Sunday, February 14, 2021

Post and Courier reports on, and partners with other S.C. newspapers to help fill, gaps in accountability journalism

Newspapers in Holly Hill and Santee, S.C., have been among
those that have closed in rural areas of the Palmetto State.
(Photo by Andrew J. Whitaker, The Post and Courier)
"Corruption is flourishing in the rural corners of South Carolina as newspapers fold or shrink coverage amid a financially crippling pandemic," Glenn Smith and Tony Bartelme report for The Post and Courier of Charleston, which is trying to do something about it by partnering with rural papers.

"Seven of our state’s newspapers closed their doors in the past year, joining more than 60 that shuttered across the nation as the coronavirus strangled an industry already battered by shrinking revenue and draining job cuts," Smith and Bartelme report. "The losses hit hardest in the vast rural stretches of the Palmetto State."

The reporters' story accompanies a special project they started with Joseph Cranney and Avery Wilks, "Uncovered," which calls it "a project to cast new light on questionable government conduct, especially in smaller towns. We’ll work with community newspapers, leveraging The Post and Courier’s investigative resources with reporters who know their towns inside and out. We'll publish our findings simultaneously." The story carries the headline, "News deserts and weak ethics laws allow corruption to run rampant in SC."

Allendale County (Wikipedia map)
Their first example: Allendale County, which lost its only newspaper in 2015. Since then, "The state took over the county’s problem-plagued school district for the second time while three of Allendale’s public officials went to jail on embezzlement charges."

Rural papers aren't known for investigations. They still discourage corruption, said experts such as Chief Mark Keel of the State Law Enforcement Division told the Post and Courier, which reports:

"Often, the corruption comes to light when local suspicions or complaints end up in the community newspaper, prompting someone in power to reach out to SLED for help, Keel said. Kristine Artello, a corruption expert and professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, interviewed former federal prosecutors and investigators for a study into what triggers corruption cases and the tools investigators need for these cases to succeed. One surprising finding: Newspapers and law enforcement often had a synergistic effect. Old-school investigators told her 'they would come into the office in the morning and the first thing they did was read the newspaper and make circles in the articles, saying, "This smells funny. I want to investigate that." And that’s what they started with.' But as communities lose newspapers, they lose the kinds of clues law enforcement needs to make cases, Artello said."

The Post and Courier's stories offer many examples from South Carolina but one takes a broader look, quoting Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, publisher of The Rural Blog: “We’re in a crisis in local journalism in this country, and it was a crisis before the pandemic came along.” He says just covering government meetings isn't enough: “Covering a meeting is like sitting in a train station and watching trains pick up and let off passengers,” Cross said. “You might have some idea what is going on, but you don’t really know unless you get on that train, ride it and ask questions.”

No comments: