BLACK BOX YEAR IN REVIEW

Black Box makes mark in probing local issues

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We launched the investigative journalism arm of our company, Black Box, at the start of this year.

Investigative journalism does not play a traditional role in small community newspaper newsrooms. This type of work is usually reserved for large daily newspapers and cable broadcasts.

However, many such organizations miss out on a lot of the stories that, while important to a local community, just don’t affect the larger target audience they serve.

Our goal is to fill that void, and dive deeper into the stories we have been telling for decades. We want to uncover the truth and give our readers the story behind the story.

We divide our work into projects because some cannot be told in one article, and many require enormous amounts of research and time to get all the facts needed to paint the whole picture for our readers.

Below is a short summary of some of our 2017 projects.

Journalism Under Attack: Georgia

This has been by far our most extensive project with over 20,000 words written over 11 different parts.

Unfortunately, we have seen an onslaught of troubling attacks on the media this year. A component of this project is to remind people why journalism, and the First Amendment, is so critical to our democracy.

In 2017, we told the stories of the Pentagon Papers and Watergate, and how they have changed the news industry forever.

We told the life stories of citizen journalists and the ever-changing way in which people consume the news.

We explained what rights the public has to government information and how to obtain it.

We told the stories of two separate arrests in Georgia and the resulting consequences.

We detailed the ways in which our local governments are and are not transparent to their constituents, and much more.

I want to thank the many journalists who helped with this project, including Jim Zachary, Nydia Tisdale, Vince Johnson, Jessica Szilagyi, Abdulhamit Bilici, Jim Walls, Brian Pritchard, Bill Simon, Georgia Press general counsel David Hudson, and our staff reporters Hatcher Hurd, Pat Fox, Joe Parker, Kathleen Sturgeon and Julia Grochowski

Quite simply, without our coverage, some of the below projects would not have been covered – by anyone – which means our readers would still be in the dark.

Invisible in the ‘burbs

Kathleen Sturgeon spearheaded this project, and I think it is really important work.

There is a large and unfortunately growing homeless population in our community that largely goes under the radar. Our goal is to tell their stories and give our readers not only a better understanding of why an area as affluent as ours is not immune to homelessness, but give them the tools to do what they can to help.

Organizations like The Drake House and North Fulton Community Charities have been champions of this cause and have also been instrumental in helping us with this project.

Fulton County School District lost out on potential $1.5M tax windfall

After a disagreement over taxes owed between the city of Alpharetta and North American Properties, then owners of the mega-development Avalon, the City of Alpharetta was able to keep an additional $370,000 in tax revenue it would not have received had they chosen not to fight for it.

Our reporting discovered that the Fulton County School System and Fulton County made little to no effort to collect its owed taxes, even after nudges from Alpharetta to join them in the fight. As such, they missed out on about $1.5 million in additional tax dollars.

Surprisingly, despite a dramatic increase in readership, we were underwhelmed with a lack of response from the community to our reporting. In hindsight, I suspect it is in part because, while we stated clearly the facts of the case, we didn’t provide our readers with actionable steps to encourage their elected officials to take action.

I read an interesting piece recently about how journalism can no longer just point out the problem, but are now expected to offer solutions as well. Fair, reasonable, or otherwise – that is a commitment I plan to make to our readers as we enter 2018.

LexisNexis to pay $1.2M after pay discrimination investigation

LexisNexis is large Alpharetta based company with millions of dollars in contracts with government agencies like the Department of Homeland Security, Justice, Transportation and Labor.

It had been accused of systematic pay discrimination against women, which it settled to the tune of $1.2 million distributed among 211 employees.

As part of the conciliation agreement, LexisNexis admitted no liability and denied all claims.

We covered this and continue to monitor all cases of businesses practicing unfair and illegal discrimination among their work forces.

Group questions motives behind Milton redistricting

Some stories are impactful not because of the initial facts, but because of processes or public reaction.

This story centered around Milton Councilwoman Karen Thurman, and an allegation that she had her district redrawn to encompass a piece of property her family had purchased, and did so without properly giving the public notice.

Public reaction to this story was loud and divided among those who felt the act was done intentionally to avoid public discussion, and those who did not.

A key principle of our team’s mission is to bring to light stories that are in the dark, and our team decided it was important to give the public the information and let them decide its relevancy.

After our story broke, Councilwoman Thurman declined to run for re-election at the end of her term.

What’s next for Black Box?

We plan to take a big step forward in the quality and frequency of our projects next year. Like many other news organizations that saw readership soar in 2017, our readership both online and in print is up nearly 30 percent.

As such, we will be budgeting for additional resources to meet demand and have applied for various grants available for projects like this across the country. We have also participated in additional training from organizations like the George Press Association and the Georgia First Amendment Foundation.

Starting in 2018 Black Box will be available as a podcast, which will help us tell some of these stories through an even more in depth and personal outlet. We will also be creating more video content to supplement our articles, and are in discussions to create a documentary on one or more of our projects.

It has been a fantastic first year for Black Box and we are looking forward to year two. Thank you for the support and keep sending us tips!


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