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Columbia Missourian

Reporters' patience and hard work yield results for public

By Tom Warhover
May 1, 2009 | 6:00 a.m. CDT

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.”