew came up with a revelatory story about an agency in Salem, Ore., where her paper, the Statesman Journal, is based. Today, it was named the best investigative story in the print, small market, category by the Education Writers Association.
She found “no-bid contracts, questionable property deals and supposedly self-supporting ventures that failed, lost money or drew formal complaints and lawsuits” in the Willamette Education Service District. WESD is supposed to offer efficiencies by providing centralized services to 21 local school districts.
“The newspaper obtained records showing that employees charged the district for luxury rental cars, expensive hotels, in-town meals and dozens of trips to Starbucks, even as the district was borrowing money to stay afloat.”
The story includes a complex online interactive called “WESD’s Web of Deals: How mixing public money and private gains created a culture of mismanagement.” It allows readers to see the connections between board members and other parties.
Today’s Tip: Get organized from the start.
“The system itself doesn’t matter as much as getting something set up from the start; otherwise, you will be mired in piles of documents,” Tracy says.
Tracy says she created a spreadsheet to keep track of what information she had, what she needed and what she’d requested. She created a separate spreadsheet listing documents, key pieces of information in them, and where the information would go in the story.
“I scanned all my documents into DocumentCloud, which makes them searchable and lets you annotate them, so it was easy to find what I was looking for,” she says. DocumentCloud is a free service for journalists that describes itself as “both a repository of primary-source documents and a tool for document-based investigative reporting.”
For more information on this story, check out this sidebar on how the project came about.
The district responded about two months after the stories were published by posting on its website a list of what it alleges are more than 40 factual errors in the stories.
Statesman Journal Executive Editor Bill Church said of the district’s response:
“We’re not surprised by WESD’s reaction nor the district’s timing. This is a politically charged issue for them, and millions of dollars in state funding are at stake.
“We are doing a thorough review of their response. To date, we have found two copy editing errors. Those corrections were quickly made and published.”