Friday, December 16, 2005

Refusing to Give Up

Most reporters spend a day or two on a story. If it's a big one, maybe they'll spend a month. Larry Welborn of The Orange County Register deserves an award for sheer tenacity after spending 31 years investigating the mystery of Linda Louise Cummings, a shy young woman found dead in her Santa Ana apartment in 1974. The coroner originally ruled that Cummings killed herself, but Welborn soon grew suspicious. His "Murder by Suicide?" is an eight-part series that reads like a detective novel as Welborn tracks down her killer. Only six parts have been published so far, and I can't wait to read what happens in the other two. Of special interest is how Welborn tells the story in a smooth narrative style, leaving most of the attributions to an informational sidebar.
A tip of the hat to Brian Summers for suggesting this story.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Broken Homes, Broken Promises

I am delighted that journalists around the country continue to write hard-hitting follow-ups to the Hurricane Katrina story. "Loans to Homeowners Along Gulf Coast Lag" by Leslie Eaton and Ron Nixon of The New York Times reveals that the federal Small Business Administration has processed only a third of the 276,000 home loan applications it has received from Katrina victims and rejected more than three-quarters of the ones it has reviewed. Poor people are having a much tougher time getting loans than wealthy ones, Nixon and Eaton report, making it difficult to revive low-income neighborhoods.

Sick Priorities

Schools around the country are cutting back on nurses, Bruce Horovitz and Kevin McCoy of USA Today report. In "Nurse Shortage Puts School Kids at Risk," McCoy and Horovitz show that nearly half of all U.S. schools fall short of recommended nurse-to-student ratios and that some large schools have no nurses at all. This story skillfully mixes data with powerful anecdotes to reveal a trend that should concern everyone who cares about children. This gem comes courtesy of "Al's Morning Meeting" by the Poynter Institute's Al Tompkins.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Owning Nature

As an old-fashioned newspaper guy, I still have a hard time believing that strong enterprise reporting can occur without the backing of a print or broadcast outlet. But good investigations are occurring on the Web that are independent of any traditional media outlet. A good example is "The Gene Rush" by Stan Cox of Alternet. Cox examines how the genes for naturally growing foods are being patented by private companies. By making the "agricultural gene pool open to genetic prospectors," he writes, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office is stifling innovation for farmers and scientists in America and around the world. What makes this story work are the examples Cox gives of patents for everything from firm honeydew melons to bismati rice.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Grandma the Drug Dealer

Bringing to light a trend with interesting implications is one of the most important things a reporter can do. Roger Alford of the Associated Press succeeds in doing this through his story, "More Elderly in Appalachia Charged with Selling Drugs." Alford found that a growing number of senior citizens, desperate for money, are illegally selling prescription drugs such as OxyContin to addicts and ending up in jail. To examine the reasons behind this surge, he talks with doctors, pastors, detectives and jailers along with researchers who suspect the problem is not confined to Appalachia. Alford's lead is a real gem: "After being fingerprinted and photographed, 87-year-old Dottie Neeley sat quietly in the local jail, imprisoned as much by the tubing from her oxygen tank as the concrete and steel surrounding her."

Monday, December 12, 2005

Flooding Lessons

My very first NewsGem applauded the staff of the New Orleans Times-Picayune for its heroic coverage of Hurricane Katrina. The staffers, whose newsroom and own homes were devastated by the storm, deserve continued accolades for their coverage of the storm's aftermath. Gordon Russell's "Rising from the Tide" is a great example of the Times-Picayune's enterprising reporting. Russell went to Grand Forks, N.D., whose 1997 flood was the most damaging to a U.S. city prior to Katrina. Russell looks closely at the successes and failures of Grand Forks' rebuilding efforts to see what kind of lessons can be learned for New Orleans.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Fishy (and Poisonous) Food

Sam Roe and Michael Hawthorne have a must-read story in today's Chicago Tribune. "Toxic Risk on your Plate" reveals that fish routinely sold in supermarkets and specialty food stores are contaminated with toxic amounts of mercury. The Tribune independently tested tuna, swordfish, orange roughy, grouper and other seafood sold in stories and found that they contained mercury levels that violate food safety rules. The scariest part of the story is that the U.S. government does not inspect seafood for mercury and rarely tests for it. Roe and Hawthorne report that the Tribune tested more samples of some kinds of fish than the government has in the past 25 years. The Web package that goes with this story is also excellent, including a calculator that allows readers to figure out how much fish they can safely eat.,1,3096866.htmlstory?coll=chi-news-hed

Putting Used Parts in Your Body

An increasing number of U.S. hospitals are reusing medical devices originally designed for one-time use, Alec Klein of the Washington Post writes in Sunday's paper. To report his article, "Hospitals Save Money, But Safety Is Questioned," Klein sifted through thousands of pages of FDA documents, company records and court filings and interviewed patients, doctors and hospital administrators. He found hospitals reusing these devices despite the warnings of manufacturers, leading to malfunctions in catheters, tracheal tubes and other vital medical equipment. Klein's work is a great example of investigative reporting that might end up saving lives.
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