Day #2.5: Budgets, Databases and FOIA! Oh, My!

January 9, 2011 § Leave a comment

Phoenix, AZ: After an exhausting first full day that included seven sessions over the course of 12 hours, today’s set of six sessions over 12 hours was a welcome change–or perhaps I’m just beginning to build a resistance to investigative conferences!

Pretty soon, I'll look like this!

No matter how you slice it, my brain is beginning to feel like a well-toned body of gray matter. This investigative boot camp is doing wonders for my journalistic sensibilities, as well as my general physical endurance.

Yesterday’s sessions focused on the watchdog trifecta: budgets, databases and FOIA.

Sessions like “Minding the Money” took a systematic look at higher ed institutions with a look at the cold hard cash, making use of the old Watergate adage; ‘follow the money.’

And follow it we did! All the way to federal audit clearinghouses and court record databases, most of which are available at various sites online or are a simple FOIA request away. We learned about how to avoid getting FERPA‘d and the fallacies (okay, maybe ‘fallacies’ isn’t the right word) of open records laws.

At the end of the day, I walked (more like crawled) back to my hotel feeling tired, but nevertheless, empowered! Though, empowered in a purely appropriate, non-power-hungry, journalism kind of way.

After always being told what we couldn’t do, or being constantly reminded of how low on the totem pole we are as ‘just students,’ it was nice to finally see a solution or be taken seriously by older people. Not once did any of the speakers at the conference tell us that we should drop a story because it might be too difficult or that it didn’t matter in the large scope of things.

I felt like a real journalist, learning real skills, pursuing real stories that really mattered. And you can bet that I’ll be taking back a couple things or two with me to campus next semester.

Follow me as I tweet happenings from the annual Campus Coverage Project (#ccp11) @jiejennyzou.


Sebastian Rotella: ProPublica

October 10, 2010 § Leave a comment


From drug-fueled violence along the Mexican-U.S. border to uncovering global terrorist networks in the Middle East, reporter Sebastian Rotella has probably seen it all.


The ProPublica senior reporter spoke recently as a guest at one of my journalism classes. It was both sobering and uplifting–sobering because it further elucidated the shaky state of investigative journalism, and uplifting because his career represents my ideal prospects for the future.

Rotella worked his way through the ranks as a copy clerk in Chicago, eventually making his way to a stint at UPI, and later to the Los Angeles Times, where he spent much of his 23 years at the paper as an international correspondent with an investigative edge.

He still works on the hard-hitting, international stories that have built his career–only this time from the web. As a senior reporter at ProPublica, Rotella can continue the long-form, in-depth style of journalism that was once the crown jewel of major dailies.

ProPublica, a non-profit website dedicated to investigative journalism and funded by the Sandlers (banking industry), became the first online-based news source to win a 2010 Pulitzer Prize for a piece on medical treatment in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

The site is also unabashedly web while playing nice with print.

Indeed, as Rotella pointed out, much of ProPublica’s success has to do with its symbiotic relationship with traditional media [listed here], which significantly broadens the readership of what would otherwise be a primarily web operation.

It’s symbiotic because ProPublica gets the circulation that major dailies can provide, and in turn, newspapers and other outlets can get investigative reporting on the cheap–or rather, for free. [See their interesting “Steal our stories” clause here.]

As newsrooms continue to tighten their already narrow waists, whittling down staff and quality–expensive and time-consuming investigative reporting has also received the heave-ho.

But other than that, the transition to web hasn’t been all that big of a change for Rotella, who said that he still uses the same newspaper approach to investigative reporting, which emphasizes a multiplicity of sources.

It’s reporting that’s done with rigor. And sadly, it’s reporting that’s done less and less frequently.

Rotella, who said that he was growing “more and more depressed about the state of the paper [LA Times],” appeared more optimistic about the possibility of investigative journalism on the web. Specifically, Rotella said that ProPublica is “even better than the LA Times at its peak,” referring to both outlets’ trend of investigative reporting.

As a more than occasional reader of ProPublica, I was very much surprised to learn about how closely ProPublica works with traditional media in terms of free reign over publication of their articles in print or for broadcast.

It would almost seem counter-intuitive considering everything that I’ve been learning so far about the state of traditional journalism, but he brought up an excellent point about the clout and immediate impact that traditional media carries.

Come to think about it, big news doesn’t become big news until it’s carried on the evening broadcast or run in the city paper. Even websites seem to fall into certain credibility castes, with traditional media websites still leading the gamut alongside popular news blogging hybrids.

One thing’s for sure: while the current business model for journalism seems to be in need of a dire change, in-depth journalism itself seems better for wear.

Jon Pessah: Sports as a Mirror of Society

September 26, 2010 § Leave a comment

Let me start off my saying that I know almost absolutely nothing about sports.

I know enough to get by, but rarely will you ever find me watching a game on television. In the rare instance that you ever do, there will probably be a very short time interval between when I feign interest to when my eyes begin to glaze over.

It’s not that I hate sports, it’s just a matter of sticking to what you know. Which is exactly why I found myself thoroughly surprised and delighted when sports writer Jon Pessah came to speak in one of my journalism classes.

Jon Pessah

[To be fair though, he spoke specifically about sports journalism and anyone who knows me knows that I can listen to just about anything in the context of journalism.]

While he had some choice words for the NCAA and LeBron James’ recent stint as a free agent, Pessah spoke mainly about the entertainment-heavy and profit driven motive of modern day sports reporting.

Formerly of the Washington Star, the Hartford Courant, and Newsday, Pessah’s experience with covering sports has given him a front row seat to both the changing industry of journalism as well as the domination of sports coverage by ESPN, the sports equivalent of 24-hour cable news networks like CNN.

And just like CNN, ESPN is subject to scrutiny when it comes journalistic integrity.

The sports juggernaut: ESPN

ESPN, which was brought to life as a father-son collaboration by NBC-affiliate sports writer Bill Rasmussen in 1979, was initially conceived as an outlet to provide additional sports coverage in Connecticut. It wasn’t until the marketing genius of VP John Walsh and the miracle of Sunday Night Football that ESPN began to draw the following that it has now.

Since then it has hired a host of retired athletes and talking heads to serve as anchors and commentators and dictated the shift of sports reporting to a primarily entertainment-based genre.

So what’s the big deal if sports reporting panders to the more profitable elements of the entertainment industry instead of straight news?

Well, it’s all in the numbers.

For instance, I had always written off steroid scandals, chalking them up as a fact of athletic life that some athletes use steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs. From baseball to biking, it didn’t really faze me.

Steroids have become a fixture in sports.

However, Pessah pointed out that the way the government treats sports steroid cases is different than the way it treats any other controlled substance by targeting athletes instead of distributors. And when you start realizing that an illegal substance is intrinsically tied to a multibillion dollar business, steroids becomes no laughing matter.

According to Pessah, the use of steroids, along with the fact that billions of tax payers’ dollars have gone on to build stadiums instead of rebuilding communities, are some of the issues that sports reporting no longer addresses. The investigative elements of sports journalism have seemingly fallen to the wayside.

Pessah was asked by a student whether or not he thought the demand for hard-hitting sports journalism existed. He retorted by asking whether or not young reporters going into sports journalism will be willing to avoid the financial temptations of the easy route of entertainment sports.

MLB keeps a tight lid on access for reporters.

Industry giants like the MLB and NFL, which keep a tight lid on access to its athletes and information, are another deterrent to hard-hitting sports journalism.

While I have no idea what lies ahead for the state of sports journalism, I’ve never been more interested in sports journalism than I am now.

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