Joyce Hill had tried everything she could imagine. She complained to the state consumer protection agency. She hired a private investigator. Nobody could help her. Hill, a longtime factory worker, had been swindled out of $1,336 she had put down on layaway for a new dining room set. The store, and its owner who had taken her money, had disappeared. Then she spotted a Public Investigator (P.I.) story in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and sent us an e-mail.
Upon first blush, her story might not excite most journalists. It certainly didn’t fall on anyone’s beat. Using typical standards to judge its newsworthiness it easily could have been overlooked—one consumer, not the masses; dollars lost, 1,336. Not huge. Ho hum, one might think. Yet with a lot of digging and cobbling together of public records databases, the P.I. team turned Hill’s tip into a front-page story exposing an unscrupulous store owner who had a pattern of closing down and reopening under a new name, sometimes down the block from his last location. The story also revealed a splintered oversight system that allowed this situation to continue for years.
Our initial fear was that this consumer watchdog assignment could end up being the proverbial “pot hole” beat, a dumping ground for insignificant stories about broken street lights and the like. But it’s turned out to be just the opposite; since the launch of P.I. in September 2007, 32 of our 53 stories have landed on Page One (as of late August).
Our stories run the gamut. Many times they are about how someone got a raw deal. Often they’re about what a government agency or program did or didn’t do. Some of our stories turn out to be the ones that create a buzz—the proverbial “water cooler” piece—such as our “Bad Beer in Brew City,” in which we tested beer tap lines in local watering holes and found some caked with bacteria. Turns out that in Wisconsin, unlike other states, there is no law requiring restaurants or bars to clean their keg lines regularly.
Others stories we’ve done have taken a hard look at situations involving the breakdown of public services and the consequences to those who are dependent on them. In one case, we investigated a problem at the county food stamp office that was causing thousands of people not to receive public assistance within the time period required under federal law. P.I. also spotlighted how many of Wisconsin’s neediest children were not being tested for lead poisoning, even though it is mandated by federal Medicaid rules.
Every day, in addition to stories we do for the paper and the Web site, we write on our P.I. blog. It’s our way of interacting with readers and keeping the “Public Investigator” name in their minds. We also solicit tips and seek help from people who might be affected by something we’re writing about. Recently, we used our blog to find customers who’d been back-billed by the local utility company. We also blog after a story runs to share readers’ reactions, sometimes posting their comments after we get their okay that their comments are on the record.
Our blog is also a place where we let people know when our investigations result in changes. After we wrote about a senior home that charged families rent long after their loved ones had died, the practice was stopped—with urging from a United States senator who’d read our story. That story wasn’t going to make the paper as a full-blown story, so our blog was a perfect fit.
We use computer-assisted reporting and laboratory testing as investigative tools for some of our P.I. stories. We also base many of our reports on documents we obtain through open records requests. Using these investigative techniques makes stories harder-hitting and gives them the watchdog edge we want. For three stories, we included searchable databases that have generated tremendous Web traffic.
A major reason for P.I.’s success is the backing we get from our editor, Mark Katches. He is constantly pushing us to hold people and agencies accountable and to probe until we find the real reason why something went wrong. With his support in the newsroom, we are given ample time to do the necessary digging. We don’t have story quotas, but both of us make a concerted effort to keep a steady stream of short- and long-term ideas flowing. This way we keep P.I. in front of the public—whether in print, on the Web site, or on our blog. We write most of our stories individually, but we toss around ideas, and we keep one another informed about what we’re working on.
Neither Katches nor we are afraid to have fun with stories or try new things. With our “Under the Microscope” feature, we’ve been testing products to find out what’s in them. It costs the Journal Sentinel a little money, but it has proven to be an innovative approach for the paper to take and led to some eye-catching stories. Of course, there are times when the testing doesn’t result in a story, but it’s been worth taking the risk.
Another goal is to try to be very accessible to readers. That’s why every P.I. story in the paper and online is accompanied by our looking-glass icon next to the words “Blow the Whistle. Do you have a tip for the P.I. Team? We’re all ears.” Under that we publish our tip line e-mail, our names, phone numbers, and direct e-mail addresses and, finally, offer a link to the P.I. home page.
What’s hard about the job is that there aren’t more of us doing it. There are times when we feel overwhelmed by the volume of tips and reader response to our work, as well as their requests. After a story runs, other people affected by a similar situation call in, and they want us to do an investigation of their situation or help them with a particular problem.
Since P.I.’s launch a year ago, we’ve been in touch with many people in the community. We’ve discovered that there’s a huge appetite for local, quick-hit investigations. With the help of readers, our watchdog work seems to be feeding the public’s hunger for accountability.
Raquel Rutledge and Ellen Gabler are members of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Watchdog Team who report for the paper’s Public Investigator section.