Thursday, May 14, 2009

I'm an award almost-winning investigative reporter now

I have a smartass remark I have made often in my career as a journalist: that I don't put much faith in any awards except the ones we win. I'll have to amend that to include the awards we (or I) almost win.

This morning a woman at New American Media called me and said a story I wrote last year for The St. Louis American had been awarded Runner Up in Best Investigative Reporting in NAM's 2009 Ethnic Media Awards.

New America Media describes itself as "a multi-channel news and communications agency serving ethnic news organizations in the U.S. and overseas. Founded in 1996 by the nonprofit Pacific News Service, NAM is headquartered in San Francisco with offices in Los Angeles, New York and Washington, D.C."

In 2006 Hillary Clinton described their awards as "the equivalent of the Pulitzer Prize," which may mean something beyond the fact that she was speaking to a room of journalists and knew she would be running for president soon.

My story that almost won the big award was "New beginning? Promotions under Jenkerson heavily favor South Side whites". Jenkerson was the then-new St. Louis fire chief, Dennis Jenkerson, reported to be a personal friend of Mayor Francis G. Slay. Jenkerson replaced an interim chief who briefly had replaced the city's first-ever African-American fire chief, Sherman George. George was demoted because he refused to make a set of contested promotions based on a test administered by an agency he had advised the City against using.

My story was based on the list of St. Louis Fire Department promotions pushed through after Chief George's demotions. I obtained the list from a confidential fire department source and then cross-referenced it with a directory of department personnel I obtained that listed everyone's address and ethnicity.

Add up the average increases in salary associated with each of the promotions, and the numbers are eloquent. Computed by region, in our radically segregated city:

Overall, the transfer of wealth is $592,000 gained by South Side neighborhoods annually, while only $28,000 annually was gained by North Side neighborhoods, a difference of more than a half-million dollars ($564,000) per year. That boost to the South Side climbs to $589,000 per year after adding Jenkerson’s annual raise of $25,000 from his unprecedented promotion from battalion chief to fire chief.
And by race:
The “new beginning” represented by Jenkerson has seen $386,000 in annual salary increases handed to the families of white firefighters, yet only $122,000 in annual salary increases for the families of black firefighters. Add in Jenkerson’s $25,000 annual raise, and the annual advantage to whites becomes $411,000 to $122,000.

The city of St. Louis has a slight numerical majority of black residents. In 2006 the U.S. Census Bureau projected city residents to be 50.5 percent black compared to 45.7 percent white.
I guess I put stock in any award I win, or almost win, but this one is a pleasure for a few reasons.
Working for a black-owned newspaper in a region like St. Louis with a dense fog of residual racism, we often feel our stories get overlooked or downplayed. I am especially galled by the sneers we hear from time to time that we "make stuff up".

The City Hall reporter from our weak daily paper, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, actually followed one of my stories from our recent mayoral race, but first he called me to ask if I "stood by the quote" he wanted to use, something inflammatory that had been told to me by a mayoral challenger.

Stand by the quote? What on earth did he expect me to say? "No, busted! This is the Black Press! We just make stuff up!"

Almost winning a national award for an investigative story is a welcome recognition of all the hard work we have done in recent years at The St. Louis American based on documents and data, just the opposite of "making stuff up" - the kind of gritty, difficult, tricky reporting associated (once upon a time, anyway) with well-staffed investigative teams at daily newspapers. This particular story was just me and a firefighter who didn't like what was going on and trusted me to tell the truth.

Finally, I wasn't even hired to be a reporter. I am the paper's editorial director - the assigning editor, line editor, copy editor, fact-checker and (on a bad day) shit-catcher. I do my own reporting and my writing on my own time, mostly late nights and early mornings, often to the chagrin of my wife, sometimes of myself.

I am looking forward to going to Atlanta and collecting my almost-award and meeting the person (people?) who beat me. I'd like to think it's an investigative team of two or three paid to do nothing but dig and write, but I suspect - this being the perennially understaffed ethnic media, in the great advertising drought of 2009, no less - it will be one other exhausted person who does everything at the shop this side of scrubbing the toilets.

Image is of Joseph Rouletabille, a fictionalized investigative journalist created by Gaston Leroux, from The Europen Wold Newton Universe.

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