Bob Giles: Hello. Good evening. Good evening. I’m Bob Giles. I’m the curator of the Nieman Fellowship Program. And it is truly a great pleasure for me to welcome you to the 42nd Presentation of the Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism.
For many years this award was presented at the White House Correspondence Dinner in Washington. And in recent times, the winner was honored at the National Press Foundation Dinner, which also is held in Washington. The award ceremony has come to Cambridge this evening out of a partnership formed a year ago by the Bingham Family and the Nieman Foundation. And we are extremely pleased to have been invited to serve as stewards of this important award, and to bring the ceremony to the Walter Lippmann House.
We believe that the traditions of the Nieman Fellowship Program and its dedication to elevating the standards of journalism are an ideal match with a prize that honors investigative reporting of stories of national significance, where the public interest is ill served.
The Bingham Family and the Nieman Foundation have forged close ties over many years. Barry Bingham, Sr., patriarch of the family that owned the Courier Journal and Louisville Times, and the father of Worth Bingham, served as a member of the Nieman Selection Committee in 1957, and was a generous member of the Walter Lippmann Memorial Fund Committee that raised funds to renovate this building when the Nieman Foundation acquired it in 1978. Barry Bingham, Jr., Worth’s brother, established a fund that helped support international Nieman fellows, and Molly Bingham, Worth’s niece, was a member of the Nieman class of 2005.
The newest phase of this long relationship began in 2007, with a request from the Bingham Family that the Nieman Foundation serve as the archive for the winning entries of the Worth Bingham Prize. We were delighted to do so and quickly worked out an arrangement to take possession of the archive. The collection of winning stories is stored in the Harvard Archive, and in our display area downstairs, outside the college library you will find a photograph of Worth and information on his life and work, along with printouts of several winning entries, including last year’s series on Walter Reed Hospital by Ann Hall and Dana Priest of the Washington Post, as well as other winners from 1994, 1998, and 1972.
The Worth Bingham Prize was established in 1967, one year after his tragic death at age 34. His family, friends, and colleagues wanted to memorialize his life and honor his passionate belief that journalism has a duty to uphold the public trust.
Worth graduated from Harvard in 1954, and worked for newspapers in Minneapolis and San Francisco, before returning to Louisville and his family’s newspapers where he began to learn all aspects of the newspaper business. He covered the Kennedy-Nixon presidential campaign in 1960, an experience that influenced a growing addiction to politics in him. He joined the Washington Bureau of the Courier Journal and Louisville Times and began to build a reputation as a first-rate investigative reporter.
One of his noted pieces was “Our Costly Congress,” a six-part series published in 1962. The stories exhaustively detailed how members of congress personally benefitted from the perks — padded staff salaries, Franking privileges and travel junkets — that they appropriated themselves virtually unchecked. “Our Costly Congress” won a national headliner award, ran in newspapers across the country, and was published in condensed form by the Readers Digest. The series became the model for the kind of probing journalism the Worth Bingham’s Prize seeks to recognize.
In late 1962, Worth moved back to Louisville as assistant to his father, Barry Bingham, Sr., and to begin preparing to lead the Bingham Family business, a dream cut short in a car accident on Nantucket in the summer of 1966. We are very pleased to welcome Worth Bingham’s widow, Joan. Joan, would you please stand and let us recognize you? And their daughter, Clara. Clara, will you please …?
I also want to acknowledge and thank my Nieman colleagues who participated in the judging for the Bingham Prize: David Jackson and Rosita Boland, who helped in the selection process; and Julie Reynolds, who was one of the four judges.
Following dinner we will present the Bingham Prize to the Detroit Free Press and acknowledge the work of The Seattle Times as honorable mention. And now, please enjoy your dinner.
Bob Giles: Thank you. I’m pleased to introduce Clara Bingham, who is a former White House Correspondent for Newsweek. She wrote, “Women on the Hill,” “Challenging the Culture of Congress,” and co-authored “Class-Action,” the story of Lois Johnson and the landmark case that changed sexual harassment law.
Like her father she is a graduate of Harvard, and I’m pleased to welcome her to say a few words on behalf of the Bingham Family.
Clara Bingham: Thank you, Bob and Ellen, and everyone at the Nieman Foundation for giving our prize a new home at Harvard. I’m sure my father would be happy to know that we’re back at the institution that I tried so hard to get into. Having been — and none of us have been back except for my cousin Molly, who is here, in years. So I love having an excuse to come and be in touch with the Crimson.
Many thanks also to the judges who worked so hard selecting these worthy, wonderful winners. It’s a lot of work reading eighty-four entries, and the pay wasn’t all that good.
The Worth Bingham Prize was founded by my father’s friends, one of whom is here, John Wagley, in 1967. And who would have predicted that forty years later the newspaper industry and this flagship enterprise — investigative journalism — would be on the endangered species list. So in these scary times, my family is more grateful than ever to play a part in applauding the work of talented investigative journalists and the newspapers who support them at great and perilous expense.
The reporters and their editors at the Detroit Free Press and The Seattle Times who won the prize this year are on the front lines of democracy and the country needs you now more than ever, to continue to do your job of exposing corruption in powerful places. Thank you.
Bob Giles: Thank you, Clara. The Worth Bingham Prize honors investigative stories of national significance where the public interest is being ill-served. In his own reporting from Washington, Worth Bingham once described an atmosphere of easy tolerance that can exist in the nation’s capitol, as well as in towns and states across the nation. And the two papers we honor this evening each reflect that concern in its reporting.
Both are getting notice in other journalism award competitions for their stories. The Free Press and The Seattle Times are both winners of the 2008 George Polk Award. The Free Press is a finalist for the Goldsmith’s Prize for Investigative Reporting, to be given later this month at the Kennedy School. And Jim Schaefer has asked me not to say this, but I must tell you that The Free Press is rumored to be a front-runner for a Pulitzer Prize in Local Reporting. The Free Press series also is cited by the judges for the Selden Ring Award, which is presented at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism.
So here is how our program will unfold this evening. I will tell you first about the work of The Seattle Times and present certificates recognizing Ken Armstrong and Nick Perry as the 2008 honorable mention winners in the Worth Bingham Prize competition. Ken will then talk a little bit about their project. And then I will present the 2008 Worth Bingham Prize to reporters Jim Schaefer and M.L. Elrick of The Detroit Free Press with their certificate, and a check for $20,000. Schaefer will then tell us about how they did their stories that led to the downfall of the Mayor of Detroit. And following that, we will invite our audience to engage in a conversation with the four reporters about their outstanding investigative stories.
The Seattle Times is being honored for its four-part series, “Victory and Ruins” which shows how a community’s blind embrace of the University of Washington’s celebrated football team comprised judges, prosecutors, police agencies, a proud university, and the news media. Their series was built on information drawn from sources and from documents produced by ninety-one public disclosure requests filed with twenty-seven agencies.
The local university had become an icon of excellence for passionate college football fans in Seattle. It was a daunting task for a local newspaper to probe deeply behind the scene, revealing details that brought shame to the leaders of the university and the law enforcement community. This was not a typical subject of a newspaper investigation. As one of the Times editors wrote, “We knew there would be hell to pay.” In shining an unflattering light on one of Seattle’s favorite teams, the newspaper placed responsibility for twisted values and misplaced priorities on the community itself, and the Times did not spare its own coverage.
The story described how it ignored or glossed over the player’s criminal records. Ken Armstrong and Nick Perry found that at least two dozen players on the 2001 Rose Bowl team had been arrested while at the University of Washington, some for violent felonies. They described an old-boy network of prosecutors, judges, reporters, boosters, and university administrators that appeared to protect the wrongdoers.
David Boardman, the Executive Editor, said the series hit like a thunderclap, both in Seattle and nationally. And Sports Illustrated called the series “chilling,” and said it should be mandatory reading for every athletic department. The impact of “Victory and Ruins” lay not in changing rules and regulations, but in influencing change in attitudes and perspectives. It was a cautionary tale for any community that allows the love of sport and of winning to trump decency.
Ken Armstrong is no stranger to this award or to life at Lippmann House. He won the Bingham Prize in 2001, when he was a reporter at the Chicago Tribune, and he was here as a Nieman Fellow in the Class of 2001.
Nick Perry is a native of New Zealand, who has been honored there, and in the United States, for his journalism. He is currently a higher education reporter at The Seattle Times.
I am very pleased to present the 2008 Worth Bingham Prize Honorable Mention to Nick Perry and Ken Armstrong.
Ken Armstrong: Thank you, Bob. I really appreciate it. You mentioned the words “easy tolerance” in the opening remarks, and I think that’s actually a very apt description of what our project was about, and what we found as we continued to develop it. In our community we had an easy tolerance for looking the other way when football players got in trouble. And what made it painful was that our own newspaper was complicit in this. And that became a challenge unto itself in terms of writing about the things that we had overlooked eight years before.
I want to talk very quickly about the genesis of the series. The series started with a pet-peeve of mine. And I know that’s not the most noble of impulses; it’s not the best way to start a series necessarily. But one of my pet-peeves is whenever I see a story that mentions a confidential settlement involving a lawsuit when one of the parties is a public entity. And we see this all the time. There’ll be an AP story, or there’ll be a story in a competing newspaper, there’ll be a story in our own newspaper. And it’ll talk about a social services agency, or a public university, or a local school district that has been sued. And it’ll have a casual reference in the third paragraph to how it’s been settled for undisclosed terms.
In January of 2008 I read a column in our own newspaper about how Jeremy Stevens, a football player at the University of Washington, had been sued by a woman who accused him of rape. The woman also accused the University of Washington of creating an atmosphere that allowed this to happen. And the column said that it had been settled for terms that were undisclosed.
Whenever I see a story like that, I send in a public records request. Almost every time. And I immediately ask for all of the settlement records and all of the underlying litigation records. Because if they want it to be confidential, and they’re a public entity, one: they’re not allowed to do that. And two: it’s probably an indication that there is a good story there.
So I had sent in a records request to the State Attorney General’s Office, to the University of Washington, and the prosecutors and police agencies, asking for all of their records in this case. And the more I started looking at it, I realized that there was a story here about one football player who had been given second chances time and again. And he was such a good example for us because he went to high school in Washington State, he played college ball at the University of Washington, and he played pro ball with the Seattle Seahawks. And every step of the way he had gotten in trouble. And every step of the way he had been forgiven.
I think at all of those three levels — despite being arrested on suspicion of rape — he had been convicted. He had been charged with felony assault and convicted of assault. He had been convicted of hit-and-run. He had been convicted of D.U.I. In the entirety of his career, he had been suspended for one-half of one football game while he was at the U.W. And the coach decided that he was now remorseful and allowed him to play the second half.
So we started with…apparently he wasn’t remorseful. So we started with Jeremy Stevens. He was the player. And then as we started getting into it a little bit more, we realized that he really wasn’t the story, because he was part of the pattern. And we saw that there were other players who were on the team with him when he was at the University of Washington in 2000 that had also gotten in trouble. And in some cases it was for misdemeanors, things that were not remarkable by themselves. In other cases it was for cases of serious violence.
So what we did is, we decided to background all 107 players on that team, and find out not what kind of trouble did they get in, but how did the community institutions respond when they got in trouble. And Nick covers higher education for us. So he came on board. And Nick is from New Zealand, and he has this wonderful quality where people not only will talk to him, they like to talk to him. I’ve sat there and listened to him on the phone sometimes, and the conversations just go on, and on, and on. Because he’s a genuinely likeable reporter. And I mean they don’t have many of those, but Nick is one of them. He’s genuinely likeable. And I think the accent works for him as well.
But Nick started doing a lot of work on what was probably the most controversial player in the series. In Seattle we have a player named…there was a player named Curtis Williams. And he’s an iconic figure there. And it’s…he’s iconic because he was injured in a play, during a play on the field in the Rose Bowl Season, and he suffered a spinal cord injury that eventually killed him. So he’s often characterized as a martyr to Husky Nation. His number is painted on the field. His initials are etched in all of the Rose Bowl rings. The crowd at times will chant his name across the stadium. One side would say, “C”, which was part of his nickname, and the other side would say “Dub.” And the marching band would form the initials on the field. He’s a heroic figure there.
And he was simply one of the 107 players that we were backgrounding. And as we were doing so, we discovered something that wasn’t in any of the newspaper clips, which was that he had a horrific criminal history. He had beaten his wife repeatedly. And while the newspaper stories said that he missed the 1997 season because of academic difficulties or off-the-field difficulties, it’s because he was in jail. I mean he was in jail for three months. He had been convicted of felony assault. And because he was in jail he had to drop his classes, so he wasn’t academically eligible to play. And what was troubling is that this wasn’t an isolated incident. He had been charged at least five times with assault. He had broken his wife’s nose, he had broken her arm, he had choked her until she passed out.
And when we saw this background and recognized that it wasn’t in our newspaper or other newspapers, we knew we had a problem. And we knew that all of a sudden our newspaper was part of the story, and we would have to account for that. And it would be even more uncomfortable than it would be otherwise because I’ve written about a number of subjects that are difficult and that rile the community up, but there’s nothing like football to make a community really angry at you. And this was just going to compound that.
In dealing with that, we did a couple of things that I think helped. Nick went up to Alaska and spent three days talking with Curtis Williams’s widow, and with her mother, and explaining to her why we were doing the story, and getting a very detailed account of what had happened to her and how the university had responded.
Another thing which helped is that while we were looking at Curtis Williams, we were able to get his full academic file. Usually you’re never going to get a player’s transcript. You’re never going to get the internal personnel records. But since he had died, we were able to argue, successfully, that FERPA didn’t apply. FERPA is a federal law that says academic records are off-limits due to privacy concerns. But your privacy concerns die with you.
So Nick and I were able to get academic transcripts for Curtis Williams and for another player who had died, and it gave us a window into the university, which we hadn’t seen before. And it allowed us to see how players remained academically eligible there. And the answer, in one word, was “Swahili.” Swahili was the class that all the football players took there when they were in trouble of flunking out. Curtis Williams took thirty credits in Swahili. And without those, he would not have been eligible. He wound up graduating…or not graduating, but he wound up leaving the university with a grade point average of 2.05. And if it wasn’t for Swahili, he would have been around 1.8. And the dividing line was two.
And we found another player, Anthony Vontoure, who took twenty-five credits in Swahili. And when he got in trouble another time, he took Sexuality in Scandinavia. And that was good for a B+. And that allowed him to stay in, too. And we discovered other courses like Paper Science, which all the football players took. And that sounds like a difficult class, but it’s not science on paper. It’s the science of paper. It’s how paper is made. So you learn about pulp and things like that.
So when we got those records we realized that we had a story that would be expansive because it looked at the university’s complicity, in terms of what kind of education was the university really giving these football players. We were able to look at the prosecutors and how they had neglected to charge football players under circumstances where there was really quite strong evidence. We were able to also look at the police agencies…our own newspaper. And what we did is, we wrote about instances where a player’s criminal history was abundantly…it was there in a court file. All you had to do was read and report it, and we didn’t do it. And in some instances we did even worse: we gave a false characterization of what had really happened.
One of the things that I am personally proud of this series — and I was thinking about this the other day — is on the eve of publication our managing editor, Suki Dardarian, wrote a two and a half page memo. And the memo was point by point all of the reasons we were going to be hated for doing this series. We were going to be accused of being racist, because of the number of the players we profiled were African-American. We were going to be accused of dishonoring the dead. Curtis Williams, this Husky legend. We were…another instance was the long-time prosecutor in Seattle, Norm Maling. He had been the prosecutor for twenty-eight years, was a beloved figure, and we were casting an unflattering light on decisions that he had made.
The list went on and on. And the reason she wrote that memo was not to argue that we shouldn’t publish. It was simply to brace the people who were answering the phone. And I think as long as we have editors who write memos simply to brace us for the onslaught as opposed to saying, “Let’s not publish this,” I think we’ll be okay.
Bob Giles: Thank you, Ken and Nick. The Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism goes to The Detroit Free Press staff, and reporters Jim Schaefer and M.L. Elrick for a yearlong investigation that exposed lies, false testimony, and insider dealings by Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his top aide.
The Free Press disclosures were explosive, even for a community accustomed to scandal and corruption. The paper’s relentless coverage ignited a series of developments in Detroit, and in the state capitol, that led eventually to the mayor’s resignation…resignation and jail time for him and his Chief of Staff, Christine Beatty. The Free Press broke the story in January, 2008, revealing that the mayor and Beatty had lied about their intimate relationship and about the firing of a Detroit police investigator while he was testifying in a police whistle-blower case. The subsequent settlement with the officer cost taxpayers more than $9 million dollars.
The newspaper based its story on a review of 14,000 text messages sent to and from Beatty’s city-issued pager. The records show that Kilpatrick and his aide lied about their relationship and how he punished police officers for what they knew about his conduct. The lies had been told over the years, in depositions, before a judge and jury, and in public statements. As the paper considered how to frame the story, it decided to focus on the false statements and what was hidden from the public, rather than simply craft a tale about sex or the steamy exchanges in the text messages.
Through its reporting and a Freedom of Information lawsuit, Schaefer and Elrick discovered a secret deal the mayor and his legal team had concocted with a lawyer for the whistle-blowing police officer. The mayor then had approved an $8.4 million dollar settlement with the officer in exchange for a confidential agreement in which the text documents would be destroyed. As the paper’s revelations continued, the mayor fought back with accusations that the reporting was just “lynch mob mentality.” That the text messages had been obtained illegally and had been manipulated by The Free Press.
The mayor’s bullying did not stick, and as he finally pleaded guilty to two felonies, surrendered his law license, and agreed to pay $1 million dollars in restitution to city taxpayers, it was clear that The Free Press stories were accurate, told the truth, and performed a remarkable public service. Since its first exclusive story in January, 2008, The Free Press has published more than 500 stories, and more than 100 editorials. The paper also has printed more than 300 readers’s letters, and posted more than 100,000 comments online.
Jim Schaefer has worked as an investigative producer for a local television in Detroit and has held a number of assignments at The Free Press. For the 2008 award year, he received a number of honors, including the Nancy Dickerson Whitehead Award for a special report on the drug, Fentanyl.
M.L. Elrick began his journalism career nearby here, at the Monitor in Concord, New Hampshire. He also worked as an investigative reporter.
In this difficult time for newspapers, we cherish the opportunity to celebrate great investigative stories. The Free Press story is one to restore trust in the criticle role of journalism and to remind us that perhaps only a newspaper could have done this story. And so it is a great honor to present the Worth Bingham Prize and a check for $20,000 to The Detroit Free Press staff and reporters, Jim Schaefer and M.L. Elrick.
Jim Schaefer: Well, I don’t know who wrote that, but it was much better than what I wrote here, so bear with me. Ken and Nick, again, great job on your story. It was a wonderful piece of work. I think we should give them another round of applause.
Ken Armstrong: Let’s split the money, Jim.
Jim Schaefer: I knew that somehow you would steal the show. Wait until he gets up in these chairs. He’s a real piece of work. And I hate these podiums. They’re not made for tall guys. I can’t even see this, what I’ve written here.
My name is Jim Schaefer and my former friend, M.L. Elrick, was my equal partner on this project. I am indebted to him, just as both of us are indebted to the many people at The Free Press who teamed up with us after we initially broke the Kwame Kilpatrick text message sandal.
Over the last year and a half our investigation grew into virtually a staff-wide project. Many other reporters, editors, photographs, videographers — that’s a new word for our business — and top managers, helped us see Kwame Kilpatrick’s text message scandal through to the end when he resigned and went away to jail last fall.
We could not have completed this story without lots of help, and we are thankful for all of it. And we are very grateful to be here tonight among such esteemed colleagues. It’s gratifying to receive recognition from your peers who knows what it takes and how hard it is — especially with the state of the newspaper industry — to produce stories of this magnitude. So thanks to you all, especially to the Bingham Family, for honoring us here tonight.
When we got a hold of Kwame Kilpatrick’s text messages, we had an unbelievable story on our hands about a man who just could not tell the truth. He betrayed his constituents, he betrayed his wife, he even betrayed his lover. Late night trysts, fancy hotel rooms, winter getaways in Colorado, even splendor in the office. We had it all, down to the explicit details right in the very words of Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick and his Chief of Staff, Christine Beatty. They typed prolifically on little handheld paging devices, which were paid for with taxpayer money, leased by the City of Detroit. They did this when they were in the office, exchanging sweet nothings, come-ons and even get away plays for late night rendezvous.
As we paged through a stack of about 14,000 messages, we knew right away from the first message, that we had a hell of a story on our hands. We knew it would be a story fit for the tabloids or the blogosphere, or even investigative entertainment television. Our fingers might have even trembled as we thought about getting to the nearest keyboard. What a story.
And then we met with our editors at The Free Press. A sensible bunch of men and women, maybe a little too stiff now that I think about it, but they were very smart people. And they reminded us of something that we knew all along from the first moment we got our hands on these texts. This was a story with sex in it, yes, but there was much more to focus on. We wanted to write about lies, and how many lies, and how outrageous the lies were that Kwame Kilpatrick had told over the years.
But our top editors asked us to focus our first story on a particular subset of the lies. Beyond all those steamy exchanges that confirmed their affair, what was the real story they asked us. What was the thing that citizens who elected Kilpatrick needed to know the most? That the Mayor of Detroit and his top aide had lied about it, about their affair under oath in a heavily publicized police whistleblower trial a few months earlier, that focused specifically on the allegations that they had had an affair. They had possibly committed perjury, which in Michigan is a fifteen year felony.
And as we dug deeper into these texts, we began honing in on other leads and the possible corruption. Things like hints of insider dealings on city contracts, and potential misuse of public funds. We knew we had all those stories, too. And yes, we still had the sex. We were going to get that in. But The Free Press wanted to do it responsibly. We had 14,000 messages, but we didn’t just throw them all up on the Internet as somebody else might have done. In fact, we still haven’t done that to this very day.
The newspaper put an extraordinary amount of sweat and thought into what we published. In the end, the decision was made to use only what we needed to show readers to make the point that a possible crime — perjury — had been committed here. The paper didn’t need…didn’t feel the need to bury people in an avalanche of salaciousness. Plus, there were other names of individuals in those messages that really didn’t have anything to do with the business of the City of Detroit.
But long before we could publish, we had a lot of hurdles. Some of them we can’t talk about because we got…we had sourcing issues with our…how we got the messages. But our biggest concern was, were these text messages real? We had gotten them from a source, but we needed to corroborate their authenticity. Did somebody sit here and just type these things up? We didn’t know.
Thankfully, and in large part due to my former friend here’s penchant to collect documents and keep them forever, we had other documents that we used to cross-reference the text messages with events we knew to be real. And other information that we knew was authentic. For instance, Kilpatrick complained in one text that he was having trouble getting into a Los Angeles Lakers game one night in L.A. He wrote a message to Christine Beatty that said, “Oh, they’re giving me all kinds of grief. They don’t believe I’m the Mayor of Detroit. I’m going to have to have my security guy badge us in.”
From a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit that we had owned in 2005, we had Kilpatrick’s appointment calendar and his credit card records, among other documents. His calendar confirmed he was in L.A. that day that he sent the text message, and his credit card receipts showed airfare to L.A. around that time.
In another example we found text messages that indicated the Mayor and his Chief of Staff had met up at a Colorado ski resort. We thought that was interesting. Was this a business trip? We checked Kilpatrick’s calendar to see what he was up to that particular day, and there were only two words for the entire day on that calendar. “Gone Fishing,” and it had three exclamation points after it. So we knew this was a pleasure trip with his lover, paid for in part with city funds, which we confirmed by looking at his credit card receipts. They put the rental car on the city’s tab.
We cross-referenced and layered documents like this on many other situations until we assured ourselves that the text messages we had were real and sent by Kilpatrick himself. Now, as an aside, we had convinced ourselves and our editors, but not until the Mayor issued a press release at about 10:15 the night we broke the story on the Web, at about 10:30 p.m., where he said, “These text messages represent a very painful period in my life,” did we finally breathe a sigh of relief and know that we could go with this with 100 percent confidence.
One of the other challenges, after our initial publication of the text messages, was getting to the truth of another matter of huge public importance. I think this is almost bigger than proving he lied under oath. We suspected that Kilpatrick had used millions of dollars in taxpayer money in a secret deal intended to hide his text messages forever, the very messages that we had. So we FOIA’d for the documents in a Freedom of Information Act Request, which we believed was part of a settlement deal in the police whistleblower case that I mentioned earlier.
The City told us it didn’t exist…denied our FOIA request. A city lawyer later even stood up in court and told a judge that it did not exist. But we had done enough reporting — Mike and I had been covering the Mayor of Detroit together since 2002 — that we knew we weren’t being told the truth. So we had to try to convince our newspaper to sue. We actually convinced them to sue.
And along the way, the newspaper won every ruling. Even while Kilpatrick kept appealing all the way to the Michigan Supreme Court, and denying along the way to the Michigan Supreme Court, that there was a secret deal. In the end we won access to a court settlement, cut in secret, that paid out $8.4 million dollars in city funds to three former cops and their lawyer who had gotten their hands on Kilpatrick’s text messages. And they were the very messages that we had eventually unearthed ourselves. It was a simple deal: money for silence. And no one was supposed to ever speak about it again. But our lawsuit eventually exposed this secret because we got a hold of it in writing.
Now, there are several lessons that we’ve taken from our investigation. One of them is to keep digging. Mike and I had been trying to get text messages from Mayor Kilpatrick since 2002 — when he covered the Mayor as a beat — and noticed that while they were talking on interviews that he would be texting people. And this was before many of us had text messaging machines. So he sent out a FOIA request in 2002 that was denied.
They told us the records were inaccessible, so we forgot about them until 2004, when the attorney in the whistleblower case had asked for these messages…tried to subpoena them several times. And we had been told that the City had done some shenanigans to make those subpoenas not be fulfilled. Filed motions to quash, you know, would go into court. We were told they even called Skytel, the company that held these messages, and threatened them that if they ever released these things they were going to sue them to the ends of the earth. So we were trying to get these things all the time. Knocking on doors, talking to people. We were trying to be resourceful and eventually it paid off.
The biggest takeaway I think that we have from this story is not that the mayor was felled, but that it reinvigorated our news room and others around the country. It proved to us again — and I think we all know this — that journalism can be a beacon in today’s troubled times.
And the way readers responded to our investigation was almost overwhelming, from the very first day. We had worked on it so long that we were sort of jaded at the end and underestimated the impact that our first story would have. But it went through the roof, and immediately we were getting e-mails and phone calls from readers saying, “This is why I buy the newspaper. This is why I count on my newspaper. This is your job. You should continue to do this.”
And events like tonight remind me that good journalism is still wanted and still very necessary in our world. So thank you so much for support it. And from both of us, thank you very much for this honor tonight.
Bob Giles: While we’re waiting for our guests to be mic’d up, I want to ask you to acknowledge the wonderful work on this dinner and program by Ellen Tuttle who is…who has helped really bond our relationship with the Bingham Family and worked so gravely and diligently in putting all of the details together, including the printing and the copy for this program that illustrates tonight’s program. Ellen, Thank you so much.
So we’re open for questions. I’d like to take the privilege of asking the first one, and to ask Jim and Mike, if you could tell us first, without identifying your source, exactly how did this information first come to you? Was it a phone call? Was it a secret night meeting in a Detroit bar? Was it something like that? And second of all, what was the form in which the text messages came to you? Was it on paper? Was it electronic? How did you sort of work your way through sorting it out and making sense of it?
Jim Schaefer: Do you want me to just give you the name? These are really tough questions because we try to avoid these because there’s still a possibility that there’s going to be a civil lawsuit in this case. And I don’t know if anybody’s been following Detroit journalism politics lately, but we have a reporter named Dave Ashenfelter who is being threatened with being thrown in federal prison right now because he won’t give up a source in a civil lawsuit. A guy…former federal prosecutor in Detroit is suing the Justice Department. This was a prosecutor who mishandled a terrorism trial in Detroit after 9/11, withheld evidence apparently from the defense attorneys. At least that was the allegation against him.
Dave did a story about that guy being under investigation by the Justice Department and now he’s suing the Justice Department and he wants Dave to give up his source. Detroit is one of the only federal appellate districts in the nation where reporters do not have any First Amendment protection under federal law. So we’re a little leery of answering too many questions about that. I don’t know if I’ve provided enough foundation, but —
But no, we got them the old fashioned way. I mean we told people that this did not involve electronic tricks. What we didn’t do was break into somebody’s office and steal them, which I think is what the Mayor of Detroit at one point was intimating about our methods. We got them from a source, and we worked hard to get them, and we think we did everything ethically and legally to get them.
Bob Giles: And they were in printouts or how did — ?
Jim Schaefer: Well, the way we went through the documents, we had a stack — is that about as big as they were? We’re not very advanced in terms of computer-assisted journalist types. We went through every one of them by hand and with highlighters. And eventually we did have them electronically and were able to sort them and search for terms that we were interested in. But the first run through the first couple of weeks was all reading on paper, am I right?
M.L. Elrick: Yeah.
Bob Giles: David? Oh, I’m sorry. Go ahead, Mike.
M.L. Elrick: No. He was right.
Bob Giles: David?
David: I was struck by the fact that both incredible stories were linked by the fact that they were — both involved seemingly confidential settlements of government agencies or a public institution. And it takes a great deal of expertise to even know that those sort of settlements aren’t public, let alone to do the kind of public records work that gets you the details of the litigation.
And I wonder if we can hear from you about that expertise and what its future is now as print journalism, certainly, and broadcast journalism also, is losing the capacity to do expensive investigative reporting and losing the veterans who know how to do this kind of work.
Ken Armstrong: For us it was a timely subject because we were just coming off of a project on improperly sealed court records. And our paper spent more than $200,000 litigating to get forty lawsuits opened. Even now, two years later, that wouldn’t happen. You know, we would not be able to convince our editors to spend $200,000 to litigate anything. And I was struck when Jim was talking about the same thing, that you were able to convince your editors to sue.
It is so expensive to sue. So even if you’re going to win, you’re probably not going to get attorney fees. It’s very hard to get attorney fees. That’s an entirely different threshold. So you have to have ownership that’s not only committed to it, but that has the financial means to pursue it. And I think we’re going to have problems with that more and more. And you’re seeing public agencies that are becoming more aggressive in sealing these records.
One of the forty that we got unsealed involved a local school district. They not only had the lawsuit sealed, they had a provision in the confidentiality settlement whereby all of the documents that had been exchanged in discovery were to be returned to the school district so that they could destroy them. They had a provision where all of the electronic records would be deleted.
All of the victims were forbidden to speak about it. They weren’t even allowed to speak about it to their therapists. These were cases where they had been sexually molested by a teacher at the school. I think that when newspapers back away from suing you’re going to see public agencies that are going to become more and more emboldened and you’re going to see more settlements like that.
M.L. Elrick: One thing that we’ve seen in Michigan that I think is even more troubling than — well, actually there’s nothing more troubling than our inability to wage the cost of legal battles — but we’re having agencies agree to provide the documents to us, but it’s at a price that would make most folks faint. We’re asking for simple things such as the expenses of university trustees. Now, I know that my expenses all go into a file that says “Elrick,” and then there’s a file that says “Termination” right next to it…. This trip may cause some problems for us.
But they’ll say that we can get these for you, we have them, you’re entitled to them, but it’s going to take one of our most highly-trained officials at this university who makes $50 an hour, who’s already overworked so they have to do it on overtime, so I have to give them time and a half, it’ll take them 100 hours. Then the copying will take us…we’ll have to by a special copier to make these for you. So you can have them, but it’ll cost you $40,000.
So they haven’t denied our FOIA’s, but in effect what they have done is they’ve put us in a terrible position. Because, I think — and we haven’t done this yet — but any judge we would go to to ask, “We’re having a problem getting these records,” they’d say, “What’s the problem? Give them $40,000, they’ll give you the records. And if you feel like they overcharged you, then you can come back to court.”
Well, we’ve had situations where we’ve gone to court and they’ve said, “You know what? What’s the lawsuit? You got what you wanted. Get the hell out of here.” And that’s a real problem because then it’s…if you are inclined to sue, it’s tough to even get somebody to care in the first place.
Bob Giles: Anna?
Anna: Both of the stories involved some thorny racial aspects, and I was wondering, do you both come from news rooms where you can have that conversation up front, and if so, how did it go? I mean, can you walk us through some of that? How did you address the racial aspects?
M.L. Elrick: Well, we work for a bunch of old white guys. And so they’re very uncomfortable dealing with race because it’s something where they feel vulnerable to people saying, “You know what? This is a story about the city. You’re a white guy, you’re from the suburbs, what do you know about life in the city?”
And I think one of the things that has inoculated us a little bit about that is some of our senior editors are not only of color, but do live in the city, and some of the reporters who worked on the stories live in the city, which allows us to sort of defend ourselves against that. But any time race becomes a factor and people…it’s sort of like when you laugh at inappropriate jokes and, “Should I have laughed at that? I mean, I feel bad that I laughed at that.”
People double-think everything. It complicates everything. People just turn themselves into pretzels, and I think the way that Jim and I have always tried to look at it is, forget all the proper nouns. Forget everybody’s background. This is what was said: this is what the truth is. And that’s just as simple as it should be. But it does complicate everything because you have to try and figure out how you’re going to justify it when someone who you truly have caught in a snare is going to try and sort of confuse everybody. Try and…like the octopus, blow so much ink in the water that you can’t really see what it is you’re going after in the first place. And I mean I think we got through it okay.
Jim Schaefer: Just to piggyback on that real quickly…Bob, you mentioned that the Mayor did address what was happening to him in the State of the City speech. He said this was a lynch mob mentality coming after him. Now, this was two or three months after our first story ran. And you wouldn’t believe how that landed with a thud in Detroit.
Now, a lot of people who think Detroit — and it rightfully has been described as one of the most racially separated areas in the country — would be surprised to know that. But at the same time our story never was challenged for accuracy from the get go. The Mayor left town when our story broke, instead of addressing it. He fled town for a week, literally. Went down to Tallahassee where he has another house. And he didn’t come out and explain anything until a week later he came up and made an apology on live television from a church with his wife, and told everybody he was sorry and would try to do better.
So race didn’t become an issue from his mouth until two or three months into our story. By that time the majority black city council was asking the governor of Michigan to remove him. The black Wayne County prosecutor was about to charge him with eight felonies. And it wasn’t just The Free Press making his life difficult. So it sort of worked out that way.
Nick Perry: Well, we looked at the players that…you know, twenty-four players that had committed crimes on that team, the three that had committed the most egregious crimes were all African-American. And that was unfortunate because it would have made our life easier if one of them had been white, quite frankly. But that’s just the way it was.
But then when we looked at the most inspiring story on the team as well, that was an African-American player as well. And in all cases, these were the four best stories hands down. And so we thought it was going to be, I think, more of an issue before we published it. And that was one of the things that we were talking a lot about, how we were going to answer those kind of charges.
But it didn’t turn out to be too much of an issue. It was — it wasn’t raised that much.
Bob Giles: Other questions? Connie?
Connie: I just finished this morning, reading The Breakthrough by Gwen Ifill, and I wonder whether the story of Kwame Kilpatrick tells us anything. I mean was he — is he — was he a breakthrough politician? You know, sort of how does his story form a — does it say anything about the politics of the moment? We’ve just had this incredible political season that — it’s sort of different, not in the investigative realm, but I wonder whether you’ve had thoughts about that.
M.L. Elrick: Well, he’s certainly not a breakthrough. Kwame Kilpatrick is the third black mayor to leave the City of Detroit. Detroit’s been run by black mayors since 1973. Kwame Kilpatrick is so young that he had no memory whatsoever. He was born after the Detroit riot, which was a very seminal moment back in ’67. And he had no participation, no appreciation for the whole Civil Rights Movement. In fact, he was known for saying, “It’s time for us to put the racial politics of the past behind us.” Now, when he got in trouble they came in very handy.
But he was someone who was running a black city, that had been a black-run city for decades before he came to that point. If there was sort of a breakthrough moment it’s something that Jim alluded to a moment ago, which is during his State of the City speech he tried to play the race card, and it went nowhere. Because I think as most enlightened people won’t be surprised to learn, black folks don’t like to get ripped off either. Everybody’s alike in that regard.
And if there was sort of a monumental moment in all of this, it may be that in the City of Detroit, going to that same old one-note strategy isn’t going to be good enough anymore. And frankly, I think everybody in Detroit and in Michigan is going to benefit from that. Because now we have to really talk about the issues. But I haven’t read the book, so I don’t know if I’m missing something.
Bob Giles: Rosita?
Rosita: It’s a question for both reporting teams, and it’s really, I suppose, a technical one. But I wonder if you could maybe tell us a little bit about the process. It was obviously incredibly time consuming. Did this take all your day? Were you also working other stories? Maybe you could just tell us a bit about the process of the investigation.
Ken Armstrong: It did. It did take every day. And every hour of every day. I worked on it for about ten months, and Nick came on and worked on it for about six months, exclusively. But Nick would also —
Nick Perry: Not exclusively in my case.
Ken Armstrong: Wishful thinking on my part. It’s an organic process, for lack of a better word. What was difficult about ours is that the story kept changing, and the way we were going to tell it kept changing. At one point it was an eighteen-part series. It was going to be a serial narrative. And I wanted each of the eighteen parts to be long. I wanted to write a book in a newspaper. And my editor, God bless him, was supportive until he saw the book. Then he wasn’t quite so supportive.
But he allowed me to go ahead and write eighteen 100 inch stories. And my thinking was that I would do one story for print. We would do it on three consecutive Sundays, and then we would do eighteen parts on the web. And when it turned out that we wouldn’t be able to work that, we struck it down to four parts. And then we had to rewrite each one of those to fit a new format.
So I think where a lot of our work came in was in the writing and just deciding on the form. The reporting itself, we got a lot of it done early, got a lot of interviews done early. Then it was just a question of how are we going to tell it.
Rosita: Now you are writing a book.
Ken Armstrong: Yes, that’s right. Now we’re writing a book. That’s right.
Nick Perry: We’ve gone back to that original form actually. I mean it was originally going to be chronologically for the 2000 year, finishing with the Rose Bowl and — well, not finishing ,but — and then we found that the easiest way to do it was through the four profiles. But now we’ve gone back to original method for the book.
But with the news room, for me I came in as the higher education reporter so I was trying to juggle that beat a little bit as well, and he told me that this would just be three months. You know, just during the summer break and I’ll be right back come fall. Got extended out a little bit, but that was okay.
But I think it may be kind of a model that news rooms want to look at a little more too, I think in the future because to have reporters freed up for a year or two years is going to be harder and harder to do given the smaller staff. And so if you can do a beat and do stuff on the side, and kind of gather string and then maybe be put on it full-time for three or four months, I think. And teaming up with somebody like Ken, I think that ended up working really well.
Jim Schaefer: And in terms of our story, we’re very fortunate…I don’t think…I don’t know that we’ll have another story where they let us do this, but he and I have been doing this for a year and a half full-time. I mean I write a Sunday feature column that annoys him because I take time to do it, but other than that, this is all we do. And even today, I mean I called in some quotes for a story that two other guys are putting together for Sunday’s paper. Don’t tell the Detroit News about — I can’t tell you what it’s about.
And the other way that this story consumed our lives and even so today is because of the Internet. We’ve been producing videos, doing voiceover on videos, writing stories, writing scripts. And both he and I have television backgrounds, so that really came in handy. And our investigation quickly grew so beyond our ability to write about it that everyone in the newsroom was contributing. I mean there’s probably 700 stories now, and I know we didn’t write all those.
And the Internet, the way it really…we broke the story on the internet. We have a video at the beginning and the end, and many in between that tell the whole story of Kwame Kilpatrick. And our investigation was a running investigation because it caused so many things to happen that every day there were stories breaking that were exclusives on our Web site, that literally we might have ten exclusives in a day because things were happening so fast.
And what it did was, when I said “reinvigorated our newsroom,” it literally, our Web traffic increased 100 percent over the year before, just because — well, Mitch Albom, we have him too, but —
M.L. Elrick: Red Wings.
Jim Schaefer: And the Red Wings. But we like to think a lot of it is because of this story. But it has consumed us. Hopefully we can move on, but we’re trying to put together a book too, so —
Male: Did either of your projects conclude that there was a limit of what you could put on the Web that people would read as compared to the long series in the paper? I mean, could you put 2,000 words on the Web and expect people to read it in the same way they would in the news columns?
M.L. Elrick: I’m not sure there’s any way to quantify that. Once they click on it we sort of initially — and this has just changed recently — you could get the whole take in one click. And what we’ve started doing now is breaking it into segments. So that if we did have a longer piece like that we could track that now, but before we weren’t able to do that.
But a lot of what we would do is we would blog from the courtroom. We’ve gone to a point where judges would yell at you for reading a paper, even chewing gum and if your eyes closed for a second God help you because a bailiff was going to come and roust you. Now we’re blogging from the courtroom. We’re sending live video out over the courtroom. And just recently we’ve had — two different judges in the past two weeks — have come up to us before we left the courtroom or spoke to us shortly after we left the courtroom to say, “My Clerk printed out your blog what was going on. I think you missed this legal point that I was trying to make in my ruling.”
So a lot of what we’ve written, some of it that people have really consumed in great quantities, maybe three paragraphs. You know, Kwame Kilpatrick has just been sentenced to jail. He’s scratching his head and appears to be crying. Feed. And then you say follow up and say, “He’s not crying. He’s really just sweating.” You know, and then there’s another feed. People are, — we’re basically putting out extra editions every few minutes. We’re really going back to the old style of journalism where when you have something to tell people you get it out on the street as soon as you possibly can. And it’s just — it’s — the Web site is just — there’s a lot of folks cheating the boss out of a hard day’s work reading The Free Press and we’re thankful for every single one of them.
Ken Armstrong: Our experience was the opposite, I think. The story on Jeremy Stevens was, I think, 190 inches long. It took four pages, four blank pages. And it’s the longest story that’s run in the paper since we’ve been there. And it was one of the most read ever. They did the numbers where they do heat maps, and it was being read all over the country.
And you’d look at the threads on different blogs and people would write things like, “Brew a pot of coffee before you hit this link, but it’s worth it.” “If you’ve got thirty minutes, this is worth it.” And it was nice for us because I’ve always argued that people will read long if it’s interesting. And we wrote it as a story. If it’s short and boring, they’re not going to read it. If it’s long and boring, they’re not going to read it. But if you tell it as a story, which is what we were really striving to do, I think people will have patience for long form even on the web.
Nick Perry: Yeah. I think it’s a mistake to think that you can just make it endless because it’s the Web and it’s got a limitless amount of space. It’s still got to have those same story-telling elements and engage people, just the way a newspaper on the printed page would.
Bob Giles: Nancy?
Nancy: I have a question, and I’m sort of not including Nick and Ken. But perhaps my assumption is wrong. I wanted to ask Jim and Mike, was there ever any point in which you were afraid, even perhaps for your safety? And then the second part of that was — and this would apply to all four of you — what was the impact on your families? The efforts that you made?
M.L. Elrick: Well, I’d be more afraid if I was writing about football players. We wrote about a former football player who was — gotten a little soft. But, I — we didn’t have very many threats. You know, we had been going after the Mayor for years and had never really felt in danger. There were some of his associates that we were a little worried about and — because I live in the city of Detroit, and even when you’re not writing about the mayor — police response time is terrible.
When I would write about — and when you get there the cops might shoot you. But when — and then put a gun in your hand. But when I —
Male: Did that happen to you?
M.L. Elrick: It’s a guy I knew. My dad was a cop, by the way, so I may know what I’m talking about. But when we wrote about some of the Mayor’s more felonious associates, on those nights I would send my wife and kids to stay at my mom’s house in another city, which was really nearby. No one even drove slowly by our homes. But we always sort of told folks we had A-1 insurance. As long as we’re putting these stories on A-1, he’d be crazy to go after us because he’d be a pretty obvious suspect.
Jim Schaefer: But at the same time I think our wives were worried. We both have small children, and we weren’t there very much. And I know that weighed on my wife particularly heavy. But she stood through it and stuck it out, and she’s still breathing. I give her all the credit in the world. I had one agreement with my wife during the Kilpatrick story and that was she wouldn’t give…she came up with this by the way, not me…. But she said, “I won’t give you grief about how many hours you’re working as long as you call me first when you have an exclusive breaking news item.” And I lived up to it, and I’m still breathing.
But it did have an — I was telling you earlier…I have a six-year-old daughter who was five most of the time we were doing this. I also have an eight-year-old and a nine-year-old. And I didn’t think my five-year-old knew anything about this story. And my wife was taking her to school one day and I called up to fulfill my duty to give her the breaking news, and I told her something and my wife always turned around and told the children what the breaking news was. And she said, “There’s breaking news,” and my five-year-old said, “What? Kwame didn’t kill Patrick? Kwame didn’t kill Patrick?” So — and Patrick is a SpongeBob character who’s very important to people with young kid’s lives.
So while I thought it didn’t have any affect on my family — that’s a funny story — but my five-year-old knew what I was working on, and was to some extent, worried about it. So you can’t underestimate what you put your families through when you do these kinds of things.
Nancy: How about your family?
Bob Giles: Julie? Oh, I’m sorry.
Ken Armstrong: It was interesting for me because Seattle is a small city. I used to work in Chicago and I never wrote a story in Chicago where I had personal involvement with people I was writing about. And in this instance it was different. People in Seattle know one another. And one of the people we were writing about in the series in a way that was not flattering lived in my neighborhood. He had lived in this neighborhood. And the playground where my kids play is named after his daughter. It’s Karen’s Playground.
And a lot of people who I see at our — at their — schools are friends or were friends with Norm Maling. And I expected there to be personal repercussions. And Jim, I guess it’s true, football ignites passions in a way that it’s hard to underestimate. And I was worried about writing about Curtis Williams. And I was trying to brace Ramona as much as possible, because I didn’t think that she…she’s not a sports fan. And I was trying to explain to her that it’s not just that we’re writing about this beloved football team, we’re writing about Curtis Williams and Norm Maling.
And I expected it to be bad. And it was bad on sports radio. There were a lot of very, very nasty things said about Nick and I on sports radio. And they were giving out the number to cancel the subscription to The Seattle Times, the radio jocks were. But never any threats.
Nick Perry: We did get some like non-specific threats, but they…when it was first published. There was some that came in to the paper, but nothing that could be taken too seriously. Like just people saying, “We know where you are. We know who you are. We know how to find you,” and stuff like that. But that seemed to die down pretty quick. But yeah, it was…I mean we decided…we kind of made the decision not to go on Talk Radio. But yeah, it was kind of brutal listening to yourself being torn down. And even — everybody in the area seems to be involved —
My parents run a bed-and-breakfast back in New Zealand, it got back to them. Because they had some folks from Seattle staying and they’re like, “Oh, you know, my son lives in Seattle. He works for the newspaper.” And they’re like, “Oh, that’s interesting. What does he do?” And they’re like, “Oh, well, he wrote the story about football,” and like I think that was the last thing that they…that was the end of the conversation right there. And it was, “okay, see you later.”
Ken Armstrong: My favorite part of the reaction was the blogosphere loves a conspiracy. And if there’s not one there, they’ll find it. And once we wrote the series, all these fans became obsessed with where Nick and I went to college. Because we obviously had a vendetta against the University of Washington. And somebody discovered that I went to Purdue. Purdue happens to be the school that lost to Washington in the Rose Bowl that year. So I was found out. And they had solved the mystery. I was nursing some eight year old grudge over a Rose Bowl that I didn’t even watch. I was a Nieman Fellow that year and I had things that were more fun to do than watch the Rose Bowl. But then they became obsessed with Nick. And they wanted to know where did Nick go to. Surely he went to Oregon or Washington State. One of the other PAC-10 schools. And Nick went to the University of Canterbury. And they were never going to find that. But I’m sure if they had found out that Nick went to the University of Canterbury they would have found some way to connect that to Washington and the Rose Bowl.
But it was just so much fun watching the threads and everybody speculating. They’re all doing searches, these different databases, to find out where we went to school.
Nick Perry: Yeah, it was…I mean and, you know, we were published five days before recruit signing [inaudible] and so obviously that was time for that. And then our managing editor went to the school. There were so many different conspiracy theories it was kind of laughable.
Bob Giles: Okay. We’re going to do Julie, and Tommy, and Margie, and Ernie, and then we’ll have to wrap it up.
Julie: Can I squeeze two questions in? Well, okay. You didn’t answer that so I’m going to take that as a yes. The first one is for the Seattle guys. It was just really to me, what struck me in your stories, I mean I guess I don’t — I underestimated the power of football. So to me the things that you guys really hit that were sacred cows were the district attorney’s office turning a blind eye, and your own newspaper. And I wonder what the blow back was from those two forces. Because to me those are like very powerful entities that are rarely questioned.
And then the second quick question is both of your newspapers are considered to be endangered out in the blogosphere that talks about these things. And I just wonder where you see the future investigative reporting considering where your newspapers are at. And maybe the significance of what you’re doing in light of the fact that they’re considered in trouble.
Nick Perry: Well, there was some awkward conversations within the newsroom. Especially like trying to talk to some of the sports reporters that had worked on the stuff earlier. And we were chatting with one sports reporter who was helping us work on the series when he started describing how he’d had some court records at one point. And it’s like, boy, you know, is this…do we have to interview him? You know, can we…you know, how do we deal with that.
But I think we kind of — we were able to work through those issues. Within — there was some amount of tension between the news side and the sports side when it came time to publish. But, and it was interesting, because we ended up getting some e-mails from some folks in sports that were very much praising the series and others we didn’t hear from at all, and it’s like, okay. But so there was some tension, I think, over that.
And with the King County prosecutor, the guy that was prosecutor at the time, Norm Maling, he had since died. But his understudy, Dan Satterberg, who was very close to him and kind of had him as a mentor, we — he didn’t actually speak to us directly in the end, but we spoke to his kind of lieutenants and that was a little awkward. And they had a very different spin on what happened, and what it meant, and what they did, and what they didn’t do, I think that the documents kind of indicated was the truth.
Ken Armstrong: I think what helped us tremendously there is that we had the lead police detective on the record. And she was saying, “This case was handled differently because he was a football star.” And it was on the record. It was explicit. She walked us through all of the different things that the prosecutor’s office did that was exceptional to this case, that wouldn’t have happened in another sexual assault case that she had handled. And the fact that she was willing to speak to candidly about that helped us tremendously.
It wasn’t simply something that divining from the records, although the records were exceptional and had her chronological narrative of her entire investigation. But here she was saying, “This is where I believe they went sideways with this. And if he hadn’t been a football player, this case would have been charged, in my view.” So that helped us tremendously.
Nick Perry: And she was able to do that because she had just recently retired from the force. She wouldn’t have been in that position otherwise.
M.L. Elrick: I think as we get…Jim and I both have a little T.V. background and so as these stories were coming out, the one thing T.V. does really well is promote stuff. Now, when you come to see what they’re hyping, it’s not worth waiting for. What newspapers do bad is say, “Don’t look at this great story. Please don’t look at it.” And then the story is tremendous. And so we’ve tried to get them to think a little bit more about promotion and trying to get people to think about what’s coming so that they…we build an appetite.
But while investigative reporting is expensive — even if you can avoid a lawsuit — just because of overtime and because of reporters who are not available to do other things. As far as The Free Press I mean it’s — you know, our Web site, traffic has taken off. When we had a meeting talking about various newsroom issues and I said, “Well, when we do a Kilpatrick story what happens with the newsstand sales?” And our circulation is about 300,000 a day. And early on we were told when there’s a Kilpatrick story, a good one, a big one, we sell 18,000 more copies on that day. Now, that’s not why we do them, but it sure helps cover the overtime tab when you’re selling extra papers.
And I think what our bosses have taken out of this is that investigative reporting is good for business. It reinforces in people’s minds that there are other places to get news and information in Detroit. Or if it’s big and it’s dirty and it takes somebody with guts, your first stop is going to be Free.com or The Free Press. And so if you want to think of it — and I hate to think of these things in business terms, but in terms of branding The Free Press for our community and for people who can search websites anywhere in the world, if it’s about Detroit they’re going to go to The Free Press first because they know that we made a commitment to this stuff. The trick is for us to continue to be that sort of destination for people. And that’s not easy.
Jim Schaefer: And you may have heard, we have a pretty wacky publisher in Detroit who has decided to make us the guinea pig for the entire country. We’re cutting out home delivery four days a week starting in three weeks. And the reason he’s doing that is so he doesn’t have to cut the newsroom staff like everybody else is doing. And it is an either suicidal decision or a wonderful one. And everybody is looking — he tells us — he says four of the top papers in the country have been begging him to let them come and see if it this is going to work here because they’re thinking about doing it.
So while the trend is to cut staff everywhere — they just cut forty-five jobs at Columbus Dispatch in Ohio two days ago, I think. A lot of my friends lost their jobs. They’re not doing at our paper for the moment. Now, if it works hopefully we’ll be able to keep doing stories like this. If not, we’ll see what happens.
Nick Perry: We kind of had the same experience with it really driving Web traffic. We got, I think three-quarters of a million hits or something on the stories, which is just a blow-out record, if you don’t count the story on the guy dying from having sex with a horse which was published like six years ago and is still making our top ten list.
But if you kind of take that out of the mix — but yeah, it is good for business. And it seems like newspapers can’t be everything to all people like they used to try to be. And so they really need to market the investigative, deep projects as a brand and as a kind of a franchise. Because nobody else is going to do it. So it is good for business. It is expensive. And like Ken says, you’re not going to get a paper spending $200,000 on pursuing a lawsuit, but you can be kind of smart about what records you do and find ways within a budget to kind of do really great stuff.
Ken Armstrong: It’s really hit home for us in Seattle for a number of reasons. I started there six years ago, and when I did we had ten people on our investigative team and our spotlight team, which was like short-term investigations. We’re now down to four. So in our own newsroom we’re less than half of what we were. We’re also about to lose the P-I, the Post Intelligencer, which has an excellent investigative team. Eric Nalder works there, Andrew Schneider works there. So we had two competing investigative teams that were really good. And were well-staffed and were well-funded. The P-I is going under. We’re half of what we were, and we’re not well-funded anymore.
I have to turn away stories now if it involves travel. If it’s extensive travel. I also have to turn stories away if it involves photocopying that’s going to be exorbitant. We try to get photocopying where we can scan all the documents. We have a portable scanner that we take with us everywhere, and most agencies will let us scan them. Some don’t. Some play the same game that Mike was talking about and they try to deny you by making it too expensive.
But I’m finding now that I’m turning some stories away simply because of budgetary reasons, not because the story’s not worth pursuing.
Bob Giles: Okay. Tommy?
Tommy: I just want to ask The Free Press guys, it seems like Detroit is like the most amazing place in the world to be a reporter right now. You know, you’ve got the mayor in jail partly because of what you guys did. You’ve got the automakers crumbling. You know, I saw, I think, a story the other day that the median home price is like $7,500 from sales. And the Lions lost every game. So I guess —
Male: Sounds like paradise.
Tommy: I guess I’m just wondering what it’s like to work there and what it’s like to live there.
Jim Schaefer: I’m not from Detroit, I’m from Ohio, and I came up there on work to be a copy editor. And I’m stuck there now because it’s such a great news town. I don’t want to leave. I mean I’d probably like living somewhere else, but it is the best damned news town in this country, I’m convinced. Part of it I think is unfortunate because I think it’s our own doing. David Simon had a great article in The Washington Post the other day about how The Sun has neglected the police beat as one case study, so much that the cops don’t even know what public information is anymore.
We’ve been doing that for ten years. We don’t have nearly as many people covering the City of Detroit as we did before. So what that leaves for guys like us are these giant juicy stories just sitting out there. That doesn’t mean they’re easy to do. I don’t want anybody to get any ideas like that and come give us competition. But the negligence of the media farming its resources to the suburbs where they think their readers are — I still don’t get that idea — and cutting the staffs back, has made Detroit and even better news town. And it is a great place to be a journalist. No doubt about it.
M.L. Elrick: Yeah. And we have pretty good bosses who are starting to understand that you can write stories about the city that people outside of the city care about because we all sort of live off of the city. I mean it’s really our hub. And I mean it’s sort of a Pyrrhic victory because at the same time there are all these great stories around it means that your neighbors are suffering. It means that the people who…my neighbor used to be Deputy Mayor of the City of Detroit, so now he’s unemployed. But so far neither one of us has come to blows.
But it’s…I frankly think every city and every town has great stories in it. It’s just you have to have people who are willing to dig for them, and people who care about them, and bosses who will put them in the paper or on the air. So we happen to be in that situation. We’re pretty grateful. But if you want to buy my house, come see me afterwards. And you ain’t getting it for $7,500.
Bob Giles: Margie?
Margie: I’m just wondering, I come from a place where football is a religion as well, so I’m curious as to how the community grappled with your investigation on a longer-term basis. You know, you were talking about how the C-Dub is everywhere. Are they still doing that? Are they still shouting it out or have they kind of…has it changed the way that people think about the players?
Nick Perry: I don’t think it has changed. I mean I think what was great after the series ran was that we were expecting this outcry and this anger from Husky fans and we got all that. But also on our online forums we started getting these people writing in these really thoughtful e-mails, like, defending the series, or, like, questioning their own culpability for being a kind of a blind football fan. And so you got this whole kind of community discussion going.
But the Husky’s went 0-12 last year, and they’ve got rid of the character coach and brought in a slightly sleazier guy that might win more games. I don’t know. It’s like maybe for a year everyone kind of took a breath and kind of thought about it differently. I just see it now going back to what it was. And Seattle is not — I mean it’s not a crazy football town as much as places in other parts of the country. But it’s kind of crazy everywhere I think.
Ken Armstrong: I think a good example of that was just recently, you know, Seattle like every place else is hurting. And the state budget, we’re about $8 billion dollars in deficit right now. And the University of Washington has been asked to cut its funding by twenty percent. Shortly after the twenty percent was announced, the team went and hired a defensive coordinator — not a head coach, a defensive coordinator — and paid him $700,000 a year, which was more than twice…which is twice what they had ever paid an assistant coach previously, and they trumpeted it. They were proud of it. They thought that this was a statement to the country that we’re serious about football again, and we’re committed, and we’ll do what it takes to win.
And it was such an insult to all of the state employees who were being furloughed or being laid off. You have all of these university employees who are terrified that they’re going to lose their job, and here’s the university paying $700,000 for a defensive coordinator.
Bob Giles: Okay. Ernie, you get the last shot.
Ernie: All right. I just have a quick question for Mike. On your bio it said that you were offered the Press Secretary’s job. I’m wondering did you actually interview for that job and in your investigation and coverage of him, did you ever have any…did you run into him at the elevator or was there any kind of relationship that you and the mayor had that was personal?
M.L. Elrick: Yeah. He offered…it was actually not too far from here that his Chief of Staff and — little did I know it then — girlfriend, offered me the job when we were here for Mayor’s School at Harvard in 2002. In a very telling moment, he left Mayor School early to go see a fight with some contractors in Vegas. So I guess we should have seen where we were headed here.
But no, he and I used to get along great. I mean we had a very good relationship and even for the first year or two of his mayoralty at some point we sort of started writing some hard-hitting stories because it was pretty clear that some things were not going the way they should. And even then we maintained pretty good relations. It was really only in probably the last quarter of his first term when he started to sense that people cared about these stories, that it wasn’t fun and games, and that his career might be on the line that things got contentious.
But like I said, you know, the Deputy Mayor is my neighbor, and his kids go to school with my kids, and everybody gets along really well. And while we may have had some bumps with some of the Mayor’s police security, he’s never threatened us and there have been times when he’s joked with Jim about — I mean why don’t you tell them —
Jim Schaefer: Get Elrick away from me, please.
M.L. Elrick: That was I think my wife who said that. But tell them about the Navigator thing. You know, we exposed this deal where he had spent $25,000 of our very scarce city dollars to lease a Navigator for his wife. And The Free Press really connected all of the dots on that. And it was real symbolic and difficult thing for him, but he goes to a press conference where he’s going to sort of cop to it and he sees Jim and he says — you know, and Jim’s one of the guys who helped put him in the crosshairs and he says to Jim, “Hey, Jim, can you get me out of this? Can you help me with all of these other reporters?”
I mean he — to his credit, he was a pretty good sport about a lot of it. But those days are behind us, sadly. But I mean if he was here, I would offer to get him a beer afterwards because we — at some point it became really personal for him, but for us it’s never been personal. And we try and always be professional like that, and I think it’s kept us in pretty good stead.
Bob Giles: Well, Ken, and Jim, and Mike, and Nick, it’s been a pleasure to be in your company this evening and to salute you for some great journalism. Thank you very much. Clara and Joan, thank you so much for helping make this possible. And thank you all, thank you for coming. We are adjourned.