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Iowa J-students did tough, breakthrough reporting on legalized gambling

SHOWCASE | August 09, 2006

This essay was first published in the Summer 2006 issue of Nieman Reports. The entire issue is devoted to the subject of courage in journalism.

By Stephen G. Bloom

Teaching journalism, as I do, is difficult today no matter where you do it. But in Iowa, it's especially tough. Iowa's newspapers are in a sorry state. Iowa's largest newspaper, The Des Moines Register, bought by Gannett in 1985, once was one of America's great newspapers. In its heyday, the Register had a combined circulation of 380,000. Today, circulation has slipped to 152,800. The paper runs ads on page one – often stickers above the fold that readers have to peel off to see the lead story. News has given way to boosterism, paid obituaries, canned celebrity gossip, and sappy feel-good stories. In the Sunday paper, puff pieces reign – where to go in the state and what the weather will be once you get there. It's a sorry end to what was a remarkable legacy.

The largest newspaper closest to where I live is the locally owned The (Cedar Rapids) Gazette, with a circulation of 63,000. When I first moved here 13 years ago from San Francisco, I awakened one Easter morning to read a banner headline in The Gazette, "He Has Risen." The newspaper has not improved.

Because there are so few local exemplars, relatively few Iowa students today know what constitutes a good newspaper. Few 20-year-old's have an idea what a gracefully written profile or a masterful investigative story is, because they've never read one in an Iowa newspaper.

That's precisely why I wanted to teach a new class for master's journalism students. As what Professor David Protess at Northwestern did with the Medill Innocence Project, 12 journalism students would spend 15 weeks reporting and writing on one issue. My hope was that we'd break new ground in a state fertile with unreported stores.

What I didn't count on was that my students would get to experience firsthand what courage looks like in newspaper journalism today.

The Untouched Story

Certainly, there were enough topics for the students – feces-infested drinking water, the continued decimation of a once-robust farm economy, the proliferation of filthy meatpacking plants, to name a few. But there was one issue that begged to be investigated: the state's largest casino resort, scheduled to open in four months in a rural town 15 miles south of the University of Iowa.

In just two decades, casino gambling has spread like a disease in Iowa, with nary a dissent coming from the state legislature. The state has become addicted to millions of dollars in revenue from gambling. And 70 paid pro-casino lobbyists in Des Moines aim to keep it that way. The only thing left to do seems to be to build more casinos.

No Iowa newspaper had examined legalized gambling in a thorough, comprehensive way as a project, and none had covered the range of implications of the casino, scheduled to open in September in Riverside, a speck of a farming community with 928 residents. Many newspapers in this state look at casinos as sacred cash cows of advertising revenue. There may be a cause-and-effect economic explanation for the paucity of coverage, or it may be that editors at these papers don't have the resources to cover the topic adequately. It also may be that editors don't see legalized gambling as an essential story for their readers.

Whatever the reason, it left the door wide open for my students. After snooping around Riverside for eight weeks, the students came up with an arsenal of stories. Here are several:

• The casino owner had paid a Chicago consulting firm – which had racked up victories in six other Iowa gambling referenda, as well as worked on Bill Clinton and John Kerry’s presidential campaigns – more than a quarter of a million dollars to convince locals to approve gambling in Riverside. The out-of-state consultants outspent locals 50 to one, spending nearly $100 per vote, for a referendum that squeaked by with just 352 votes. In doing so, the pro-casino forces broke state campaign-disclosure laws by concealing contributions.

• The Riverside sheriff, who oversees a police force of just nine deputies, conceded that his officers will be overwhelmed with the 1.6 million gamblers expected to show up in town. He described the casino as a disaster in the making.

• Despite what Iowa casino proponents promised – that a percentage of revenues will go to schools in districts where casinos are located – little revenue ever gets allocated to education. In a similar Iowa town to Riverside, for the first five years of casino operation nothing was distributed to schools. In the sixth year, the casino coughed up a measly $65,000 into school coffers.

• The incidence of bankruptcy, divorce and domestic abuse jumps astronomically in rural communities once a casino opens.

With our Riverside Project, the idea was to shine a light into very dark corners. But would the students' reporting ever get published? What newspaper would print such explosive stories?

A Gutsy Publisher Steps Up

Early in the semester, I had approached Bill Casey, the publisher of The Daily Iowan, the independent newspaper that circulates on the campus and in Iowa City. Casey, who has been publisher of the 20,500-circulation Daily Iowan for 30 years, immediately said yes to publishing the stories in a special section in which no ads would appear; he believed running advertisements would undermine the copy. At the time, Casey figured the project would be a four- or eight-page tabloid section.

As we got closer to our publication date, the copy swelled. I edited fiercely. Students were not used to such tight editing and many told me so. But they had gotten at the nub of the story. They produced a project of more than 16,000 words, spread over 21 articles. With the help of Jennifer Sturm, the editor of The Daily Iowan, we started laying out pages. The project had mushroomed to 24 pages.

Casey was in a bind. He had given his word to publish the project, but the costs to him – both in pages published with no ads and a possible loss in ad sales because of the content of these stories – were potentially huge. This was made even more apparent after the Riverside Casino started taking out large display ads in the A-section of the newspaper, looking for blackjack dealers and roulette wheel operators among University of Iowa students. The day before we went to press, Casey paced the newsroom, shaking his head. "You have tenure, they can't fire you," he told me. "Twenty-four pages and no ads? I ought to have my head examined."

I asked Casey if he wanted to shrink the project. I didn't bring up another option – to  kill it.

But Casey was resolute. He looked me straight on and said, "If we don't print these stories about the casino, who will? People need to see this." Casey was talking like John Peter Zenger.

"Just make sure we don't get sued," Casey said. "That's all I ask."

The Daily Iowan published our project on May 5th. The students truly broke new ground, and so far we haven't gotten sued. And Casey didn't get fired, although some on the business side of his newspaper complained that he was giving away the store.

While Casey works for an 11-person board and The Daily Iowan is a nonprofit corporation, the newspaper still has to bring in money. Printing the project, and doing so without ads, was a decision few newspaper publishers would even consider.

"You can't adequately cover the impact of legalized gambling in the daily news pages," said Casey. "It's too complicated. Sometimes you do things that don't make money. You can't do it all the time, but you have to do it occasionally because that's what newspapers ought to be doing. Why else are we in this business?"

The Daily Iowan boasts some terrific journalists in its 138-year history, from former New York Times feature writer Judy Klemesrud and former Los Angeles Times cartoonist Paul Conrad to Neil Brown, executive editor of the St. Petersburg Times and Kirsten Scharnberg, national correspondent for the Chicago Tribune.

For the 125-year reunion of the paper in 1993, Casey spent two days reading microfilm of the newspaper decade-by-decade. "And you know what? I never knew if one year the paper made money and another year it lost money. In 100 years, no one's going to look at how much money we made in 2006. What people will look at is how we covered the events of our time. That's our job."

Room for Good Reporting

Is Bill Casey courageous? Considering the bottom-line mentality of journalism today, I think he is. After all, good reporting is only possible if there's a brave publisher willing to print it.

Good reporting requires money. It takes time and experience. And to do it right requires space, sometimes lots of it. Words can be edited and paired down, but good reporting can't be done in 14-inch snippets. Good reporting invites trouble. It courts lawsuits. It tempts angry responses from advertisers and readers. For the majority of American newspapers these days, such risks are seldom worth taking.

When I was a reporter for The Sacramento Bee in the 1980's, I covered a severe drought on the central coast of California. Parts of the region hadn't been soaked with a downpour in five years. I headed to a children's playground, chatted up a mother and father, and interviewed their five-year-old daughter.

"Do you know what rain is?" I asked her.

The girl looked puzzled. "I think so .... I've seen rain on TV. It's like when they open up the faucet in the sky, right?"

Many of my journalism students view quality journalism the way that little girl looked at rain. They've heard about it, they sort of know what it is, but they've never experienced it themselves.

Now they have.

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