By Dakota Crawford
Ball State University
The employees were just doing their jobs, or so that’s what they said.
Max Jones, editor of The Terre Haute Tribune Star, gave an unexpected cash bonus to a handful of reporters and editors for the completion of a five-part investigative series that revealed the city’s financial crisis. The staff was able to research and accurately cover municipal finance thanks to a $2,500 grant from the Associated Press Media Editors.
Muncipal finance? Yeah.
“It’s not a sexy topic,” Jones said. “But here it was, the most pressing issue in our community.”
Complaints, questions and discussions raised through Facebook comments, phone calls and face-to-face conversations caught Jones’ attention. Residents wanted to know where their tax money was being spent.
Typically, Jones said, it’s tough to accurately explain municipal finance because sources have an obvious bias. Talk to a politician, get a political response. That’s the routine for reporters, and so it leads to routine coverage for readers.
An excerpt from Jones’ speech given during the 2015 APME-ASNE 2015 conference:
The APME Community Journalism Public Service Initiative grant played a critical role in our project by allowing us to devote significant newsroom resources to it and enlist the services of an expert consultant in Indiana municipal finance to help us gain independent, in-depth insights into financial problems in Terre Haute and other Indiana cities.
We launched our project on Aug. 30. It was a five-day series titled “City on the Brink” and was designed to coincide with the beginning of the budget planning season.
The feedback we received from readers was overwhelmingly positive, although it wasn’t as well received by some of our elected officials. A major byproduct of the series was that it raised the pressure on the mayor and city council to address the financial problems more aggressively, and just last week, a balanced, fundable city budget for 2016 was passed for the first time in seven years. That action doesn’t address the deficit that exists, but it is a start.
Jones broke the cycle by contacting the Indiana Fiscal Policy Institute, who put the Tribune Star in touch with a financial expert. The grant allowed Jones to hire a consultant that brought a higher level of knowledge to the staff as it researched the issues at hand.
“We wanted to step back and start peeling the layers of truth to this thing and explain it to our readers,” Jones said.
In two fast-paced months of reporting, the Terre Haute Tribune Star turned the $2,500 grant into a five-piece series. Every time a story published, the paper’s audience responded. Jones said every post had 20-30 Facebook comments appear overnight.
Some commenters had an axe to grind while others thanked the paper for answering their questions.
“We certainly got a lot of appreciation,” Jones said. “It’s never a flood of it … but I did get reactions from more people than I would have ever thought.”
The grant money went toward a special re-print of the series, overtime hours and mileage costs. And, of course, those bonuses paid to editors and reporters responsible for the work. They told Jones they were only doing their jobs, but Jones knew it was more than that.
They completed a project thought impossible without the grant, and did something positive for the community. They answered questions and provided a service nobody else could.
“If one thing saves newspapers,” Jones said. “It’s going to be the fact that newspapers do the thing people find most valuable.
“When we do something like this, I felt like we achieved that.”