AJR  Drop Cap
From AJR,   August/September 2009

Journalism in Your Face   

The award-winning Virgin Islands Daily News is committed to aggressive watchdog reporting.

By Priya Kumar
Priya Kumar (2priyak@gmail.com) is a Washington, D.C.-based writer.     

Want paradise? Try radiant sunshine, pristine beaches and cerulean Caribbean waters. Want journalistic bliss? Try hard-hitting investigations, public records battles and award-winning coverage.

Want both? Try the U.S. Virgin Islands and its largest newspaper, the Virgin Islands Daily News. Since winning the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 1995, the powerhouse paper with a news staff of 20 has racked up three dozen awards in categories such as breaking news, beat, crime, education, sports and investigative reporting.

"The Daily News is a scrappy paper," says reporter Tim Fields, 41. "It is no holds barred. It is, at times, journalism in your face."

In August the paper won its third straight Associated Press Managing Editors Public Service Award and its sixth overall for a series detailing how the U.S. territory's only cancer center cut treatment to patients while paying its CEO $750,000 in salary and perks. The paper has won multiple awards from Investigative Reporters and Editors, the Society of Professional Journalists and Associated Press Sports Editors, among others.

"We are the newspaper of record for the territory, and that's a huge responsibility," Executive Editor J. Lowe Davis says. "The original founder was a fire-breather. He wrote editorials that skinned people alive."

Ariel Melchior Sr., a printer born on the island of St. Thomas, founded the Daily News nearly eight decades ago, at age 21. The first edition rolled off the presses on August 1, 1930. The first correction: August 2, 1930, for leaving out two lines of a poem, Davis says.

Literary lapses aside, the paper has always been a force for change on the islands, which are located east of Puerto Rico. About 110,000 people live on the territory's islands; the three main islands together are about twice the size of Washington, D.C.

St. Thomas, where the paper is based, is the center of government, commerce and tourism. Forty miles south of St. Thomas and across the Atlantic Ocean's deepest trench sits the more rural island of St. Croix, which also houses one of the world's largest oil refineries. Six miles northeast of St. Thomas lies St. John. Turquoise waters, sugar-white beaches and a lush national park make this the "jewel of the Caribbean," Davis says.

But Daily News reporters are often too busy chasing stories to take advantage of the picturesque landscape. "The beach is out there, but you don't get to go there that much," reporter Joy Blackburn says. Blackburn and Fields worked on the cancer center series, "Salaries First, Patients Later," that won this year's APME award, which Blackburn calls "thrilling." Corruption is rampant across the islands and public records laws are blatantly ignored. "Government is very omnipresent here. The government likes to own everything," Davis, 68, says. "You'd think we were a communist country," she jokes.

In-depth, hard-hitting investigations are a hallmark of the Daily News. One of its most ambitious projects, titled "Contracts and Cronies," detailed how the Department of Planning and Natural Resources had set up sham companies to which it awarded contracts. The series ultimately resulted in six people going to jail.

Fields, who worked on the six-month investigation with reporter Megan Poinski, calls it the most "incredible" project he's ever worked on. He describes an instance where the two reporters went to interview a shady businessman. Poinski walked in the front door of the office building while Fields covered the back. Poinski made small talk with the man, but as soon as she identified herself as a reporter, the businessman sprinted out the back door and into a cab. Fields and Poinski chased the car, but it got away before Fields was able to jot down the license plate number. He turned to see Poinski holding up her notepad, plate number duly noted.

"It was like something out of a movie," Fields says.

After the paper ran its report, federal agencies including the FBI launched an investigation. Four years later, those involved in the scam were tried and convicted. Poinski, who covered the trials, listened with pride to prosecutors outline the case that she'd help break. Though no one mentioned the news-paper by name, it was clear the paper's investigation had spurred action.

"The community here really takes the public service that the newspaper does seriously," Poinski, 30, says. "The Daily News has the same credibility that newspapers used to have 25 years ago."

Community newspapers have fared better than their major metropolitan cousins in the face of blogs and online aggregators, and the industry's identity crisis hasn't affected the Daily News as profoundly as it has other newspapers. "The Virgin Islands are 10 to 15 years behind the curve of the rest of the nation," Poinski says. Contrary to the mainland's mantra of moving everything online right away, the Daily News doesn't post that day's new content for free until 6 p.m. If you want to read it on the Web before that, you have to buy an online subscription.

The paper's paid circulation is about 10,000, but Davis estimates that 60,000 people read it every day. Most island roads are unpaved, precluding home delivery. Businesses and street vendors sell the paper for $1, and Davis often sees skilled vendors exchange bills for papers with motorists barely slowing down. Many vendors sell the paper for decades, and then pass the job on to their children, Davis says.

Advertising revenue has shrunk during the economic downturn, but daily circulation is up by about 3 percent, Publisher Jason Robbins says, a testament to the newspaper's value in the community. "What it comes down to is a question of priorities," says Robbins, who did a stint as the Daily News' executive editor. "If you want a readership that is invested in the paper and one that trusts it and views the paper as the go-to source of information, then you've got to provide" in-depth reporting.

Some feared that commitment would wane under new ownership. In 1978, the paper's founder, Melchior, sold it to Gannett for $3.5 million. In 1997, telecommunications magnate Jeffrey Prosser paid Gannett $17 million for the paper, even after it printed stories detailing the millions of dollars in tax exemptions Prosser and his company received.

Readers and journalists feared Prosser's ownership would chill the paper's investigative fire. But the Daily News continued to publish tough stories and win awards. Ten years later, Prosser's company, Innovative Communication Corp., went bankrupt, and in June 2008 Pennsylvania-based Times-Shamrock Communications bought the paper for $6.25 million.

Through the ownership changes, investigative reporting has remained a central focus for the Daily News, not something to be squeezed into spare moments. But investigative work isn't easy when many government records aren't computerized and reporters have to pry documents as commonplace as the police blotter out of officials' hands.

When that doesn't work, the paper doesn't shy away from taking the government to court. "The Daily News versus the Virgin Islands has set a number of landmark cases," Davis says. "When our reporters walk into a meeting, everyone sits up a little straighter."

Priya Kumar

Kumar (pkumar@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant.