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As a newspaper man, I took great interest in seeing Tom McCarthy’s latest film,“Spotlight.” It tells, from a press room’s perspective, the story of the clergy sex abuse scandal in Boston, and, the critical role that the local daily paper played in bringing the worldwide scandal to light.
The Boston Globe took a chance by reporting on a story that those in power had chosen to ignore. And, because they took that chance, they helped bring to justice clergy who had been preying on vulnerable children and, as much as our flawed system allows, justice to their victims. Equally as important, shining a spotlight on the problem helped protect many more children from suffering a similar fate. Of course, there can be no justice for the scores of victims who have committed suicide.
It is an important and vital story which both celebrates AND condemns the news media. I say “condemns” because, as chronicled in the movie, The Globe had a chance to uncover the story much earlier, but failed to do so.
Crucial facts had been supplied to the paper by various sources in years prior and, undoubtedly, had it run a major story then, many hundreds of children could have been saved from abuse. It was five years later, with more victims adding up, before the horrendous facts and the equally horrendous cover-up by the Archdiocese, made the front page in early 2002 and commanded the attention of the nation.
We might all ask ourselves, “If the Globe had acted sooner, how many more children would have been spared?”
So how does this story tie into The Reader? A Boston alternative newspaper, The Boston Phoenix, akin to The Reader, indeed reported on the story ten months before The Globe did. Beginning in March 2001, Kristen Lombardi penned seven stories totaling over 25,000 words exposing much of the meat of the scandal. But instead of The Phoenix stories being “picked up” and vaulted into broad public awareness, the well-written, highly-researched and potentially explosive stories languished; ignored by the vaunted Globe and the rest of the region’s media. No one can say with certainty why the media all sat on their hands, but clearly fear, arrogance and inertia all played a part in the failure.
And hundreds more children were abused in the interim…
Over the years, we’ve had a number of stories at The Reader that, though not remotely in a league with the clergy abuse story, were still important in their own right. Many shined a spotlight on abuse of power in the Northland … many of them stories the Duluth News Tribune and the rest of the “mainstream” media wouldn’t touch … and often we’ve been ignored, and sometimes we’ve made a real difference.
Indeed, The Reader’s investigative journalism has been acknowledged in the Dow Jones News Wire, Minneapolis Star Tribune, National Public Radio, New York Times, as well as all the local television network affiliates.
With this issue celebrating the Best of the Northland, and with the lessons of Spotlight fresh on my mind, I would like to touch on some of our best stories. These are by no means all our good stories, these reflect stories that drove change, or should have. You might have to wait for the next History of The Reader (likely for our 20th birthday) to hear about all of our biggest blunders.
Reader Boycott. July 1998.
Apparently The Reader’s mere existence was enough to send then Mayor Doty into a tizzy. He would refuse to eat in restaurants that carried our paper, and Doty attempted to organize a boycott of The Reader through the Chamber of Commerce; but the Chamber wouldn’t play along. We felt pretty special until he invited the Blues Fest to leave town; and then the haters who were opposed to an outlet mall at Bayfront; and then the people who drink beer, and then...
Outcome: We shared Doty’s “activities” with Ted Rall, a Pulitzer Prize finalist cartoonist, and talked him into doing a cover for us. It paid tribute to “Herr Mayor” by throwing cartoon rocks at him – Rall at his best depicting Doty at his worst.
Not news in any other local media.
City of Duluth / A&L Sweetheart Deals.
1998 was just the start of our reporting on preferential treatment given to A&L by the City of Duluth (during Mayor Gary Doty’s administration in particular). Robert Boone stories exposed that the City paid $3.2 million to replace the burned-out Phoenix Building downtown (now Starbucks) and then quietly sold it to A&L for $267,000; caught the City rigging demolition bids on behalf of A & L, caught the City covering up the illegal demolition of historic buildings (all to facilitate construction of the A&L’s Technology Village) and a related case of witness tampering by the City Attorney Cynthia Albright office.
Outcome: KBJR followed us into the witness tampering story, no other coverage in local media.
Douglas County Jailhouse Blues.
June 1999. Richard Thomas. The Reader was the first to report that the new Douglas County Courthouse was not going to constructed within the budget amount of 28 million.
Outcome: Eventually it cost over 40 million, then everyone was talking about it.
BWCA Fire Season. January 2000.
Dorothy Charging Hawk. The Reader warned of the impending danger of a firestorm started by debris from earlier storms along the North Shore.
Outcome: The same day The Reader story came out the DNT came out with a similar story. It was a little better than ours, but the odd thing was that a week later a government official called The Reader to alert us to the fact that the DNT had called hours after Charging Hawk and asked the exact same questions, in the exact same order as she had during her interview. I spy? We were honored, maybe.
News Tribune Publisher Mary Jacobus’ ethics violations.
March 2000 by Robert Boone. A Reader investigation documented not one, but seven newsworthy stories regarding A&L’s construction of the Technology Village (including several items cited above)… AND we were able to prove that the Duluth News Tribune (DNT) knew about four of the stories but chose not to cover them. It turns out that the DNT’s publisher was married to A&L’s marketing director/leasing agent.
Outcome: When The Reader asked DNT Publisher Jacobus about her conflicts of interest, she brushed the questions aside. We then asked the Columbia School of Journalism, the Society of Professional Journalists and Knight Ridder, all of whom were rather unimpressed. Knight Ridder quickly transferred Jacobus out of town. Naturally, not news in the News Tribune or any other local media.
The Reader was instrumental in turning up the heat on Minnesota Power over their control of the Board of Directors of the troubled Great Lakes Aquarium in 2000. Education Director Andrew Slade was fired for daring to suggest in a News Tribune column that mercury pollution in water is hazardous. Dorothy Charging Hawk, Susan Anderson and Robert Boone consistently broke new revelations as the scandal unfolded, leaving the DNT scrambling to keep up for months.
Outcome: The Dow Jones News Wire eventually wrote a piece downgrading Minnesota Power because of the beating they were taking from the local alternative newsweekly. The News Tribune didn’t start covering it until we started a “News Tribune Watch:Day 19 the DNT hasn’t noticed that their own writer was fired by the Aquarium”.
Bringing Down the Axe:
January 11 2001. John Ramos focused on then city planner Mike Conlan. Ramos chronicled failures such as moving Office Depot into the Holiday Center, a few months later Office Depot defaulted on a ten year lease. Conlan also sought to have the NorShor Theatre foreclosed for not repaying a $7,000 loan to the city. Oddly enough, loans for much greater amounts had either been forgiven or restructured. The Reader offered Conlan rebuttal space, then countered Conlan on various contentious points.
Outcome: The Reader’s documented background digging eventually cost Conlan his job, as Conlan later complained to The Reader’s publisher.
Bad Secret Service!
July 2004. Robert Boone discovered that the Secret Service was attempting to silence activists while he was interviewing George W. Bush during his campaign visit in the Twin Ports. In retrospect, the SS should have been more worried about The Reader. Boone captured photographic evidence, was threatened with arrest, talked his way out of it, and wrote a brief story that very night.
Outcome: The Minneapolis Star Tribune, Salon.com and New York Times picked up on the story. The Times story, entitled “Tyranny in the Name of Freedom,” said it all when they bemoaned “the use of the Secret Service to silence activists” as “an abuse of executive power.” Not news in any other local media.
The death of David Croud.
2005. Robert Boone discovered that the police lied about hitting and tasing Croud; and that both the police and St. Mary’s Hospital had handled his restraint at the hospital incorrectly.
Outcome: The ACLU took notice of The Reader’s reporting, and eventually secured substantial settlements from both the City of Duluth and St. Mary’s Hospital on Mr. Croud’s behalf. The Reader was the lone media voice to investigate the incident.
2006 undercover series on Walmart.
The Reader’s Dennis Kempton went beyond the call of duty in 2006, when he decided to go into “the belly of the Big Box” and become a Walmart employee. His goal? To find out what life is like in the world of low-pay retail work. Not surprisingly, he didn’t like it, and did a bang-up job reporting on his experiences.
Outcome: The Reader series caught Walmart’s attention at the local and national level, but nothing really changed.
Approximately 2006 it came to our attention that there were two police officers in Superior who had the bad habit of vandalizing cars. The Superior Police Department knew about the problem, but had covered it up rather than face public humiliation. Robert Boone helped them out by detailing the incidents and naming the officers.
Outcome: Our story embarrassed Superior enough that they suspended the officers. Never reported elsewhere.
Fast forward to 2008.
There have been some lighter moments at The Reader as well. After learning that the Duluth News Tribune’s owners in Fargo were dictating who the local editorial board could endorse (!) we decided to help. Robert Boone scooped the Duluth News Tribune on who they would be endorsing in the upcoming presidential election. By the time they realized what happened, it was too late for them to save face. The DNT stories had already gone to press, including a description of the painstaking process the local editorial board had used to select the best candidates. Ouch!
Outcome: The News Tribune quietly admitted (buried most of the way through an editorial by Chuck Frederick) two days later that Fargo had insisted that they endorse McCain and Craavack.
News Tribune Plays Follow The Reader
Three stories from 2011 stick out: Before Kestrel Aircraft officially announced their plans to set up shop in Superior, Robert Boone already had most of the details. The Reader put out the story on October 20th. The Duluth News Tribune didn’t run it until December 30th.
When the NorShor was changing hands, The Reader was there first. We reported on the sale of the building to George Sherman on November 10th. The DNT ran it December 14th.
When frozen food magnate Jeno Paulucci passed away, The Reader broke the news that he had sold Bellisio Foods from his deathbed. The Reader covered the story on December 1st. The DNT: December 7th.
Outcome: News Tribune reporter Peter Passi called Boone after the Bellisio story and asked him how he got the story; and then stated that he didn’t want to have to credit us. When Boone pointed out the other scoops, Passi ran the stories pretending to scoop them, Boone retaliated by publishing the infamous “Follow The Reader” cover on January 5, 2012.
President Nancy Norr voted to grant city money to organizations on whose boards she also sits. Published July 24, 2014 and Nov. 27, 2014 by John Ramos.
Outcome: No repercussions and never reported elsewhere.
Spirit Mountain’s financial troubles.
Published Oct. 2, 2014, by John Ramos. In more than one instance, the News Tribune actively pushed the city to make unwise decisions related to Spirit Mountain. In 2009, when Spirit Mountain wanted to spend its capital maintenance budget to build a new alpine coaster, the DNT ran a front-page story and an editorial urging the city to let them do it. The city did. This action, which was illegal under Spirit Mountain’s contract with the city, was a big factor in creating Spirit Mountain’s present-day financial troubles.
The Reader also was the first (by two months) to uncover that Spirit Mountain had manipulated their use of a revolving credit account with the City, withdrawing several hundreds of thousands of dollars beyond what the City had intended
Outcome: Spirit Mountain’s finances are still a mess.
City of Duluth’s efforts to secretly steer the library planning process.
In a nutshell, The Reader’s June 11 and July 23, 2015 stories uncovered Mayor Ness’ plans to tear down the existing Duluth Public Library and build a new one at great expense to the taxpayers. John Ramos documented that the City’s claims regarding renovation expenses were intentionally over stated by nearly 20 million dollars, that the cost of the new library was understated by 7 million dollars and various attempts by the City to dodge the open meeting laws, trick our reporter, plant fluff pieces in the DNT and other intrigue. Even more fun, we had all the City Hall emails to prove it.
Outcome: As our story broke the City decided to “reexamine a mid-priced partial renovation option for the existing facility.” Obviously not news in the News Tribune. The Reader was the only news team to report on any of these issues
And the beat goes on.
In October 2015 John Ramos penned a comprehensive review of Ness administration’s attempts to destroy the Lake Superior Zoo. Although there were hints of discord, it was The Reader’s cover story that exposed all the shenanigans and back room dealings that the city had engaged in over a year’s time in attempting to eliminate the zoo entirely.
Outcome: The Reader’s story forced the City to return to the negotiating table with the Zoological Society and work out a compromise plan which will apparently lead to a well funded fully functioning (but smaller in footprint) zoo. No other media reported on the Machiavellian maneuverings, everyone else ran stories about the happy news when it was all done. The Reader has been credited with saving the Lake Superior Zoo from demise by no less than former DNT Editor Rob Karwath and State Senator Roger Reinert.
Back to “Spotlight” …
From our perspective, The Reader stories recounted above were important and sometimes vital. But, just like in the case of the clergy sex-abuse story that first ran in Boston’s alternative paper and was ignored by the big boys, our stories have often been ignored by the mainstream media outlets in town.
Seeing “Spotlight” brought all of this to a head for me. Have I somehow managed to be both whining AND bragging at the same time? I suppose to a degree. But I promise you this: The Reader will do our level best to do the kind of investigative reporting that the stories above show that we are capable of. We need to find these stories more often. We need to pursue them with vigor. We need to pursue them fearlessly. Our slogan “The Best Paper Money Can’t Buy” is obviously not true, but it damn well is our intention.
And, in the same breath, I challenge our colleagues in the news industry, be it the Duluth News Tribune or whoever else, to pursue vital stories however they are unearthed, so that others do not have to pay the price for our neglect.
Robert Boone, Editor & Publisher
Staff writer Laura Gauger contributed to this story.