An intern gets a big lesson in investigative reporting in a small town

About two months after I arrived in Southern Illinois for a reporting internship this fall at the Pinckneyville Press, a several-ton mulch pile caught fire at the Alstat Wood Product yard about eight miles south of town. It burned for the better part of September and October, billowing smoke that could be seen for miles and drawing gawkers from around the county.

A one-minute video of the fire posted to the Press’ Facebook page was viewed 7,500 times (roughly double the town’s population), making it the second most viewed post in my four months at the Press, just behind a breaking news alert that the coach of Pinckneyville Community High School’s rival volleyball team had intentionally sabotaged Pinckneyville’s chances in the playoffs.

Ian Karbal works in the Pinckneyville Press newsroom in Southern Illinois. Karbal, a freelance journalist from Chicago and recent college graduated, interned at the Press this fall.

Before coming to Pinckneyville, I had freelanced for a hyperlocal in one of Chicago’s poorest, most populous and most underrepresented neighborhoods, Austin. I knew from my experience writing for AustinTalks how important local news is to the communities where it is delivered, and the same certainly held true in Pinckneyville.

But in Pinckneyville, it often felt that officials, and even residents, were working to thwart any attempt to glance the town’s inner-workings or challenge the status quo. This is a problem that Press publisher, Jeff Egbert, has faced since opening the paper in 2010, determined to serve as a community watchdog.

“We had a lot of pushback in the beginning,” Egbert said on starting up the newspaper, which has a circulation of about 1800. “There hadn’t been a paper in the town for a while. There was a lot of ‘why are you sticking your nose in where it doesn’t belong? Why do you think this is your business?’ It took almost, I would say, education or reeducation of public officials in Pinckneyville to remind that the money they were dealing with in Pinckneyville were public funds. They were tax dollars, they were fees that were collected, and the public had a right to know how those things were being spent in their local government.”

While local government has grudgingly made room for the Press and Egbert’s brand of accountability journalism, that hostility largely remains and is, more surprisingly, shared by a section of the public. As an outsider from Chicago, I wrestled with my share of this.

“One of the strangest things that I found was that people in the community who would stand on the principle of ‘we want an open and honest government’ would, at times, really reject what we were doing because we happened to be talking about their cousin, or their relative or their neighbor,” Egbert said.

The story I was brought down to work on began in 2016, when Pinckneyville resident Dawn Tanner mentioned to Press publisher Jeffrey Egbert that her company’s bucket truck had been impounded by the Pinckneyville police after a minor infraction. Even though there’d been a passenger who could have legally driven the truck off, Tanner had to pay over $600 to get the truck back.

That didn’t sit right with Egbert, but as the co-owner of four community papers and a radio station in Southern Illinois, he didn’t have the time for a large investigation with no guaranteed outcome. So he tucked it away. Two years later when I showed up for my internship, I was assigned the story.

The story wasn’t glamorous, and it took four months, dozens of often hostile interviews, and 25 FOIA requests to crack. Yet following the thread of a dubious police practice revealed a lot about the state of law enforcement in Pinckneyville. The fee was charged disproportionately to racial minorities and put an undue burden on the poor, the investigation found. It was implemented selectively at the discretion of the chief of police, who then negotiated it down with some and not others, the Press reported. The proceeds were dumped into a private police department checking account, which several audits found had a troubling lack of oversight. The bulk of that money was used to buy three new department vehicles, including a pickup truck. A $46,800 check was once written from that account to the city’s payroll, funding raises for the officers.

When approached with the data which seemed to allude to racial bias in the police department, city officials unanimously denied that the data revealed such prejudice, contradicting what we’d heard from numerous former police department employees. Most of a six-page email from the city’s attorney denied the logic of our findings, arguing that even though Pinckneyville officers stopped many times more racial minorities than would be expected based on the town and county’s minority population, the number was irrelevant. We used this metric because it was the basis of an Illinois Department of Transportation study into the existence of such bias, something we pointed out in our story.  Even after the stops, racial minorities were more likely to be given citations than warnings compared to white drivers, and significantly more likely to have their vehicles impounded. The city’s attorney responded in an email that “While the City does acknowledge there has been a slightly higher proportion of minority drivers receiving citations in each year from 2010-2017, the City does not believe those numbers are statistically significant.” The email also stated that all arrests for impoundable offenses led to impoundment, regardless of the color of the driver’s skin, something which law enforcement data, as well as statements from former police department employees and others with intimate knowledge of the impoundment practices, disputed.

The day the first in our series of stories on the impoundment fee went to press was the day the mulch fire stopped smoking- at least that’s how I remember it. The fire became an analogy I’d use when talking about how hard-hitting stories are broken in small towns like Pinckneyville, whose papers rarely have the staff to keep their eyes on so many aspects of governance at once. The Pinckneyville Press has only three full- time reporters, including Egbert.

In the nine years since its founding, the paper has built a reputation for breaking hard-hitting investigative stories. Its staff has uncovered the theft of school property by teachers, a police cover-up involving their former mayor’s son, the theft of government funds by a clerk’s office employee and a scandal involving a high school resource officer and lewd emails to female students.

As I  was preparing to leave Pinckneyville last week, Egbert was in the process of buying three local papers in Benton, West Frankfort and McLeanesboro when he found that their owner had racked up debt that would’ve threatened to put all of Egbert’s papers out of business had the sale gone through. This seemed to bother Egbert more than the discovery of any governmental failure.

Egbert’s concern wasn’t for his business, but for the towns those papers served. It can often seem like an uphill battle for the reporters who dedicate their lives to reporting in small communities like Pinckneyville. There’s little glamor, little thanks and little pay (I was given $400 a month, just enough to cover a small apartment and utilities, plus access to the company gas). There are plenty of towns in Southern Illinois that have no paper to cover them at all, and more that have papers that aren’t willing or able to put their resources into investigative work.

“It’s not really neglecting. It’s maybe not having the resources to cover stuff,” said Pete Spitler, editor of the the Pinckneyville Press and a 24-year veteran journalist in Southern Illinois. “If you’re running a bunch of press releases or just stuff [from outside] of the area, like Chicago or what not, people won’t buy it because it’s not local.”

Spitler spent a lot of his early years in the area working for local papers owned by national media groups, like Gatehouse Media or Lee Enterprises, doing work which Spitler called “bottom line journalism.”

“We were always told that there wasn’t additional money left for additional resources,” Spitler said.”They do a lot of special sections- I know I did a lot of them- and you rely on a lot of submissions from the community to submit their own news.”

Since opening the Press, his first paper, Egbert has gone some years without drawing a salary. The Press has lost readership and advertisers over a few of its more controversial stories. And the reporter turnaround is high.

It’s hard for Egbert to recruit young journalists like me, and it’s easy to understand why. It’s exhausting work that can feel Quixotic and thankless. And not everyone coming out of college is as fortunate as I was to be able to forego a substantive income for four months. But we’re needed, and the kind of work I got to do mattered, even if just to a few hundred readers in PInckneyville.

Egbert holds out hope that his purchase of the three Franklin County papers will go through. The papers may have to be combined into a single county-wide publication, but the towns won’t fall into a coverage gap like too many small municipalities in rural areas like southern Illinois, or be forced to contend with papers that serve more as an ad-sales vehicle than a means of government accountability.

“I believe in what we do,” Egbert said. “I believe communities need what we do.  If I can do what we’ve done in Pinckneyville, and grow that to a larger area, and help more people in Southern Illinois, that’s what I want to do.”

Ian Karbal is Chicago-based freelance journalist. He can be found on Twitter at @iankarbal.

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