Empowering the Public  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   February/March 2013

Empowering the Public   

Ellen Weiss is excited about the investigative and enterprise projects she'll oversee as Scripps' new Washington bureau chief.Wed., February 27, 2013.

By Emma Kantrowitz
AJR editorial assistant Emma Kantrowitz (ekantrowitz@ajr.umd.edu) is a student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     


Ellen Weiss has only had two journalism jobs since graduating from college more than 30 years ago. This month she started her third.

Weiss, 54, a long-time Washington, D.C., journalist, has left her position as executive editor at the Center for Public Integrity to become chief of E.W. Scripps' 20-member Washington bureau.

Weiss says she's excited about her new job. "Scripps has a great network of TV stations and newspapers, and so one of the things that really appeals to me is being able to work with their investigative and enterprise teams to support the stories they're working on that might have national scope and scale," she says.

Weiss says she oversees "a team of investigative journalists who produce video, print and digital projects that are distributed via Scripps television stations and newspapers around the country." She's also responsible for regional reporters who file for specific Scripps newspapers as well as the Scripps Howard News Service, which provides news stories, features and op-ed pieces to nearly 300 clients.

Says Weiss, who took command on February 11, "It's been great and overwhelming in all the right ways."

Lawan Hamilton, executive producer of the Scripps National Investigative team, says the stories Weiss supervises can appear in any of Scripps' 17 television stations, 15 newspapers and various digital platforms. "She'll definitely have her hands full," Hamilton adds.

Best known for her 29-year stint with NPR--she was named senior vice president in 2007--Weiss has had a wide variety of news experiences. At the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative news organization, Weiss directed investigations, worked with editors to develop projects and edited some projects herself.

"I also helped build a lot of partnerships and oversaw the collaborative reporting, and we did a lot of collaborations," says Weiss, who succeeds longtime Scripps bureau chief Peter Copeland, now a consulting editor. "That was particularly fun; we got to work with a lot of people that we had never worked with before."

That's one aspect that Weiss said she's looking forward to at Scripps. "It's exciting to develop stories at the national level that we could hopefully customize and make accessible to [the Scripps] communities," she says. "They seem really interested in partnerships. They want to be a player in the larger news ecosystem."

Bill Buzenberg, executive director of CPI, hired Weiss for the executive editor position. He knew her well; the two had worked together at NPR. He lauds Weiss for her leadership at CPI, as well as her efforts to extend the center's partnerships to create a wider distribution network. "She was a great leader in strategic thinking in how we work, how we partner, how we collaborate with other organizations," he says. "She did a great job in widely extending our audience."

Working with PBS' "Frontline" on a piece called "Dollars and Dentists" was one of those collaborations that Weiss particularly enjoyed. According to Weiss, the piece aimed at exploring corporate dentistry that has targeted low-income Americans. The story, which took over a year to piece together, uncovered a pattern of overtreatment, quantity over quality care and abuse of the Medicaid system. "It was an incredible project to work on because it was a gigantic topic that most people didn't know about, but it did affect a lot of people," Weiss says. "It was a human story, and being able to do it visually rather than just as a text story was really interesting."

Prior to joining CPI, Weiss left NPR under difficult circumstances. She resigned in January of 2011 after firing news analyst Juan Williams over some controversial remarks about Muslims he made on Fox News Channel. In October 2010, Williams said, ".. when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous." A few days after the comment aired, NPR announced that it would be cutting ties with Williams. There was great controversy over the way Weiss handled the Williams episode, and soon she was gone.

NPR's loss was CPI's gain, according to Buzenberg. "I've know Ellen for a couple of decades now. She was fantastic at NPR both as producer of 'All Things Considered' and then at the national desk, and then when she had my job as the senior vice president of news," he says. "After she left NPR, I met up with her to see what she was going to do next, and she seemed interested in the center, so I hired her and she was as terrific as I knew she would be."

"Ellen's the most pleasant person to work with; she's very smart, very engaged and obviously highly intelligent," Buzenberg adds. "Which is why she was recruited away from us. But that's OK. We wish her well in her new position."

And Hamilton is very much looking forward to what Weiss is bringing to Scripps. "The Washington bureau is so excited to have her join our team. At the bureau in D.C. we have the new investigative team, we have a broadcast team, we have a print team and also a digital section," Hamilton says. "She will bring all of these mediums together to better showcase our stories. She'll lead us–and be a great leader–in investigative journalism."

As for the types of stories that the Scripps Investigative Team pursues, they are similar to those Weiss pursued at the Center for Public Integrity.

"We cover a wide range of stories. This particular team was just established back in April, so were just getting our feet off the ground to add to what was already at the Washington bureau," Hamilton says. "We've done a look at kids left in hot cars, heroin addiction on the rise in suburbs and..local farmers markets and how they're not being inspected or not up to par." One major story Scripps tackled was "Meth Mayhem," in which the team looked into how homemade meth labs aren't being cleaned up properly, leaving unsuspecting homebuyers at risk.

"The focus [of the Scripps Investigative Team] is real stories that have national, possibly even international, scope," Hamilton says. "It can be consumer related, it can be government waste, anything that provides support to our stations or has national impact in scope."

And that focus dovetails perfectly with Weiss' approach to journalism. Asked what she loves about the field, she replies, "I think it's the opportunity to empower the public with information, ideas, voices and perspectives that enable them to be better citizens and decision makers."

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