Watchdogs with Teeth
A Milwaukee Journal Sentinel team focuses on accountability reporting.
By Kevin Rector
Word hit the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel newsroom via the Associated Press wire at about 2:10 p.m. on April 7: Reporter Dave Umhoefer had won a Pulitzer Prize for local reporting for his investigative series on Milwaukee County pension padding that he had spent six months reporting and writing.
The newsroom erupted in cheers; there was a round of hugs and champagne. Then, Umhoefer spoke: "I hope everybody feels proud about this," he said. "It's not an accident that this happened at this paper right now."
Not an accident indeed. Rather, it's a result of the paper's commitment to investigative projects, embodied by its 10-person watchdog team -- one of the biggest of its kind in the country -- launched in February 2007. As Umhoefer, who is part of the team, puts it, "People here are incredibly supportive of this kind of work."
Umhoefer's series documented a pension program that skirted county law and federal tax rules by allowing Milwaukee County workers to "buy back" pension time from decades-old stints of ineligible county work and therefore receive "five- or six-figure pension gains over a retirement lifetime," earlier retirements with full benefits and, in some instances, free lifetime health insurance. It also revealed a pattern of "cronyism and conflicts of interest" among county officials in key oversight roles who ignored warnings about the problems of the program while gaining financially from it. The series was the first big project started after the team was formed, and brought the combined paper its first Pulitzer. The Pulitzer, in turn, has brought Umhoefer and his colleagues a sense of validation at a time when investigative teams like theirs are being looked at by many as unaffordable luxuries.
"I think this is a good-news story for our industry," says team leader Mark Katches. "We're investing in journalism and guess what? It's paying dividends. Within a year of building our team we've won a Pulitzer Prize and other awards. I hope that's a model for other news organizations to follow."
"It's just such a lift for all of us," says Meg Kissinger, a 25-year veteran of the paper and the team's investigative health reporter. "We've always emphasized local news and made a big deal out of that, and it just seems like that's paying off, the fruits of that are being realized."
The success and validation have been years in the making.
In 2005, two of the Journal Sentinel's top brass -- Publisher Betsy Brenner and Editor Marty Kaiser -- participated in a Poynter Institute conference titled "Creating a Watchdog Culture: Claiming an Essential Newspaper Role," in part to find ways to maintain momentum stemming from the paper's string of investigative successes. In 2003, the paper was a Pulitzer finalist for explanatory writing for its look at chronic-wasting disease among deer in Wisconsin, and it won multiple awards for a series on Wisconsin jobs going to China. In 2004, the paper received attention for its ramped-up coverage of the Great Lakes and its look at the impact of Milwaukee's loss of manufacturing jobs on the city's African American population.
In 2006, Kaiser recruited Katches -- at the time investigations editor at the Orange County Register -- to be his assistant managing editor for projects and investigations, and the two began plucking top talent from newsroom beats to create an investigative team. Umhoefer was drafted, as were Cary Spivak and Daniel Bice, coauthors of a popular (and often investigative) column at the paper. Kissinger -- who had just finished a series on state neglect of people with mental illness that was a Selden Ring finalist in 2007 -- was also brought on. Before long the watchdog team was launched, with a mission to "expose wrongdoing, dysfunction, inequity and injustice and strive to hold accountable those responsible through meticulous case-building and compelling story telling."
Since then, the team has produced more than 50 investigative stories. Bice writes an investigative political column called No Quarter, and the team also maintains two blogs -- one by the team's two consumer interest reporters, Ellen Gabler and Raquel Rutledge, called the Public Investigator Blog (jsonline.com), and one the whole team contributes to called Dogged. The team members also respond to queries, provide databases and statistics that readers can use to create their own investigative work and even fill occasional weekend shifts.
The team's high productivity is a key reason it should be able to "withstand cuts and other economic downturns in our industry," Katches says. "In theory, the reporters are going to be juggling something they can get in the paper every month along with stories that they are chipping away at. The point is it's not just a team of people that's off in some corner of the building doing one story a year. They're a very productive group, with blogging and quick-hit investigations."
The team's integration into the newsroom is also essential to its success, Katches says. Each member of his team has an investigative beat that mirrors a general beat at the paper -- Umhoefer on local government, Kissinger on health, Spivak on business, etc. -- and they sit not with each other but with the other reporters on their beat. The structure builds cooperation that has led to some of the team's best work, Katches and others say.
For example, Kissinger points out that "Chemical Fallout," an investigative series on the potential dangers of household products for which she, Spivak and science reporter Susanne Rust won the 2007 Sigma Delta Chi award and the Society of American Business Editors and Writers award, was Rust's idea and the product of her knowledge and expertise.
"It's not uncommon for somebody from the team to be paired with a beat reporter," Kissinger says. "In fact, I think that's kind of the preferred formula."
The cooperation also works against the perception of a newsroom hierarchy, which just wouldn't work in the Journal Sentinel newsroom, says Spivak: "Elite doesn't play well in Milwaukee."
Katches says the team's structure speaks to the belief that the best investigative work comes from beat reporters, and Umhoefer says he agrees wholeheartedly. It was his previous work on the county beat that paved the way for his pension story, he says.
"I feel strongly about that, that beat reporters are the closest to the ground, they're able to sort of vet these ideas against trusted sources, they just have an instinct for when something has some legs to it as opposed to getting anonymous tips," Umhoefer says.
"I was perfectly positioned to understand [pensions], whereas if someone was coming in cold they would have been discouraged early on," he says, adding that he knew about the story while on the county beat but never had the time to pursue it. "In some respects I had a head start. I wasn't coming in cold searching for an idea. I had this kind of in my back pocket, just waiting for the ability to do it."
A recent Scarborough Research survey gauging how many adults in major U.S. metropolitan areas read their local newspapers ranked the Sunday edition of the Journal Sentinel first among newspapers in the country's 50 biggest metro areas, with 70 percent of the adults in its hometown market reading the paper. It ranked the paper second for daily editions, with 46.5 percent of adults in its market. Those numbers show that the Journal Sentinel has a readership that cares about local news and values local investigations like the ones provided by the Watchdog Team, Kaiser says.
"We've built a brand in Milwaukee for doing major pieces that are local, that give readers context, that dig up things and let them know what's going on around them," he says. "People read these stories. They make a difference."