Guest post from Hannah Sassaman a committed Philadelphian, longtime media activist, and coalition builder in the media reform movement.
As soon as I saw that the Philadelphia Daily News
– my city’s go-to spot for sports coverage, neighborhood happenings, police reports and news from City Hall – had won a Pulitzer Prize
, I called my dad to celebrate. The Daily News sells itself as the People’s Paper, and it’s the one you see behind the cheesesteak counter, on the ledge on the SEPTA trolley, for sale on Girard and Grey’s Ferry and down at Broad and Pattison.
When the Phillies won the series I sent my dad, born 40 blocks north of me in Overbrook, a copy of the Inquirer and the Daily News, but I have a feeling about which one is up on his wall. When Barack Obama won the presidency, I kept a copy of the Daily News for myself.
Two amazing women won the Pulitzer for my city on Monday – Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman. They investigated corrupt narcotics cops who lied about evidence, and threatened and got violent when the reporters brought the story to light. Their series – Tainted Justice
– bubbles like the best potboiler – until you remember that families’ lives and hundreds of folks accused of crimes were brought down by this corrupt team of police. Laker and Ruderman’s story has resulted in, according to the DN’s victory lap article
in Tuesday’s paper:
Their investigation into Officer Jeffrey Cujdik and other members of the Narcotics Field Unit began last February, when an informant told the reporters that the cops sometimes lied on search warrants.
Other serious allegations were uncovered during their reporting, which prompted an FBI investigation and numerous changes to police policy.
More than 50 convicted drug dealers are now fighting for new trials, alleging that officers fabricated evidence against them.
It’s clear that justice – precious to each family that won it, invaluable to a city which saw police policies change because of it – is priceless. But after I hung up the phone with my dad I wondered how much the Daily News had invested in the story. How much does real investigative reporting cost?
I don’t have the numbers for the Daily News’ Pulitzer – but lucky for us, the Pulitzer committee bestowed its investigative laurels on another worthy candidate this year – an incredible account of the choices health care professionals made in the days after Hurricane Katrina at Memorial Hospital by Dr. Sheri Fink. Her piece, “The Deadly Choices at Memorial”, made for a gripping read in the New York Times Magazine
, which published it in late August, 2009. It raised ethical questions and influenced policy. But the piece was written and underwritten at ProPublica
, an online investigative news shop. Clara Jeffery of Mother Jones
and Zachary Seward of Harvard’s Neiman Journalism Lab
both boggled at the estimated cost of the piece from Gerald Marzorati
, an editor at the Times:
Long -form journalism is expensive: The Magazine is publishing a 13,000-word piece on Sunday (it will be up online earlier) that we did in partnership with ProPublica, the independent, not-for-profit newsroom. One of ProPublica's editors and I did a back-of-the-envelop calculation yesterday of what the total cost of the piece actually was, figuring in several years of reporting and nearly a year of editing. Estimate: $400,000.
Jeffery got Marzorati to break down the cost a bit more:
2 years of reporting by a staff writer, full-time: 200k
Editing for that period by 2 ProPublica editors: 30k
Lawyering hours at ProPublica: 20K
Editing hours at the Times magazine over past year (from me to copy editors, 5 editors in all involved): 40k
Times fact-checking: 10k
Photography fees plus expenses: 40k
Times lawyering fees: 20k
Web and Web graphic costs at both the Times and ProPublica: 10k
Cost of adding 6 pages to the feature well to accommodate story: 24k
Especially the kind of journalism the Daily News produces – by and of and for a city which needs solid reporting to hold government, business, and power accountable.
Here in Philadelphia, our mainstream print papers compete with the free daily
, two free weeklies
, TV, radio, and countless local sites which produce important independent journalism. That competition is absolutely vital – because it forces newspapers to actually investigate news and generate new information, rather than reprint just one more wire story or fill the front page of the paper with another ad. Investigating news requires reporting – people dedicated to a beat or a lead, to actually finding out what’s going on.
And that matters more than ever, when the decisions that affect poor folks’ ability to get justice in the system, or to maintain the services they need, are decided in the dark. Last year, two days after Barack Obama became the president (with no small thanks to Philly), Michael Nutter tried to close 11 libraries in poor neighborhoods
, with big cuts to pools, clinics, recreation centers, and more. The economic crisis had gutted our budget, and he wanted to balance the books on the backs of community members who needed city services more than ever. But the Mayor claimed that there was a library within 2 miles of every resident in the city – and demanded we take our medicine.
The incredible Coalition to Save the Libraries
formed lightning fast, and ran great press actions across the city and at City Hall to fight the closures. But I believe the investigative reporting
by Isaiah Thompson of the City Paper
– clinched it for the people. Isaiah proved that if the Mayor got his way and was able to close his 11 libraries, that there would not be a library every 2 miles after all. He demonstrated that circulation was up in some of the libraries threatened with closure – and lent fuel to the fight. A fight the people won, by the way, with all libraries still open and the Mayor now trying to tax sodas
rather than close city services (but we can discuss that in another post). In this case, as in many others, investigative journalism allowed communities to save resources, and to prevail.
What are those libraries worth to the thousands of Philadelphia families who depend on them to apply for jobs, study, have a safe place to go to after school? Is this justice worth more than $400,000?
And I remember some friends who were evicted from their home after looking into police surveillance cameras with their neighbors. When the cops showed up, arrested them for not identifying themselves, kept them in jail for 14 hours and somehow got Licensing and Inspections, the city property wing to condemn the home, it was the reporting of Dave Davies
(original link down, sorry for reprint) and his colleagues at the Daily News
and – along with competitors at other outlets in the city (including Thompson) – that proved the cops were trying to pin charges on the homeowners to cover their asses.
What is that exposure worth? What does it mean to our communities to understand that if we investigate how power invades our homes and our families, that we might be at risk? What value do we place on that process being exposed, and on the potential of similar invasions being stopped?