By Ellen Clegg
The Charleston Post and Courier, a family-owned newspaper in South Carolina that traces its lineage back to 1803, is wrapping up a remarkable year-long project that afflicts the comfortable and the corrupt on an industrial scale.
The project, called, “Uncovered,” harnesses the investigative power of The Post and Courier (the paper won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service in 2015) and puts it to work alongside 17 community newspapers, at least a few of which are struggling. The editors of The Post and Courier are direct about their dual targets, which they sum up in this headline: “News deserts and weak ethics laws allow corruption to run rampant in South Carolina.”
Their premise: Corruption festers when people aren’t looking, when the spotlight doesn’t shine.
As the story on the home page notes, “The stakes are high. Corruption could surge as so-called news deserts expand and federal and state prosecutors back off.” The editors issue a call to action: Let’s shine a light into the darkest corners.
Together, the coalition of newsrooms filed more than 50 FOIA requests and interviewed more than 560 public officials and whistleblowers. An online “corruption tracker” database enables readers who want to see what scandals the team dug up in a particular community.
Of course, competition for scoops is tightly woven into the culture of most newsrooms. Over the years, that drive to get the facts out has benefited readers. But newspaper closures continue to spread, and ghost newspapers haunt more and more communities, particularly in rural areas. In South Carolina, seven papers shut down last year and two more moved to online only, according to the South Carolina Press Association. So it can be a boon when newsrooms put aside the competitive spirit for a bit to map out an investigative project that proffers solutions across a broader circulation area and provides an incentive to keep subscribing to the town paper. As I’ve reported previously, ProPublica and MLK50: Justice Through Journalism teamed up to investigate predatory debt collection practices in Memphis in an award-winning series entitled “Profiting from the Poor: Inside Memphis’s debt machine.”
As South Carolinians are finding, this network effect amplifies the power of the press to hold public officials accountable. As the Post and Courier editors write: “We have only begun.”