Monday, March 9, 2009

Capacity crowd shows support for investigative journalism, openness in government

A capacity crowd in Lexington tonight was testimony to the importance of open government and investigative journalism.

Journalists and about as many non-journalists gathered to hear Lexington Herald-Leader reporter Jennifer Hewlett and projects editor Sharon Walsh discuss the paper's investigation of spending by local airport officials, which has resulted in resignations of several, a scathing report by the state auditor and a criminal investigation.

"I had no idea it was going to turn into what it did," Hewlett said at a meeting of the Bluegrass Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, in the Buckner Room at the Herald-Leader. She said a relatively minor story, coupled with help from "well-placed sources," resulted in stories that became the talk of the town -- especially after the airport board chairman revealed that the executive director and his lieutenants spent thousands of public dollars at a strip club. All told, the questionable expenses exceed half a million dollars.

Walsh (at right in photo) said the stories also hit home with readers because "People felt like the airport was theirs, and it was expenses people could identify with," such as using airport credit cards to fill up personal vehicles on the same day as airport vehicles.

Several in the crowd said the stories showed the essential role of independent journalism in a democratic system, at a time when newspapers are shriveling for technological and economic reasons.

"If it weren't for the Herald-Leader all the people who were supposed to be watching would have let this keep going," librarian Susan Daole told the speakers. "I am so worried about what's going to happen to it every day as you have to let more and more people go." Today, McClatchy Co., which bought the Herald-Leader in its purchase of the Knight-Ridder chain, announced that it would cut another 1,600 jobs.

With newspapers hobbled, civic activist Don Pratt said, journalists should help citizens understand how to use open-records laws to do their own investigations. The writer of this item urged non-journalists to become active in Kentucky Citizens for Open Government. To e-mail me, click here.

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