An Investigative Mindset Leads Oregonian, Oregon Public Broadcasting & ProPublica to 2021 Bartlett & Steele Bronze Award

by November 8, 2021
Photo: Julianne Culey

On their first reporting trip to Falls City, Oregon, a small town roughly 70 miles southwest of Portland, journalists Rob Davis and Tony Schick asked a resident in the local store what he and his neighbors were getting from the local timber industry. 

“Nothing but the dust from the trucks going by,” was the reply.

That response helped validate what would become a three-part investigative series from The Oregonian, where Davis works, Oregon Public Broadcasting, where Schick works, and ProPublica. It extensively detailed how large corporations had seized control of the timber industry in Oregon, home to some of the most valuable timberlands in the world, thanks in large part to government tax breaks that saved them billions of dollars. The series also explored how those companies have set numerous rural communities like Falls City on a path to economic ruin, environmental peril and in some cases hazardous living conditions. 

Davis and Schick also detailed how the modern timber industry’s outsized influence on the Oregon state government has allowed it to keep decimating towns like Falls City and the surrounding areas in a state that has built an outward reputation for environmental consciousness. The series won bronze in the 15th annual Barlett & Steele Awards for Investigative Business Journalism.

Oregon state senator Jeff Golden, who chairs the state’s Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources, called Davis and Schick’s work “some of the finest investigative reporting I’ve seen in a long time” in a statement to The Oregonian.

The series also explained how the Oregon Forest Resources Institute (OFRI), a state organization intended to educate residents about forestry, became a “de facto lobbying arm” of the timber industry in potential violation of state law. Shortly after publication of the series’ installment on OFRI, Oregon governor Kate Brown ordered an audit of the agency, which confirmed the story’s findings and resulted in the resignation of OFRI’s executive director.

It is the second time in three years that The Oregonian, and Davis in particular, have been honored by the Barlett & Steele Awards. Davis also won bronze in 2019 for an investigation into how Oregon’s relative lack of campaign finance limits has made it easy for lobbyists to kill environmental initiatives.

“The timber industry gives more money to Oregon lawmakers than it does in any other state in the nation,” Davis said. “The idea of Oregon as some kind of green utopia is a complete fallacy that Tony and I have basically dedicated the last eight years of our lives to debunking.”

When Davis was in Phoenix for his 2019 award, he was able to show Jim Steele some of the internal emails from OFRI that he had recently received due to a public records request. The discovery of those emails would lead to Davis and Schick’s exposé that showed the agency was engaged in an intense lobbying effort to discredit research from Oregon State University arguing for less frequent cutting of trees on private land. Davis said that Steele’s excitement about those emails and the story that could come from them gave him “a huge vote of confidence” going forward.

Davis and Schick also included a trove of data and public records to flesh out just how Oregon’s timber industry had transformed from the locally-owned lifeblood of the economies of the state’s forest towns into a corporate-owned, environmentally hazardous practice. Schick headed up the data collection effort along with ProPublica data journalist Lylla Younes. 

“It was just a lot of a lot of not-that-fancy but tedious legwork of going through old reports and sometimes literally looking at an old paper report of how much timber was harvested and how much tax there was in a given year and entering it into a spreadsheet and then double and triple checking that and then gathering data from all these different sources,” Schick said. “It was always going to be an aim of the story to put as many hard numbers on this as we could because the real story is in the specificity of the numbers and in what you can say hard and fast about what’s happened.”

It was data that alerted both reporters to the story in the first place, as both took notice when companies with timber investments like Weyerhaeuser and Plum Creek merged, in a multi-billion-dollar deal, in 2016. 

“It was like, ‘Wait a minute, how are these companies worth this much money if all I’m hearing is that this industry is dead?’” Schick remembered asking himself.

The duo put a large emphasis on old-fashioned “shoe-leather” reporting, getting nearly 600 responses from an initial audience call-out through The Oregonian and OPB and making trips out to these rural towns such as their trek to Falls Creek. That trip in particular was very rewarding to Davis and Schick.

“Tony had done a lot of legwork to find [Falls City] and to get in touch with people there,” Davis said. “We sat down in the town manager’s office with the mayor and the town manager and… they start [saying] ‘Hey, I don’t know if you know the story here, but what’s been going on is…’ and they just rattled off, like, the entire story – the whole arc of the story. I was just sitting there shaking my head, like, ‘How is this possible?’ It was just so real to them.”

Davis and Schick both encourage younger journalists to have an “investigative mindset,” whether they are covering their local city council meetings or taking on a yearlong enterprise project, always making the extra phone call or finding the extra document or dataset to verify and expand their reporting.

“Get yourself on the phone, get records and just be asking questions. When someone tells you something, [ask] ‘What do you mean by that? How do you know that?’” Schick said. “[An investigation] doesn’t have to start big… It can be a tiny germ of a question. And there’s also a ton of value in the reporting that catches problems early and can be small, small things.”



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