Craig Harris: Get buy-in and do your homework

by October 5, 2011
The Arizona Republic public pensions Craig Harris

Craig Harris notes that public pensions cost $1.4 billion a year in a video introduction to his Arizona Republic series: “Public Pensions, A Soaring Burden.”

Craig Harris of The Arizona Republic won the top gold award in the Barlett & Steele Awards for Investigative Business Journalism for his series looking into abuses in the state’s public pension systems. The awards, named for the investigative team of Don Barlett and Jim Steele, recognize the best in investigative business journalism. Craig’s eight-part series found:

“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.”

I spoke with Craig in March, when the series won an award from Syracuse’s Newhouse School. He offered some great tips on working with the numbers. This time, he has three more tips to offer.
  • Tip One: Get buy-in from the top.

In Craig’s case, that was a little easier since Executive Editor Nicole Carroll approached him about the story, and Randy Lovely, editor/vice president for news, approved the space required to publish the series. On the ground, he says Cherrill Crosby, local news center director at the paper, and County Editor Pat Flannery guided him during the four months he spent reporting and writing, and helped him confirm the numbers were right.

“When you get so many cooks in the kitchen, it can be aggravating, but in the end it tastes a lot better,” Craig says. “It’s better to work collaboratively and be humble about it.”

  • Tip Two: Do your homework so you know where to get what.
Craig Harris, reporter, The Arizona Republic

Craig Harris

In Arizona, getting all the data required hitting six systems because elected officials’ pensions were separate from those for groups such as firefighters, he says.

“They won’t willingly give information over to you,” he says. “Fortunately, our state has already paved the way [in] setting case law for other states.”

  • Tip Three: Be prepared for criticism, and don’t engage in a fight with readers.

“Find a way to diffuse it, and people calm down,” he says. When critics accused him of being jealous, he told them his wife teaches at Arizona State University and was previously a public school teacher.

“I’d say, ‘My wife is a member of the Arizona retirement system. I’ve lived off public dole for 22 years,’” he says.