Knight Blog

The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Journalism initiative teaches students rigors of investigative reporting

Jan. 2, 2014, 9:12 a.m., Posted by Mary Sweetwood

Mary Sweetwood is coordinator of The News Outlet, a multiple winner of the Knight Community Information Challenge. Below, she writes about a recent investigative project. Above: The News Outlet via YouTube.

In early September, the interns at The News Outlet, a student journalism initiative based at Youngstown State University, were ready for their first major assignment of the semester—profiles on the members of the Ohio State School Board of Education.

Imagine their reaction: Profiles? Really?

However, we told them that this would be important journalism. Previous News Outlet ventures had resulted in Associated Press awards for its writers. One series of stories resulted in the closure of an unsafe adult care facility. Another project explored the booming fracking industry in the state.

Still: Profiles?

This was before board members didn’t return the students’ telephone calls. And ignored their emails. And outright refused their requests for interviews.

In mid-November, those profiles and a series of stories based on the investigative work done by the students were published in major newspapers in the state, including the Akron Beacon Journal and The Youngstown Vindicator, both of which are media partners with The News Outlet; The Columbus Dispatch; The Canton Repository; and the Dayton Daily News. Radio partners, including WYSU, have also aired stories about the investigation.By early December, an elected member of that board resigned because of ethics issues addressed in those stories, and an appointed member is under scrutiny over his possible conflicts of interest.

So, yes: Profiles. Really.

This exercise gave The News Outlet student interns a chance to sharpen or, in some cases, develop investigative and research skills to get the answers they had been denied.

It gave The News Outlet another opportunity to showcase its 4-year-old track record of successful university-media collaboration. It also gave The News Outlet a chance to prove that you don’t have to be a big name program to produce quality journalism.

The News Outlet has been fueled with some Knight Community Information Challenge funding and modest university support. Its main resource, however, comes from highly energized faculty, professionals and students who are passionate about the role of journalism in society and who believe in harnessing tools and technology for investigative reporting.

There are many winners from this reporting project, including the residents of Ohio who now have more knowledge about government officials.

News Outlet interns had an incredible experience. They had to scour candidate contribution spreadsheets, disclosure forms, submit Freedom of Information Act requests, transcribe TV and radio interviews, and read newspaper stories for background on the board members. Following The News Outlet model, they also had to work with faculty and media professionals.

The project began with a conversation between Doug Oplinger, managing editor of The Akron Beacon Journal, and Alyssa Lenhoff and Tim Francisco, the co-directors of The News Outlet. They were looking for a project the two groups could work on together.

Oplinger has supported The News Outlet since its inception in 2009. He hired Doug Livingston as the Beacon’s education writer while Livingston was still working as an intern for The News Outlet.

“The Two Dougs,” as they became known at The News Outlet, attended that early September meeting. They explained how they wanted an in-depth look at the makeup and direction of this board. We developed a series of questions. We would use the responses in the profiles and enter them into a spreadsheet for analysis. Livingston, as the lead reporter, would summarize the findings in three stories.

Each student had at least two board members to contact. Some made phone calls. Others traveled to Columbus, the state capital, to meet with members while the board was in session.

Mark Smith, an appointed board member, refused an interview. Another appointed member, C. Todd Jones, did not respond to phone calls and emails asking for interviews. Other members participated to varying degrees. Some stopped mid-interview while others wouldn’t respond to follow-up questions. Some would only respond via email. Others wouldn’t stop talking.

The resulting package, “State of Education in Ohio,” featured three main stories, 17 board member profiles, an interactive map, a Web Q&A feature and a campaign contributions Web feature.

After we published the series, several newspapers wrote editorials about the issues raised in the articles. In addition to the skewed makeup of the board, one story looked into the possibility of conflicts of interest by three members: Bryan C. Williams, Jones and Smith. The last two are appointed and Ohio law allows appointed officials to file disclosure statements with the Ethics Commission that absolves them from conflict charges.

However, Paul M. Nick, executive director of the Ohio Ethics Commission, said the Dispatch editorials based on our investigation “prompted him to inform media that elected officials are, in fact, prohibited from lobbying.”

That’s when Williams, an elected member of the board and a lobbyist for the Associated Builders and Contractors of Ohio, resigned from the board.

“Williams lobbied the legislature, numerous state agencies and the governor’s office on issues that affect school funding and school regulation to the benefit of his non-union contractors group, including a program that would have allowed companies to receive high school students and state money for privately run apprenticeship programs,” reported the Beacon Journal.

Also, Williams sat on five of the board’s nine committees. He was co-chairman of the accountability committee, vice chairman of the capacity committee and chairman of the legislative and budget committee. He was also a member of the executive committee and the operating standards committee.

Nick would not say if there was an ongoing investigation or if criminal charges would be filed.

Also after the stories were printed Nov. 16-18, board member Jones filed additional disclosures on all education matters that he lobbied.

Smith never returned calls for comment.

This spring, the Beacon Journal and The News Outlet will team up to look at charter schools in the state.

To see other work by the student interns, visit TheNewsOutlet.org.