TV-Paper Partnership A Winner In NOLA
New Orleans investigative reporters Lee Zurik and Manuel Torres knew each other only as rivals until a year or so ago, when they got the word to partner on a big-league project.
Zurik works for WVUE, the Louisiana Media Co.-owned Fox affiliate, a TV guy who has won a multitude of prestigious awards for his work. Torres is NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune’s enterprise editor, a print journalist committed to doing reporting “of importance and consequence to affect change.”
They clicked from the get-go, kicking around ideas for the project. The investigation was supposed to be bigger than previous WVUE-NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune collaborations, primarily sports reports, but was otherwise undefined.
After some preliminary digging, Zurik and Torres decided to focus on Louisiana political contributions — who gives, how much, to whom and for what. They had no preconceptions about what they would uncover. “We went where the reporting took us,” Zurik says.
The result: Louisiana Purchased, an exhaustive, data-heavy investigation, yielding about two dozen TV news stories, 73 articles, an online database of more than 741,000 individual contributions — and a 2013 Peabody Award.
WVUE is one of four local broadcasters among this year’s record 46 Peabody winners announced earlier this month. WBZ Boston, KING Seattle and WTVF Nashville are the others.
The series uncovered how a small number of wealthy donors exert large influence in Louisiana politics. The investigation found that many of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s political appointees are people who filled his campaign coffers with cash. Evidence of lax enforcement of campaign finance rules were uncovered as well.
According to Torres, the four-month investigation involved 28 people from both news organizations, who worked a total of 4,800 hours doing everything from reporting and data analysis to graphics and website design.
Compiling the database alone was an enormous task, requiring the download, organization and analysis of nearly 750,000 contributions totaling $204 million that poured into the campaigns of Louisiana politicians from 2009 to 2012.
Readers can search Louisiana campaign contributions using that database, housed on NOLA.com.
Zurik launched the series in November with a story about Louisiana’s top 400 political contributors, “the gatekeepers of state politics,” which was posted on both news organizations' websites the same time it ran on-air. A print version of the story ran in The Times-Picayune the following day.
Fox8Live.com augments the database of contributors with an interactive page that includes a map of donors’ locations, pie charts showing how “a handful of donors” give “fistfuls of cash” and details on each contributing group or individual.
Other highlights include a story about nine politicians who appear to have broken the law by accepting campaign contributions over the legal limit and another on how they spent it.
Nursing homes pumping millions into campaigns, and what they get in return, the state’s failure to crack down on campaign finance violations and politicians’ use of campaign cash on luxuries like football tickets and pricey restaurants were also uncovered.
Coordinating the effort was difficult, Zurik says. He and Torres were in constant communication, talking and texting multiple times a day, while divvying up reporting among staffers, which included interviewing dozens of people.
They had to decide which stories would run when and on which platform. “What went online and in print was not a transcript of what was on TV," Torres says. "They complemented each other."
Graphics, marketing and promotions departments had to be in sync, too. “It was challenging because you’re talking about two big news operations used to working on their own” Zurik says. “It took a lot of people involved just to make sure we were all on the same page.”
Producing stories for broadcast had its own set of challenges, primarily because of the breadth and depth of the content, Zurik says. Some stories ran more than 10 minutes. “These are different than a lot of TV stories,” he says. “They are meaty pieces. They are big picture and it takes time to tell them.”
But the work seems to be paying off.
Since the series debuted, politicians have returned $300,000 in illegal donations and, as of February, paid about $70,000 in ethics fines. The series also renewed calls for stricter campaign finance laws. Seven bills currently being reviewed by the state legislature address the issue, Zurik says.
The investigation is not over. When station higher ups in December raised the issue of starting the next collaborative project, Zurik realized “we’re not done here; we have more to do.”
Since then, the pair has expanded the breadth of their investigation to include more contributions over more time. Later this month, Zurik says he plans to air new stories that “may be our most significant.”