I learned a very important lesson this week, which is to always pay attention to the questions I am asking. I can sometimes get caught up in a scripted conversation, which is often the easiest way out for certain situations, and not realize the words my sources are using. A conversation can get to flowing pretty easily, and I for one struggle with the sincerity of my sources. I really, truly want to believe that all my sources are telling me the truth and giving me accurate information. The questions I ask, however, can get unveil some discrepancies that I maybe had not realized were there before. I learned this week that I just need to get better at asking the questions, paying attention to the answers, and start realizing when something doesn't quite make sense.
The first time I called on April 23 I was given numbers from April 16, only three days after Nixon signed the bill into law granting extended benefits. We held the story because that wouldn't be an accurate representation, but I knew I would stay on top of it. On May 2, however, the labor department was only able to give me numbers from April 23, so then and there I had a story. They were not able to give me updated information concerning how many people received the extended benefits.
As I kept asking more and more questions, the more I knew there really was going to be a story. The first time I talked to a spokesperson at the labor department I was told 4500 or so payments had been made in the days after Nixon signed the bill. I was under the impression that payments meant people, but as I kept asking I realized payments meant transactions. When I called a week later, 8500 or so payments had been made. Payments. Not people. Recipients are allowed to file multiple claims, so the 8500 payments accounted for how many transactions had been placed. The issue here is there is no way for anyone to know if the estimated 10,000 people eligible are receiving their payments because the state's Department of Labor only accounts for what payments went out.
This was not a huge GOTCHA story, but it taught me how important it is to pay attention to the words people are using and to not feel stupid when I have to keep asking.
On April 13 Gov. Jay Nixon signed a bill to extend unemployment benefits to an estimated 10,000 Missouri citizens. The road to extending those benefits was a long one with four Republican senators holding it up in the Senate with a filibuster. Once the filibuster ended with $250 million on its way back to D.C., the extension law was signed. Nixon said he hoped the benefits would get to those who were eligible within a couple of days.
I started to work on a follow up story on Monday to see if those benefits had, in fact, been distributed. A spokeswoman for the Missouri Department of Labor confirmed that many of the benefits had gone out that night, but not quite all of them. She told me that only a little over 4,000 had, so I am trying to figure out where the other 6,000 or so eligible recipients are? I couldn't get an answer on Monday, but I hope I do soon. Her information was only as recent as April 16, so I hope by next week I'll have a solid answer with updated information.
I want solid, concrete answers next week.
This week was a chaotic week in general for about everyone at the Capitol. At a press with Gov. Jay Nixon on Wednesdsay, he said, "Some weeks here feel like a day and some days feel like a week. Today felt like a week."
Wednesday was a Prop B day. All Prop B days are long days. The issue has stirred the statehouse for almost a year now with the ballot initiative being a pretty hot topic for November's election. The discussion continued after that with hearings, protests and new legislation.
On Wednesday morning the statehouse was informed that Nixon had taken some kind of action on the Senate bill 113 to repeal many of the sanctions placed on dog breeder's through Proposition B. We could not confirm that an actual signature was signed, so we spent much of the morning and afternoon trying to get that information. I think every reporter in the statehouse wanted a comment from his office, but instead we had to wait and settle for a press conference at 6 p.m. where he signed yet another bill. This bill is similar to SB113, but includes $1.1 million for enforcement in the dog-breeding business.
I don't think the dog-breeding issues are going away soon. The Missouri director for the United States Humane Society, Barbara Schmitz said they are looking into legal options. Rep. Margo McNeil, D-St. Louis County, said she was conflicted on whether or not democracy prevailed. The whole thing has been a learning experience for me, however, and I am happy to have been a part of it. I got to watch an issue go through the democratic intention — actually starting with the people, making its way through the statehouse, and ending on the governor's desk. I suppose it was a bit of a dysfunctional method as some people are not happy while others are satisfied. Either way, I am glad I got to be a part of everything that was going on in Missouri's democratic process.
The article focused on a 59-year-old grandfather from Agency, Mo. who receives benefits from the Second Injury Fund. I enjoyed interviewing this man and was grateful for his patience with me. I hounded him with question after question, very curious about his trials through Missouri's Workers' Compensation system.
During our phone conversation I sensed a bit of frustration from Michael Simpson, mainly because of how helpless he feels. After an injury in 2007, Simpson was deemed disabled by a judge and was then granted benefits from the Second Injury Fund..
Problems in the fund were transpiring since before then, but a warning was not issued until that same year. State Auditor Susan Montee told state lawmakers that the fund would be insolvent soon if they didn't act. And sure enough, the fund is nervously close to that. There have been attempts to mend the fund but nothing concrete has been passed in to law.
The article I wrote also details the history of the Second Injury Fund and is a bit of a study of where things went wrong. I talked to a number of business operatives as well as lawmakers, and the consensus I got was that there is no good answer to fixing the problem. Plenty of options have been presented, but nothing anyone and everyone would be satisfied with.
The article got me wondering about how our legislature prioritizes its sessions. We have spent hours, days, months and nearly a year talking about the dog-breeding industry in Missouri. Hard working men and women have made a point to address this issue and it is something our lawmakers are going to see to an end. In a perfect world all the issues would receive the same, ample amount of attention. For years and years there has been discussion about the Second Injury Fund, but the issue doesn't have the momentum that Prop B or "right to work" or AmerenUE does. I'm not trying to undermine any one particular issue, I guess I just wish I knew all the answers.
I made some serious progress on my enterprise story this week and expect to finish it no later than Wednesday next week. The idea for my story came to me a few weeks ago when I attended a hearing on the Second Injury Fund. The SIF is a division of workers’ compensation, created in the 1940s, to encourage employers to hire injured soldiers from the war. Since the 80s, however, the fund has had an overload of claims and can no longer afford to fund claims. An audit came in 2007 issuing a warning that the fund would go bankrupt in the next few years, and surely it has.
I am going to have some problems framing my article. I have so much information now.
I started off on Monday interviewing Rep. Barney Fisher, R-Richards. Fisher has been sort of an ally for me this legislative session. I have a bit of a deficiency when it comes to understanding math, so the business beat has been especially challenging for me this semester. Rep. Fisher will go through a time line of events with me so I can better understand the numbers to a bigger problem. Anyway, he sat down with me on Monday afternoon and explained when the problems started coming, talked to me about the warning signs, and expressed his concern over what to do with the fund. Fisher proposed a bill last year to amend the SIF, which died 77-77 on the third reading.
I am also talking to business operatives. Business has a huge interest in this because they feel they shouldn’t be paying into a bankrupt fund. I talked to several organizations which helped me get a better understanding of the business climate. The consensus I am getting is that people waited too long to address the issues, and now they believe there are no good answers. I asked the same question to everyone, “Is the fund in crisis?” and the resounding answer was, “Oh yeah, you bet.”
The big break in my story came on Wednesday when my desperation to
find a source who was receiving SIF benefits was almost too stressful.
So, I turned to Facebook. I am fascinated by my generation's reliance on technology. I question whether I would have been able to do some of my reporting before the ages of social networking. Anyway, I found a page about the SIF and realized
Missouri had recently had a lobbying day. I e-mailed the creator of the
group and asked if she knew anyone at all who would talk to me. She
called back immediately and in 15 minutes, I had a spreadsheet of 20
names of people who were willing to talk to the media. After a few phone
calls, I found my guy. Now, to write next week.
I was also able to turn around one story this week. On Wednesday, Gov. Jay Nixon signed a bill that will extend unemployment benefits for Missourians. I’ve been following the Republican filibuster as well as other unemployment issues, so this story was right up my ally. The governor and some Senate Republicans were able to reach a compromise to send $250 million in federal stimulus money back to the federal government. The governor said unemployed Missourians will receive their check in the next few days, which put a period at the end of the unemployment benefits debate.
I got back into the swing of things a little easier than I had
expected. Legislative spring break and then my own spring break had me
thinking I wouldn’t be able to get back in “reporter” mode. I think the
reason I was able to slide back in was because I got to write a story
outside of my beat.
The article was over the localized control debate for the St. Louis Police Department. It is a politically charged topic that has all sides fighting, even dividing some St. Louis Democrats. That was refreshing, for some reason, as well. It was nice to get away from political norms and rhetoric and see people in the same party so differently passionate about an issue. I was able to interview Sen. Maria Chappell-Nadal, and in the House, Rep. Jamilah Nasheed. I spent the afternoon with these feisty women while they spit out their arguments to me. The day, all in all, was fun.
Wednesday was a big day for politics. My story ended up on the front page, which was rewarding, but I was mainly pleased on how efficiently and thoroughly I wrote. A filibuster has been going on in the Senate to block the extension of unemployment benefits. The four senators involved say they are not trying to punish the unemployed workers of Missouri, and instead want to send a message to Washington. The issue is emotionally charged and I had to work hard to cover both sides fairly. The issue I run into most often, though, is that a story can never just be two sides. I was happy with the story overall, but I was missing a key element. I get caught up in the walls of the Capitol and forget these issues are about the real, hard-working people of Missouri. I was unable to get a hold of an unemployed worker that day and I regret it. I NEEDED someone to tell me how the situation is going to impact their life.
It was a slow week this week. Legislative spring break means everyone else gets to get caught up. I didn’t go to the Capitol on Monday, and instead enjoyed the nice weather and did some serious thinking about my enterprise project.
Last week I covered a Senate hearing concerning the fate of Missouri’s Second Injury Fund. Right now the Fund is bankrupt with 27,000 current claims and 700 new ones filed each month. By the end of 2011, the Fund will owe an estimated $20 million. The Fund is a sector of workers’ compensation, something I have been following closely this semester, so I think an enterprise story would go well with everything else I’m covering.
I want to do a more indepth project and study the flaws of the system. There have been amendments, funding changes, premium fluctuations and warnings to legislators since the early 2000s. From what I can find, though, there hasn’t been any real news about it. I’m getting the impression that the Second Injury Fund has been something that has been largely dismissed, but I am sensing some kind of crisis mode. Because it was legislative spring break, I didn’t have a chance to talk to any lawmakers. I’m hoping once I can, things will be clarified and I’ll have a better idea of what is going on with the Fund.
Things were slow this week, which was nice because I got caught up on a lot of things. I’m hoping once things start up again I can keep my head above water with the enterprise project and turn in a solid piece of journalism. I get caught up in day turn stories, so sometimes it is hard to keep the focus on a long-term project.
My life was a lot calmer for me as far as being a student this week. But life was so, so busy as a reporter.
I got to the Capitol on Monday and began working on a story about workers’ compensation. The issue has been huge for my beat because it has been undergoing a maintenance makeover since the session started. This week’s minute detail had to do with recipients of the state funded program being able to choose their own physician in cases of work-related injuries. The House bill was only being heard in a committee hearing, so I was able to do a lot of interviews beforehand so I would only have to fill in a few things afterward.
As I was leaving for the House hearing, my student editor told me to go to the Senate to cover “right-to-work.” I NEEDED to be there, but if I left for the Senate then my story about workers’ compensation wasn’t going to be completed. I ended up going to the Senate and relying on another reporter to fill me in on the House hearing. By the time the Senate adjourned at 8 p.m., though, I needed to be in Columbia for a meeting at 9.
On Wednesday I was supposed to do an article about two bills being introduced in the jobs, insurance and industry committee in the Senate. The hearing was to take place after evening adjournment, so when the Senate reconvened at 3:15, I headed that way so I wouldn’t miss adjournment. That session ended up going on a lot longer than anyone had expected, so the hearing I was to cover didn’t start until 7:30 p.m. The hearing was scheduled to introduce two bills that would either dissolve the state’s Second Injury Fund, or remedy it with a fiscal fix. I am well versed in workers’ compensation, which is what I thought the hearing was about. Instead, the Second Injury Fund is a much more complex sector of workers’ comp. and I wasn’t ready to cover such a complicated issue. I stayed for the hearing and did a Newsbook, but the story is just going to have to wait. I wasn’t confident enough that I could produce a complete and accurate story, so it will be something I’ll work on over the weekend and will hopefully have ready for next week.
If I could choose a superpower, I’d be the reporter who could be everywhere. That would give justice to the people I’m covering, to the issues, and to the readers. I guess this is a problem all reporters run in to, and is something I’ll just have to become more comfortable with.
I was in the newsroom on Monday ready to do an article on SB222 sponsored by Sen. Jane Cunningham, R-St. Louis County. The bill would modify, and in some cases repeal, child labor laws in Missouri. The law has created quite the media circus in Missouri, and has even gotten laughs from Jay Leno mocking it. I didn’t want to go about this article in a mocking tone, I genuinely wanted to hear Cunningham’s side of the story. Why did she think this was a good idea? Who approached her to sponsor such a bill? I couldn’t find any supporters to talk to, but what kind of support was she getting?
I had gone up to her office pretty early on Monday hoping to schedule an interview for later in the afternoon. Instead, no response or call back. I ran up to her office just as the Senate was starting session to catch her. Once I caught up with her, I introduced myself and asked for an interview. She refused and walked away. I followed her into her office and she again refused an interview for Wednesday. As I was walking out the door she turned around and said, “Oh by the way, that bill is dead. You aren’t going to have a story.”
I guess angry isn’t the word, but discouraged. If she would have just listened to me then she would have known that I wasn’t there to attack her. I wanted a good, honest story and I was about to pay her the respect some other media hasn’t. There really wasn’t a story there, so she was right. But if I had had the chance, I think it could have been a good one.
On Wednesday I was admittedly distracted from MDN. I had a paper and
three midterms on Thursday so my mind just wasn’t ready for news.
Luckily the staff was supportive so I was able to cover a press
conference for Matt’s story and then head to Columbia for a long night
in the library. I was disappointed in myself because Wednesday night was
the hearing on all the AmerenUE discussions and I should have been
there for my beat.
I had a feeling this week would be more of an enterprise week for me rather than a week for quick turn-arounds. That was fine with me because I wanted to look into the public union sector in Missouri and see exactly what strength our unions carry.
On Monday I did quite a bit of research on the recent history of the public sector in Missouri and managed to get in contact with some people who helped me get a better grasp on the issues. Sen. Luann Ridgeway has been extremely helpful in explaining labor issues this semester, and although her priorities aren't concerned with the public sector, she still went out of her way to give me an interview.
The history was somewhat convoluted so I wanted the story to be detailed enough to explain the issues, but concise enough to not lose interest. The story begins in 2001 when Gov. Bob Holden issued an executive order that extended collective bargaining rights to state employees. At the time some Republican lawmakers thought Holden was abusing his powers. Holden charged that his actions were legitimate, but the debate continued until a new governor came to office. In 2005, on his first day on the job, Gov. Matt Blunt rescinded the order.
A flip-flop occurred again in 2007 when Missouri’s Supreme Court made a ruling that extended collective bargaining rights back to state workers. Union leaders, however, say the ruling hasn’t had any enabling effects. Labor leaders say public unions are weak in Missouri compared to other states and cite the newness of collective bargaining and no provisions to strike as reasons.
My article tied together the history of the public labor sector in
Missouri and the overall strength of our unions today. For some reason I
thought we had a strong labor force, but to my surprise it is
relatively weak compared to other states.
This week's article wasn’t ‘new’ news or anything that was pressing or Gotcha! journalism. But what I had to write is definitely necessary and I can't stress enough how important it is to be aware of labor happenings, especially with what is going on in the rest of the Midwest. Before I started writing for the business beat I really had no idea how significant labor issues are to daily politics and daily life.
No ‘new’ news this week, but so, so important.
I started my week on Monday thinking I would start on another enterprise story for the business beat. I have been looking into minimum wage in the state and how it is conflicting with the federal minimum wage, but I have yet to turn around a story on it.
I got to the newsroom ready to work but was told I’d be working on an article about a bill that would require driver’s tests to be taken in English only, instead. Many Republican lawmakers are citing a public safety concern, but Democrats aren’t buying it. Rep. Tim Meadows said the bill is “mean-spirited” and targets Missouri’s immigrant population. Rep. Mike Colona said the bill would create more fiscal problems in the state. He predicts that legal immigrants will not be able to pass their driver's test but will continue to drive despite that. He said if they are driving illegally they will not obtain insurance, therefore costing the state money if an accident occurs.
The sponsor of the bill, Rep. Jerry Nolte said fluency isn’t a requirement for test takers, but being able to read street signs is. The measure was voted on with a 5-4 vote at the House rules committee hearing on Monday and will now go to the House floor for debate.
It was back to the business beat on Wednesday. Surprisingly I am getting attached to the issues I’m covering.
Last week I finished an article about the “right-to-work” debate going on in Missouri. The measure would take away the right for labor unions to negotiate contracts with workers as a requirement for employment. The measure is on the fast track in the Senate and the issue has been pushed by Republican lawmakers despite objection from Democrats in the statehouse. I finished the story last week just as things were heating up in Wisconsin and other Midwest states. I understand the technicalities of the issues are different in the other states, but I was curious to see if lawmakers were worried about a “Wisconsin Effect” in Missouri.
Missouri lawmakers aren’t fazed by the protests going on in the rest of the Midwest. House Democratic Leader, Rep. Mike Talboy said relationships in the legislature have been cordial and he doesn’t see things ever going that far in Missouri. Republican representative, Barney Fisher, said lawmakers in Wisconsin and Indiana are doing a disservice to their constituents.
I was expecting a greater reaction, but I guess the story here is that our representatives aren’t worried about the protests.
I am finding it increasingly frustrating that I can only be at the Capitol two days a week. So many things are going on and I miss out on so much when I do an interview on a Wednesday but can’t do the follow up until the next Monday. The attention span of my readers is short, and I can’t cater to them effectively if I’m stuck in Columbia. I’m not trying to undermine my duty as a student. I’m just more passionate about being a reporter.
The reason for that little rant is this: I meant to turn around a story on Monday about “right-to-work” but couldn’t get my final interview. On Wednesday morning as I was getting ready to head to Jeff City I listened as a KOMU broadcaster did a quick blip on the measure. I was furious at myself. Why couldn’t I have turned it around sooner?!
I didn’t even go to the newsroom when I got to Jeff. Instead, I marched straight to Sen. Luann Ridgeway’s office and requested an interview. Her assistant told me she had no time just as I saw the senator sneak out the back door of the office. I tracked her down just as she was leaving the building for her lunch break with her rescue dog in tow. Luckily I got an interview and enjoyed a half hour walk in the sunshine while the senator walked her dog and talked about “right-to-work.”
The issue that has been dormant from any organized political debate for decades has again emerged in Missouri’s statehouse. The measure endorsed by some Republican lawmakers would take away any requirement for an employee to sign, pay or become a member to a union as a requirement for employment. With Illinois being the exception, all of Missouri’s other bordering states have enacted the measure. According to numbers cited by Sen. Ridgeway, all of those states are faring better in terms of employment. Opposition comes from the left with Democrats saying the measure would make Missouri a less specialized state by lowering the standards of the workforce. Rep. Sylvester Taylor said the measure will not help bring jobs to Missouri and that the legislature should focus on more important issues in the economy.
My article was finished by 3 p.m. on Wednesday. Nothing like a fire lit underneath you to get you moving. This week taught me that I have to stay on top of things despite the physical time I spend in the Capitol.
Missouri Digital News is produced by Missouri Digital News, Inc. -- a non profit organization of current and former journalists.