Craig Harris of The Arizona Republic became the first recipient of the Toner Prize for Excellence in Political Reporting from Syracuse’s Newhouse School for an eight-part series looking at abuses in the state’s pension plans.
Craig had to survive being sued by the Arizona State Retirement System — which sought (unsuccessfully) to get a judge’s approval to deny the paper’s public information request — and castigated (erroneously) by retirees for requesting certain data.
But it paid off, as he notes in the first part:
“Even as local governments and the state are slashing budgets, Arizonans are propping up public-pension systems that allow civil servants to retire in their 50s, receive annuities that can exceed $100,000 a year, and collect pensions while staying on the same job, The Arizona Republic has found.”
Collecting the data also revealed other juicy bits of information, such as this from the fourth part:
“Phoenix officials repeatedly said former City Manager Frank Fairbanks turned down raises because of tough times during the last few years of his tenure even though he was underpaid compared with counterparts across the country.
But records obtained by The Arizona Republic while researching public-pension practices show Fairbanks actually accepted raises and bonuses, and received pay for unused vacation and sick leave, to earn $1.3 million during his final three years before retiring Nov. 5, 2009. His reported annual salary was $236,998, but that was only his base pay.”
The judges cited the series’ depth and thoroughness. “He did it the old-fashioned way—lots of sweat equity, patience and perseverance,” says Paul Delaney, former head of the journalism department at the University of Alabama.
Today’s Tip: Make sure your computer has enough data storage to manipulate the numbers, know Excel and work with your staff’s data expert, Craig says.
As other reporters have mentioned in this blog, getting the numbers is half the challenge; getting them to make sense is the other half. This piece required looking at pensions for more than 111,000 retired public employees.
To get the information, the paper submitted public records requests for the employees’ names, when they retired and how much money they made. Craig said retirees were told in an email blast from the State Retirement System that the paper also wanted Social Security numbers and addresses. That erroneous comment ticked off a lot of people who contacted the paper.
Craig says he told people the series wasn’t about posting their personal information. “We only showed the most egregious examples of what was going on,” he says. “We weren’t out to embarrass anyone.”
Finally, thanks to the series, there’s a legislative push to end the abuses that resulted in spiked pension payments.
To learn more about Excel and computer-assisted reporting (CAR), sign up for the Reynolds Center’s free workshop on Sept. 13 in Seattle: Be a Better Business Watchdog: CAR for Business Journalists.