Craig Harris, a reporter at The Arizona Republic, received the gold award in the 2011 Barlett & Steele Awards for Investigative Business Journalism for his series “Public Pensions, A Soaring Burden.”
The series focused on questionable public-pension practices and their cost to taxpayers. A project that included 67 public-records requests uncovered elected officials making more in retirement than when they were employed and pensions paid to convicted felons removed from office for official wrongdoing.
Below Harris shares his top tips for other journalists seeking to do similar investigative work.
Get buy-in from top editors. This was not a problem for this series because it was the brainchild of Executive Editor Nicole Carroll. However, it was very important to have her and Senior Vice President of News Randy Lovely on board because of the legal costs we incurred to get records from ASRS. And, they both signed off on running the series for eight days, which consumed a great deal of news hold. In addition, when it came to crunch time, top editors signed off on having my immediate supervisor, Pat Flannery, do nothing but edit this project the two weeks before it ran.
Keep everyone in the loop. We had regular meetings with the page one editor, the photo editor and graphics editor on what we were trying to accomplish. Flannery was instrumental in making sure the project went off smoothly.
Double- or triple-check the math. In dealing with pensions and public money, it’s vital to make sure all the numbers are correct. Go over the figures numerous times. We had a copy editor who didn’t think some of the figures with the police and fire pensions were correct. Even though the chief financial officer for that pension plan twice told me the numbers were right, I asked her a third time after concerns from the copy editor. She rechecked the numbers, and said she had made a mistake the other two times and we corrected the figures before the story was published.
Do your homework. I knew nothing about pensions before the series ran, but I read hundreds of news articles about pensions from around the country. I also took up hours of time from pension managers in Arizona to make sure I fully understood the issues. I’m sure they got sick of seeing me, but they later said they appreciated how much time I invested and that the paper was accurate and fair.
Let the other side have their day. I knew the stories I wrote would be very controversial, and The Arizona Republic took plenty of criticism from public employees and unions for running the stories. On the last day of the series, our editorial page ran long essays from supporters of the pension plans (and critics of our series). I facilitated the process by asking each of those folks to write an op-ed, and I put them in touch with our editorial page editor.