Thursday, June 15, 2006

Bang for the Buck

How efficient is your local government? The Kansas City Star tries to answer that question with one of the most helpful uses of data crunching that I've seen. "Our Tax Dollars at Work: Who's Doing the Best Job?" by Michael Mansur and Rick Montgomery analyzes which towns in the Kansas City metro area offer the most in services in proportion to the tax money they receive. Mansur and Montgomery use the data to show which towns are most efficient at fighting crime, putting out fires, fixing streets, picking up garbage and providing other municipal services. In addition to giving us an interesting and fun way to use data, the series is crisply and clearly written. Thanks to the folks at Investigative Reporters and Editors for recommending this story.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Behind the Kitchen Door

Despite its financial turmoil, I'm still seeing some exciting journalism coming out of the Tribune Co. newspapers. In today's Los Angeles Times, John M. Glionna has a fascinating story about the immigrants who toil in the nation's 41,350 Chinese restaurants. "A Wok with Jesus" profiles Esther Lou, an evangelist minister for these 1 million "stir-fry cooks, dumpling-makers and dishwashers" who often labor 12 hours a day every day of the week in difficult conditions. The story contains an interesting mix of reporting on religious, immigration and labor issues.

In case you missed it last week, the Times ran an explosive series, "Juice vs. Justice," that investigates the close financial ties between some Nevada judges and the lawyers and defendants who come before them in the courtroom. The stories by Michael J. Goodman and William C. Rempel are chock full of details such as the judge who repeatedly ruled in favor of a casino whose stock he owned and lawyers holding a big fundraiser for a judge who was about to hear some of their cases.

Not to be out done by its West Coast sister, the Chicago Tribune has revealed over the past month how 22 vacant lots owned by churches, a school and a homeless shelter were fraudulently sold without their consent. Until the Tribune started reporting on the fraud, the owners didn't even know their lots had been sold. Today the Tribune's Robert Becker and Ray Gibson reported how the alleged mastermind of the scheme has been arrested and charged with theft and organizing an ongoing financial crime.

Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Sunken Money

Tracking how money in a government budget is actually spent is tough enough to do. Tracking how that money is spent when it's not even listed as a line item in the budget takes a Herculean reporting effort. That's what John Monk of The State in Columbia, South Carolina, accomplishes with his story "How Senator Steers Sub Under Radar." Monk traces how a powerful state senator, Glenn McConnell, has managed behind the scenes to get $97 million committed toward preserving and promoting the Hunley, an old Confederate submarine, without much in the way of public debate. I admire the tenacious digging Monk did to piece together how taxpayer dollars (in addition to some private money) is going toward a project that doesn't necessarily have broad public support. Thanks to Brian Summers for suggesting this story.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Behind Locked Doors

The last two days the St. Louis Post-Dispatch has run a terrific series on extensive neglect and abuse against some of our most vulnerable citizens. "Broken Promises, Broken Lives" by Carolyn Tuft and Joe Mahr documents how mentally ill and retarded people have suffered 21 deaths and 665 injuries since 2000 in government supervised centers in Missouri. I like how Tuft and Mahr don't pull any punches with their lead in Sunday's paper: "Mentally retarded and mentally ill people in Missouri have been sexually assaulted, beaten, injured and left to die by abusive and neglectful caregivers in a system that for years has failed at every level to safeguard them." They go on to give example after example of the kind of mistreatment that has led, they say, to 2,287 confirmed abuse and neglect cases. Today's chapter in the series details how prosecutors and police often don't pursue investigations of these crimes. This second chapter is also full of powerful examples.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

China Syndromes

I saw a couple of strong stories on the environment in the Sunday papers. In "Aging Nuclear Plants Pushed to the Limit," Mike Hughlett and Robert Manor of the Chicago Tribune look at the implications of the nuclear industry's drive "to run reactors harder, longer and faster than ever before." What impressed me most are the specific examples Hughlett and Manor give from aging nuclear power plants such as vibrations causing gaping cracks and steel fragments ending up stuck in steam pipes. With the federal government looking to nuclear power as a possible fix for the energy crisis, this is indeed an important story.

Equally important is "Pollution From Chinese Coal Casts a Global Shadow" by Keith Bradsher and David Barboza of The New York Times. Bradsher and Barboza describe how Chinese coal-burning power plants are exporting "a dangerous brew of soot, toxic chemicals and climate-changing gases." Chinese coal pollution has traveled as far as California, Oregon and Washington, they report. Unless a change is made, in 25 years global-warming gases from China's coal use will exceed those of the rest of the industrialized world combined, Bradsher and Barboza warn, causing a potential environmental catastrophe. This story has a wealth of detail and analysis and is clearly written considering the complexity of the subject.
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