Retired Iowa 3B District Court Judge Edward Jacobson from Plymouth County admitted under oath in a deposition in the fall of 2017 that hundreds of his rulings throughout his career were ghostwritten by attorneys of the winning party.
Often, the opposing counsel would not know that these decisions were not written by Jacobson himself. After being alerted of a divorce case in which this occurred, Des Moines Register investigative journalist Clark Kauffman dug into Jacobson’s history of rulings.
While it is not unusual for attorneys to submit “proposed decisions,” outlining what they think the judge should do, ultimately judges are to write decisions themselves and include their underlying rationale. In these rulings, Jacobson allowed the attorneys to speculate regarding the underlying rationale, potentially impacting defendants’ appeal rights.
In an interview with IowaWatch, Kauffman discussed Jacobson and his rulings, Kauffman’s own process while writing his story, as well as a plethora of tidbits from other stories, depending on which aspect of the investigative process we happened to be talking about.
LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW
Lily Bohlke, IowaWatch: When you’re looking for stories to write, how do you get an idea for an investigative story?
Clark Kauffman, Des Moines Register: Well, there’s two ways investigative projects sort of come to light, typically. Either the reporter himself will get a tip or will just be aware that, here’s an agency where it looks like something is going on, I have a general sense of unease that this bears looking into. And the reporter then just dives into it, either looking at a real specific issue, or just taking a broad look at an agency, or a government official or something like that.
The other way an investigative project sort of comes to fruition is just by assignment. You know, an editor will say, it’s about time we looked at police brutality or we looked at poverty or something like that. That second way almost never results in a good story that’s investigative. It usually results in a good explanatory story, but sometimes it’s a three part series that just states the obvious, in excruciating detail.
So I try to avoid those, and I try to just think about, well, on the various beats that I cover, what kind of issues are out there that looks like there’s real fertile ground? Or like with the courts, one thing that occurred to me a while back was that we haven’t really looked at judges who are tardy in filing decisions, so people who are awaiting the outcome of their divorce, or their civil lawsuit or something like that, there’s no mechanism by which to crack the whip and get the judge to put out the decision. But the judges do report the number of cases that they’re late in rendering a decision on — I think there’s a 60-day rule. So every judge, I think it’s every month, has to tell the state court administrator’s office what cases they’re late in filing, and how late they are. So if a couple’s been waiting six months for their divorce, well, the judge has to explain that. So I’ve just started recently looking at that, and that’s one of those things where I thought, you know, whatever the data shows, whether it shows judges are doing a great job universally, or there’s a couple of bad actors, or there’s systemic flaws, that’s the kind of thing that’s pretty easy to get at through these public records, and I know there’ll be a story there. So I prefer to go that route as opposed to the explanatory things.
Bohlke: And you talked a little bit about it, but was there anything that sparked your interest, or how did you come up with the idea to do the ghost-written rulings article?
Kauffman: That was basically a tip from somebody who said, you need to look at all of the public court filings in this specific divorce case. So I called up the divorce case and as you may now on Iowa courts online you can … look at the actual motions and filings and everything, and in this divorce case, I believe it was the husband’s attorney who was upset that there had been a court hearing where basically the judge had looked at his decision, that one of the parties was sort of appealing, and the judge looked at his decision and got angry as he was reading it and said, well, I didn’t write this, apparently recognizing that the decision was flawed in some way, and got very angry about it, because, of course, his name is on it. And he said that out loud, which then caused one of the attorneys to look deeper into it. And eventually the judge himself gave a deposition in which he acknowledged that there were up to 200-some cases where he had just asked one party or another in a case to write the decision for him, and sometimes did it without telling the opposing counsel. So he said that in a deposition, and as part of a motion in this divorce proceeding, an attorney just included an excerpt of the deposition that referenced that specific point.
So that was startling to read that. But as a reporter, having somebody like a judge under oath admitting or acknowledging that he did that, and in that level of detail, I mean, that’s golden, because it’s not only a public record, but the individual that is saying it is talking about his own conduct and he’s under oath. So it doesn’t get any better than that in terms of sourcing. So once I had that, then it was just a matter of trying to contact the judge himself, the other parties in the case, other lawyers and judges in that area who might know about other cases, the traditional work, that sort of thing.
Bohlke: And so, the judge, Judge Jacobson, was he receptive to talking to you?
Kauffman: No, he never did, so I had to rely in terms of his perspective very heavily on the deposition, which again I was happy to do because he’s under oath, he’s recalling things that are more current to when he’s being asked about them as opposed to a year later, when, I don’t know about the judge’s memory, but my memory isn’t all that good on things. So in that sense it was good to have it in writing and under oath. You know, my main worry was that if I did talk to him, if he contradicted what he had said under oath, you know, what do I do then? And I guess I’d just present both versions of whatever it said, but it turned out that wasn’t even an issue because he wouldn’t talk to me.
Bohlke: In other times when you don’t necessarily have a deposition that’s so accessible like that, what would you do if there’s something like this, there’s a really important key figure in the story, and you can’t get in touch with them?
Kauffman: Yeah, well in some cases, it’s hard to get a hold of people by phone these days, because everybody’s got a cell phone, and it’s not necessarily listed anywhere. So then you go through Facebook and that kind of thing. But if somebody really sort of stonewalls, particularly if it’s a public official, or an elected official of some kind, I don’t have any problem showing up at their doorstep to ask a few questions, and if they decline to comment, that’s fine. I don’t argue with people over that, but it’s just when they don’t respond or don’t answer your emails.
I did a story a few weeks ago about county officials who had pretty much illegally routed public money into Catholic schools. They’d been told by the county attorney, no, you can’t do that, so what happened was a group of people set up a dummy corporation that would accept the money, and then the dummy corporation that didn’t have any religious affiliation would then just pass the money onto the schools. So it was sort of a shell game with this money and it was very obvious from the public records what had happened but the county official who engineered the whole thing — I did get him on the phone and he did talk to me — but in response to almost every question I asked, he said I don’t remember, I can’t recall, I don’t know why I did this, I don’t know anything about it. And I just quoted him, and in some ways, it made the story more powerful.
Bohlke: How did you know who to talk to — what were your first steps when you were going about, after that initial case?
Kauffman: On that particular story involving the judges’ ghost-writing, it was pretty easy to determine who I needed to talk to. I mean, you got the specific case that’s at hand, that divorce case, and of course, the attorneys are all publicly identified so I was able to contact them, and see if they would at least be agreeable to talking to me. But then separate from that, the hierarchy of the court system, I knew that I probably wanted to talk to the chief judge of that district to see if he knew that this district court judge who he in some sense supervises, what exactly he knew about all this, but also to find out if other judges in the district were doing it. … And then of course I asked the state court administrator’s office what they were aware of, since that’s sort of the next level up in the hierarchy, and they were good because they were able to at least refer me to some supreme court decisions that said this is wrong and here’s why it’s wrong, so I was able to quote from those in the article. So that was a pretty easy story to determine who I needed to talk to.
RELATED: IOWA LAUNCHES INVESTIGATION AFTER RETIRED JUDGE’S GHOST-WRITTEN RULINGS
Bohlke: It also seems like you must have gone through a lot of court records and things like that. What’s your process with that when you have a lot of material like that to go through, court records in particular, public information?
Kauffman: This one wasn’t too difficult, because there were really only maybe a half dozen different records that I sort of had to track. In a story that I had done about a lawyer who was based here in Des Moines, had been embroiled in a lot of ethical dilemmas, he was involved in dozens and dozens of cases where he was not only the lawyer for the parties but actually the plaintiff, so he was suing other individuals on his own behalf and acting as the lawyer and filing ethics complaints against colleagues and judges. And to track all that, because the whole story was about how litigious he is, so there’s a vast array of both state cases and federal cases that I had to track and some of them overlapped with the same defendants. So he would lose a case, but then turn right around and sue the person for the same reason in a different court or a different venue. So to track all that was sort of a nightmare and basically it’s just a matter of organizing everything.
And I’m still old-school, I find it easier to organize things if they’re on paper. So although I had everything electronically in folders on my computer desktop, it was much easier to sort of triangulate and spot relationships in different cases and recurring themes in some of his pleadings and that kind of thing if I had them on paper in front of me. So typically what I do in those cases where there’s a big volume of paper, and my colleagues mock me for this, I just have a couple of three-ring binders that I put everything into. So they know if I’m coming back from Office Max with three-ring binders that I’m working on some project. But that’s the best way to do it because only by organizing it in some way that makes sense to you can you find some of these really critical relationships between some of these lawsuits.
And this guy is now suing us, which I knew he would do, because he is very litigious and that was the whole thrust of the story, so he’s now suing us. So keeping track of those records right from the get-go was critical. And now of course, because he’s suing us, … part of the discovery process, I think he’s demanding access to all of those records, so we’ll see where that goes.
Bohlke: What is it like to be sued?
Kauffman: It’s not good, as you can imagine. But in this case, I just knew it was coming just because of the nature of this story, which basically had to do with the fact that he has some mental disabilities, which he’s acknowledged in court. But those mental disabilities seem to be fueling his litigious conduct, or at least the two things seem to be related in some way, which he also acknowledges. But I just never run into a situation where somebody had these acknowledged disabilities, but also had a law license. But we knew right from the get-go that he was probably going to come after us, and he has, and so you know, you just prepare for it, and you know it’s coming, you can’t do anything.
I think I’ve only been sued, is this the first time? This might be the first time. I’ve been involved in other court cases, where prosecutors have tried to drag me in as a witness to testify on behalf of, okay, you reported that this guy committed these crimes, how do you know that? But I don’t, this might be the first case I’ve actually been a defendant — I think it is actually. So, I’ve been fortunate in that regard.
Bohlke: What were some of your main takeaways from the article? Is there anything in particular that you sort of wanted to point out?
Kauffman: … This is sort of alluded to in some of those Supreme Court rulings about why judges shouldn’t let lawyers do all their work for them. I mean, my main concern right from the get-go wasn’t that a judge was relying heavily on the attorneys to draft a proposed order, because that’s very routine, and that helps the judge turn out a decision that’s timely and people aren’t waiting months for it. And he even said in his deposition that one of the reasons he did this was to make sure he didn’t violate that 60-day rule. He wanted to get these decisions out fast. But the one element I sort of worried might be lost on readers was that he wasn’t just letting the lawyers write the decision favoring one person or another, I mean the judge still said, okay, I think this party has won, and because I think you’ve won, I’ll let you write the decision. He felt the decision was still his, but the critical element for me was that he was letting the lawyers write the underlying rationale for his decision, which of course, they would have no way of knowing. And it’s that underlying rationale for the decision that would form the basis of any sort of appeal or a court decision on an appeal, because anybody can appeal any outcome. But then you have to attack the judge’s rationale, and if the rationale was just made up by some other lawyer, that has huge implications for people being able to appeal that. So it was really, I think one of the legal experts I talked to might have alluded to that in sort of a general way, but that to me was the most troubling aspect of it, it was there was no thought given to how people’s appeal rights were being undermined by this. But I don’t know. Maybe the average reader doesn’t care that much, that might be a little too deep or esoteric, I don’t know.
Bohlke: Before the story, did anybody seem to know about this? Was it being handled at all, or did your article kind of break it open?
Kauffman: I don’t think so, there wasn’t much talk about it, and even other than the lawyers in that one divorce case who were sort of mortified by it all happening, there clearly was one lawyer in that district or county who had done this on more than one occasion, written a decision at the judge’s request, but it was one of those things that people, if they were aware of it, they weren’t really talking about it, which is kind of bizarre.
It reminded me a little bit of, years ago I had done a story about the prosecutor in Cass County, he had devised a system whereby when people got tickets there for speeding or whatever, he would let people basically buy their way out of a ticket. So instead of pleading guilty to speeding which would have an impact on their drivers license and insurance rates potentially, he would say, let’s just say the ticket was for 100 dollars. He would say, well you pay me 400 dollars, not pay me personally but pay the county or court system 400 dollars, I’ll write up a bunch of fictitious offenses to correspond to that fine, and you plead guilty to all these fictitious offenses that they’re not moving violations, so a defective windshield wiper, a defective tail light, all these things that were completely made up, people would plead guilty to a whole stack of those that would add up to x hundreds of dollars. It would cost them more, but they wouldn’t have a moving violation on their record. So he cooked up this whole scheme whereby he did this, and it was blatantly illegal, and he did eventually get kicked out of office, but all the lawyers in that county knew about it. And they all sort of took advantage of that, but nobody really talked about it, there was never an attorney who called up the newspaper and said, you know, this is really illegal and underhanded and it shouldn’t be happening, which always bothered me, I mean it took a citizen who had been offered one of these deals and rejected it to call me up and say, hey I got this letter from the county attorney offering to have me plead guilty to a bunch of fictitious charges, I don’t think this is right. And if that citizen hadn’t called and sent me that letter, I mean I would never have known about it either. So it always amazes me how you can have a whole circle of people, even lawyers who you’d think would know better, know about things like this but they don’t really blow the whistle on it, so, it’s kind of scary.
Bohlke: Do you have any ideas as to why they do that? Because it benefits them?
Kauffman: Yeah, I suppose because it benefits them. In Cass County I suppose the lawyers always look at it this way as well, you know I might have a client who would want to take advantage of this offer. You know, once I started calling people, and I went to the courthouse and looked at all the people who had gotten this deal, or been offered the deal and rejected it, and I started calling them. And some of these people are in California, because you know, they’re driving on the interstate and they got ticketed, and they were like, yeah I couldn’t believe they offered it, this is just a complete scam that, you know, people of means can buy their way out of a ticket. But people who maybe don’t have as much money to spend just have to bite the bullet, so the average citizen knew it was wrong, but the lawyers and of course the judges who signed off on these things. I remember talking to one judge and I think his exact quote was, I just sign whatever they put in front of me, again, which kind of sends a chill down your spine when you hear that.
Bohlke: I wonder why they decided to be a judge.
Kauffman: Right, exactly. Yeah, not the most rewarding line of work I would think if that’s all you’re doing. As a reporter, you’re always glad to bring things to light, to be the first one to expose something like that. But as a citizen, you’re always horrified that stuff like that has remained under wraps. And that case I talked about involving the county money going to the Catholic schools, I wrote about that just a few weeks ago when I found out about it, but a lot of that money went to the schools five years ago, you know. And lots of people knew about that, they just knew it was illegal and so they weren’t talking about it. …
LISTEN TO THE IOWAWATCH CONNECTION RADIO REPORT ON THIS INTERVIEW
Bohlke: What are some of your favorite stories that you’ve ever done?
Kauffman: Well, probably the Cass County story was one of my favorites, just because I like paperwork and I like to have things documented as opposed to just relying on human sources. So when you’re dealing with court records, there’s lots of paper and everything’s in writing and depositions and all that. So that was a rewarding story to work on, but also it exposed some really serious wrongdoing. And that story was a finalist for the Pulitzer that year for investigative reporting so that one was rewarding in that sense.
Probably the most rewarding one that I’ve done was this story about, it’s a few years old now so you probably haven’t heard about it, but there was this so-called bunkhouse in Atalissa, in eastern Iowa, where mentally disabled men had been working for 40 years at a turkey processing plant, and they’d been working for a salary that averaged out to about 41 cents an hour. And all these guys had been brought up from Texas back in the late 60s and early 70s, basically to work at this labor camp like something out of the Great Depression or John Steinbeck, you know. … After deductions for their room and board at this bunkhouse, which was basically just an old converted schoolhouse where they all lived, they were taking home about 41 cents an hour. And it was just horrific, and the interesting thing about that case was we had written about it, I think in the early 80s or late 70s. And then everybody sort of forgot about it. And a lot of people who are in the disability community and that kind of thing, had just assumed that it closed after the Register brought it all to light.
In 1979, I was still in high school, so I was completely unaware, and then one night I got a call from the sister of one of the men living there and she explained the whole situation, how all these guys had been living there for decades, working for pennies per hour in this turkey processing plant, all of them mentally disabled, all of them should have been living in a fully licensed care facility. This place didn’t have a license of any kind. It literally was just a labor camp.
And so that story was very rewarding because as soon as we brought it to light which was within just a couple of days after getting that initial call, federal authorities came in, and state authorities, they shut the place down, all of the men were relocated and got decent care, and a New York Times reporter wrote an entire book about it called the Bunkhouse Boys. So that was rewarding, because there you had a situation where the job of a reporter is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. That was a situation where literally you had these disabled men who needed, desperately needed decent medical care and a decent place to live and a fair wage and that kind of thing. And they did all get that once they were extracted from that bunkhouse. But until then, it was just a nightmare so that was a good story to work on.
Bohlke: How long does it take you typically to write a story, a big story like that?
Kauffman: That one was a little bit unique because I recognized that there was some urgency, the health and safety of these guys, even though they had been there 40 years. I kept telling myself, you know, I don’t have to get this story in tomorrow’s paper, once I got the tip and was able to pin a few basic things down. I said, if it has to wait four or five days, there shouldn’t be anything horrific happening, but I got that tip I remembered like seven o’clock at night, and I worked through the night, just pulling our library clip files, and business records on this labor camp outfit, and background of the individuals who were running it, you know, that took several hours. So I basically just, I don’t even think I went home that night for dinner or anything. I just worked through the night and then the very next morning, I just drove out to the place and looked at it and was horrified, and then that same morning I visited with the caretakers who sort of supervised the men in the bunkhouse and they gave me some detailed information including payroll stubs that confirmed what the wages were and some other detail. And then I hopped in the dumpster and extracted some more records from the bunkhouse and then from that point, I was able to put together a story in maybe, oh, 48 hours, and we had it in that Sunday’s paper.
The downside of that was the story really got underplayed because the editors weren’t expecting it. They didn’t have time to plan for it, so they only gave me about that much space on page one, which I was mortified by because I knew that would probably be the biggest story that I’d ever worked on, or ever would work on.
The thing about that is, is that’s the initial story, but then, I don’t think I worked on anything but that story for the next at least three or four months, driving down to Texas and looking at the operations down there because they had other bunkhouses down there, and then doing more background and researching DHS’s role in it. So I was able to just break off chunks of the story bit by bit and pursue those over the next several weeks. But I did want to get that initial story in the paper very quickly because as soon as I called state regulators and said, why aren’t you licensing this place? I could tell they kind of were like, oh my god, that’s still open, and they were going to act on something, so I didn’t want the story to get ahead of me, because then it just gets hard to report, you’re chasing a moving ball, and it’s hard to do. But yeah, we got it in the paper within four or five days of the initial phone call. But I usually try to turn things pretty quickly.
Where it gets time consuming is if I’m trying to deal with a federal agency and I file a written Freedom of Information request, because then it can be months before you get the records that you want. And if the records are the whole basis of your story, you just got to find something else to work on until they get back to you.
Just this morning I was dealing with a federal agency and they’re not giving me the information I want, but I knew they wouldn’t. I have an FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) request with that same federal agency that’s been pending for I believe nine years now. And they won’t say no, which would enable me to file an appeal and take it to court, but they won’t say yes either, they’ll just call me once a year and they’ll say, we’re still working on that request, unless you don’t want the records, in which case we’ll drop it, and I always say, no, I’m still alive, I still work here, I still want the records, but they’re deliberately just stalling. …
Bohlke: You mentioned sometimes a story starts to catch up with you, does that happen a lot? Do you run into that?
Kauffman: Yeah, it does. Sometimes you call somebody and you say, hey, I’m doing a story on such and such and then immediately the first thing they do is turn around and put out a press release that tries to sort of get the information out there with their own spin on it. That does happen on occasion, but usually I’m pretty prepared for that.
And the other thing that I try and do, probably all reporters do this on investigative projects, is when you start making calls you sort of work from the outside in. And there are certain calls that you save until the end of your reporting — not just to protect your story and to prevent things from spinning out of control, but just to make sure that you have as much information in hand so that when you call the person who’s at the center of this who’s accused of doing something wrong, if they do try and spin you or give you information that’s false, you have information in hand at that moment to counter that. Because there’s nothing worse than calling that person who’s the focus of your investigation right out of the gate, they tell you a bunch of things, you then go out and find records that contradicts everything they told you, but at this point they’re not talking to you because they know you’ve reached out to all these other people, so sometimes very deliberately I try and make those the last call. Still give them plenty of time to think about whether or not they want to talk to me, and get their comments in the initial story, but nothing beyond that.
Bohlke: Are there any other things you do to prepare for that, kind of keep that at bay? If something like that happens, what’s your response?
Kauffman: You have to be mindful of the fact that when you file records requests, good reporters sometimes have standing requests with state and federal agencies to access every information request filed by the competition, filed by other reporters. So you have to be careful about tipping your hand that way, so sometimes I won’t make a request that, I won’t formalize a request unless I have to. I’ll try to make the request verbally.
The other thing I will sometimes do is, you have to do this sometimes to protect your source, if there’s a particular document that you know exists and you want to get it from a government agency, but you know that if you ask for that one particular document, like an email, that was sent from one person to one other person, well if you specify, I want this email that was sent at 12:35 on December 10th, the agency is going to know, well, one of two people told this guy that this email exists. And so now your source is at risk. So sometimes I will try and guard against that by broadening the request to include other records, that I genuinely am interested in seeing, not just doing it to make work for anybody, but I’ll broaden the request to make sure that it doesn’t identify the source of the information, or the source of the tip that we’re getting. That’s about it, I think, really. Just try not to tip your hand with a formal request, but then broaden the request sometimes to protect your own source.
Bohlke: Speaking of protecting sources, when you’re working on stories that you kind of do need to do that, but their information is really important to the story, what do you do to make sure that you’re protecting people, not putting people in danger, but also, presenting the information as it is?
Kauffman: You get the ground rules set right off the bat so that people are aware of, and there’s no reason the average citizen would know the difference between on the record and off the record and background and deep background, you know, even if they watch a lot of movies, they’re probably not going to know the nuances of all of that. So if somebody calls me up and says, well if I tell you something, do you have to report who it’s coming from? I’ll say, no, if you’re worried about being identified but you want us to know about something, the best way to do that is maybe you drop something in the mail anonymously and I genuinely don’t know who it came from at that point. I say, people mail us stuff all the time, so if you’re inclined, if you’ve got some documentation or anything that you want to get into the hands of a reporter, you don’t have to put a return address on it as long as I can see that the documents, what they’re all about, and it would lead to a story, I can get the actual official documents from the government agency so that I’m not using something that could have been dummied up on somebody’s computer, but now I know what to look for, what to ask for. So that helps.
The other thing I’ll do is I’ll tell them, I’ll say, well, everything will be off the record which means I not only won’t use your name in print, I won’t use the information unless I can verify it with other people, and if I talk to other people on the phone, which I likely will if I’m doing the story, or in person, I’m not going to say, hey, I got a call from so-and-so. I just won’t even entertain discussions usually about, well, how did you get onto this story? Sometimes it’s pretty obvious from what we’ve written, like in the judge’s ghostwriting thing, you could tell, oh, there’s this deposition and I think I said in one of the stories that while the judge gave the deposition months and months before, it had only become public the previous Thursday by virtue of this motion that was filed. So in cases like that where it’s public record, I don’t mind telling readers as much as I can about why certain things came to light. …
Bohlke: When you get tips, how often do you get tips that don’t really turn into a story?
Kauffman: Yeah, that happens pretty frequently. I still listen to all the tips that we get because you never know. And sometimes reporters are tempted to dismiss a tip that comes from a source that maybe is, seems through their behavior, seems less than credible, but you know, I always figure, particularly if we’re not relying on that person as a source for the published story and we’re just looking for guidance on where to get the information, I don’t have any problem, you know, I don’t distinguish between sources and that sort of thing, but we do get a lot of things that I just have to tell people right off the bat, well that’s not a news story. …
Bohlke: On some of these bigger stories, there were multiple parts in a series. How many parts do you usually do, or is there any kind of method, or does it just depend on the story?
Kauffman: Yeah, it kind of depends on the story. I always figure that you shouldn’t break up a story, or the rationale for breaking up a story into multiple parts shouldn’t be based on the length of the story, but should be based and sort of governed by the content of the story. So for example, if I’m writing a really long story but it’s all about a pretty narrowly focused issue, it’s just a very compelling thing that we think deserves more space, I’d just as soon see all of that run on one day, if at all possible. But, one of the stories I’m working on right now, deals with regulation of health care facilities in Iowa, so as one element to that, I’m looking at nursing homes, and how regulations change in there, and another element is the fact that surgical centers in Iowa aren’t even licensed or inspected, which was kind of a bizarre concept to me — you wouldn’t think that would be possible. Hospice in Iowa, where people are literally in the process of dying, you can open a hospice facility in Iowa and as long as it’s not Medicaid or Medicare funded, it might not ever be inspected. At one point the last time I looked at this issue, hospice facilities in Iowa were being inspected on an average of once every 20 years. And I remember calling a health care advocate who said, well that doesn’t even pass the laugh test. Once every 20 years, why even bother? So that particular story, that’s a project that falls under the umbrella of health care regulation, but there are very natural breaks because the regulation for hospice is completely different from hospitals and nursing homes and surgical centers, then you’ve got home health aids, which is another nightmare, so it seems like, just for the benefit of the reader, if you break those out and run them over five different days, with each day looking at a different type of health care provider, that’s probably helpful to readers to just keep it all straight. That governs why I break them up the way I do when I do. …
Bohlke: Have you always been working in investigative reporting? Where did you start in journalism?
Kauffman: Well, my first job at a newspaper was at a small weekly in Metamora, Illinois, and I basically was doing ad sales and photography and the layout and helping run the press, and you know the whole nine yards, even bundling the papers and putting the grocery inserts in, and delivering, so I did that for about two years and then got a job as a reporter at my hometown paper, the Bettendorf News, which was just a small weekly, I don’t think it even exists anymore. But that paper was owned by the Quad-City Times, the big daily in the area, and so then they hired me as a reporter. They didn’t have an investigative reporter position there, but I knew that’s what I wanted to do. So I just started doing those stories anyway, and in order not to step on my colleagues’ toes, I just looked for gaps in our coverage, and every newspaper, particularly these days, has gaps in their coverage, so I tended to just look at, well, nobody’s covering this agency here, nobody’s covering the Davenport civil rights commission, I’ll focus on them and look at them, and it didn’t take too long before I was able to start producing a lot of stories that were investigative or had that revelatory element to them, that were real enterprise stories. They weren’t based on current events or anything. So after I did that for a few years, they just created the position of investigative reporting for me, so I was able to just do that full time, which was the goal all along because that’s what I wanted to do, but sometimes you know you’ve got to show the editors that number one, there’s space in the paper for stories like that and readers appreciate them and number two, that you’re the guy that’s capable of doing them. So I just sort of initiated that on my own.
Bohlke: That’s really cool. And then I guess my last question is if you have any advice for young investigative reporters in this time in journalism?
Kauffman: Yeah, you know that is tough, because things are changing so rapidly and it seems like the focus at so many papers, including the one I work out, the focus is on web traffic and web hits. And the kinds of stories I like to do are not necessarily the kinds of stories that, it’s not news of the weird kind of things that are going to generate huge numbers of people just who are looking at their phone and want to click on something short and weird and interesting. So I don’t know, I mean my best advice would be to get to a paper that values that kind of work, and you know, is actively demonstrating that they value that kind of work. And then yeah, just find out what areas, topics, issues, agencies aren’t being covered, and then just do some background and research on those, and if there are agencies that spend a lot of public money, that’s always worth looking at. If there are some entities, like Polk County government, seem to be hotbeds of patronage, and that kind of thing, so you can usually get a sense for where the real fertile ground is pretty quickly. So yeah, that would be the only advice I have, is focus in on those areas that aren’t being covered at all.
Bohlke: Well, thank you so much. Sorry to make you talk for so long.
Kauffman: Oh, that’s okay — reporters like to talk about themselves sometimes.
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Lily Bohlke is a senior at Grinnell College, where her journalism efforts have included being co-editor of the student newspaper, The Scarlet & Black, in 2017-18. She conducted this interview in July 2018 during a summer internship at IowaWatch.
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