BOB: Jeff Meitrodt, a seasoned State House reporter for the Chicago Tribune in Springfield in 2007 and 2008, actually was in the right place at the right time to uncover the story of a lifetime. It centered around the state’s governor. You know, the one with the super charismatic hair.
MEIDRODT: Yeah, Rob Blagojevich was a wonderful target as an investigative journalist. This is a guy who couldn't help but make news no matter what he did. Often because he was doing things pretty bone-headed and ultimately, as we proved, illegal.
BOB: You put together a team. And a very robust investigation into Blagojevich corrupt practices...
MEIDRODT: There's be a story here and a story there suggesting that insiders were getting in trouble, had given Blagojevich a 25,000 dollar campaign contribution and you know, we were wondering 'Hey, was that what it cost to buy a favor from this government.' It took me almost 2 months of research to painstakingly go through his public campaign contribution database, find the donors who gave 25,000 bucks and then figure out who the principles were. It was a real connect the dots exercise. We found over 200 campaign contributions that were exactly 25,000 bucks and 75 percent of those givers got something for their money. Big, sort of , no-bid contracts, state jobs, assignments to very influential policy-making groups. In some cases very favorable regulatory action from state agencies. So it was very nice to pull back the curtain and go 'Hey -- here's the bigger pattern. Here's the bigger picture. Here's how the game is being played.'
BOB: What happened next?
MEITRODT: Well, Blagojevich went down in flames. He was convicted. He went to jail. It was somewhat satisfying that the article we did was one of the pieces of evidence that was used against him in his impeachment trial.
BOB: When the Chicago Tribune began to face its...revenue crisis in they needed places to chop, you were kind of a star muckraker. So you're absolutely insulated from any kind of layoffs or buyouts.
MEITRODT: That's what I'd been assured of when I agreed to take that job and move my family half way across the country.
BOB: But...turned out that was not the case.
MEITRODT: I was the most surprised guy in Illinois when I got the phone call that Friday morning saying that my name was on the list and I no longer had a job at the Chicago Tribune.
BOB: What does this tell us about the state of nuts-and-bolts legislative coverage.
MEITRODT: It says it's one of the most expendable items on the budget. And as newspapers are figuring out where to cut, they are often looking at the State House and thinking. 'We know they love our sports coverage. We know they're looking at our Arts and Entertainment coverage. Do they really need this boring broccoli that we're feeding them about State House coverage?' It's stunning to me what newspapers are supposed to be about which is about protecting the public interest often to takes a back seat. A lot of us were the higher paid reporters I don't think it had a lot to do with how well you were doing your job. It was how much money you were making and whether they thought there was enough reader interest to warrant that position.
BOB: Now you have moved your family again. This time to Minneapolis to work for the 'Strib. Are you so foolish to believe you're any safer in the Twin Cities than you are in Chicago?
MEITDROT: I should know better. I had options and a once again decided to walk through the same door. But the paper I work for now, they have five State House reporters. That's more than twice what we had at the Chicago Tribune. Which is a much larger newspaper, serving a much larger city. And I just think that speaks volumes what this newspapers values and when I found out that that was a big sell.
BOB: Jeff, newspapers are all the time talking about how they value enterprise reporting. The kind of meaty stuff that begins with the initiative of the journalist and yet...you have to know the beat before you can be enterprising.
MEITRODT: That's absolutely correct. It comes from that grind-it-out day-to-day coverage where you know what's going on. I can say that with confidence looking back over all the things I've done as an investigative guy. I invariably pair up with a beat reporter whether that's a State House reporter, a business reporter, a metro reporter who simply knows that subject so well. And they've noticed something that raises bigger questions. Like 'how is that going on?' or 'I wanna got take a look at Special Education.' Or 'I wanna go take a look at why kids are dying in day care centers.' That is where we do journalism that are readers really care about.
BOB: Thank you so much.
MEITRODT: Thank you.
BOB: Jeff Meitrodt is a national headliner and Loeb award winning investigative journalist for the Minneapolis Star and Tribune.