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Reporters' patience and hard work yield results for public

Friday, May 1, 2009 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 7:48 p.m. CDT, Sunday, May 3, 2009

Dear Reader,

Jacob Barker and Chad Day took over an office several months ago. The carpet went largely unseen shortly after.

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In its place, piles of paper grew. Some days, I’d see neat stacks. At other times it had that oh-my-gosh-we’ve-been-ransacked motif.

There was method behind the mounds.

After dozens of Sunshine Law records requests, the reporters amassed and reviewed about 10,000 pages of documents. They followed the paper trail for eight months and supplemented it with interviews from key players.

The result: a three-day series on transportation development districts.

Not sexy enough? Try this:

These taxing districts encompass most of the shopping areas of Columbia. They have raised more than $8.4 million in three years from you for improvements. “But,” as the first story Thursday said, “at no point does the public have any say about whether the sales taxes are imposed, whether the money is being spent wisely or whether the projects they finance are desirable.”

Day and Barker did what you don’t have time to do. They attended the transportation district meetings. They interviewed the players. They connected all those pieces of paper in a coherent set of stories that helps me understand how my tax dollars are being spent, and who is spending them.

I’d call that a pretty good service for Columbians.

Scott Swafford, the Missourian’s public life editor, directed the coverage. He was most impressed by the sweat equity that went into the records reporting.

“In our current media climate, this is the kind of reporting that is going by the wayside," he wrote to me. "Too many news outlets have decided that they can’t invest in the kinds of resources it takes to do stories like this.”

If you didn’t catch the stories in the Missourian, you can see a version in this weekend’s Columbia Business Times. David Reed, the editor, learned of the story and inquired about publishing it. Rather than compete, he offered to collaborate, and helped Swafford and his reporters along the way.

Swafford and I would have shuddered at the thought not long ago. But, as he says, “I find myself less concerned these days about who beats whom on a story and more concerned about simply getting important information out to the public.”

I still get a little scratchy around the collar about the idea. But I’m willing to see how it wears over time.

I’ve been involved in a few of these long-term stories over the years. At some point, typically, I get tired. I grow frustrated when all the pieces won’t fall together. I wonder why I ever started the thing in the first place. At least until it’s over.

Day and Barker showed incredible patience to get the right story and get the story right.

“As we dug through the records and found things of note, it just made us more driven to accomplish what we set out to do — explain to people how these things work and how they affect them,” Day told me in an e-mail.

“I hope we got a little closer to helping people understand these things and possibly start to get involved watching the districts themselves.”


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Comments

Joy Piazza May 1, 2009 | 4:22 p.m.

Great news that you've provided the resources for investigative journalism and that you and David are working together on the project. I cannot help but think that Mike Martin has made a huge contribution to making this possible through the investigative work he does. Whether one agrees or disagrees with his findings, unpaid community journalists are gaining more and more recognition in communities across the nation. I'd say this particular community journalist (and Traci’s hard work) has your attention, such that you've joined in his cause. As a result of Mike's work, many citizens of Columbia --readers of all the local papers --have been quite clear about their frustration and desire for better representation, more transparency, and an improved sense of fairness and equity in this community. These desires extend not only to local government, but to all institutions that operate in this community, such as media and education. I'm glad to see you want to make such a worthy contribution to this community.
J. Piazza

(Report Comment)
Lane Ryan May 1, 2009 | 9:21 p.m.

If it's a pat on the back you're after here's your reward. You've arrogantly instructed the public about what they should be concerned about. You've preformed a service which none have requested. You've assumed that the local government is corrupt, the citizens of Columbia are feeble minded mouth-breathers, and that what's important to you is paramount in each of our comparatively dull and insignificant lives. Congratulations, you've absolutely demonstrated why reporters make IRS lawyers and telemarketers look like dignified professionals.

(Report Comment)
Mark Foecking May 2, 2009 | 2:18 a.m.

Anyone who looks at the way our city and county government functions could easily conclude it was corrupt, or at least has a "strong old-boy network" (words of a former gov't official).

Mike Martin has investigated some of the sweetheart tax deals that developers get with their undeveloped land, for example. Construction and development interests continually get what they want, even in the face of strong citizen opposition (e.g, Broadway Wal-Mart). I'm concerned about it, and few would call me a mouth breather.

DK

(Report Comment)
John Schultz May 2, 2009 | 2:47 a.m.

Holy over-reaction, Batman! Frankly, I'm happy that the Missourian did this piece on local TDDs and plan to dig into it over the weekend.

(Report Comment)
Matt Wynn May 4, 2009 | 9:44 a.m.

"You've assumed that the local government is corrupt"

Looking through that report, I'd say they've "proved" that local government is at least taking part in some shady operations. Don't think I ever saw the word corrupt, but nice leap to a conclusion.

(Report Comment)

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