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Meet the Seven Reporters Joining Us on ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network

There are two types of police reporters, Christian Sheckler recalls his executive editor telling him not too long ago: Those who try to make friends with officers and get rewarded with juicy tips about crimes, and those who press for answers on such thorny topics as civil rights, misconduct and accountability.

In his four years covering criminal justice at the South Bend Tribune, Sheckler said he’s chosen the second approach.

“That hasn’t gotten me invited to any barbecues,” he wrote in an application to be part of ProPublica’s new Local Reporting Network, “but I believe I’ve better served my readers with aggressive reporting on issues such as excessive force, the imperfect protective order system for domestic battery victims and policies on deadly high-speed police chases.”

Sheckler and the South Bend Tribune are among seven applicants we selected to be part of our inaugural local reporting project. With support from a new three-year grant, we’re covering the salary and benefits of a reporter at each of these news organizations. The reporters will spend next year working on an investigative project in their home newsrooms and they will receive extensive guidance and support from ProPublica. Their work will be co-published by their home newsroom and by ProPublica.

They were selected from a pool of 239 applications and will cover a diverse array of topics, including conflicts of interest, housing, workplace safety, mental health and criminal justice.

The other reporters and newsrooms chosen to take part in the reporting network include:

  • Rebekah Allen, a reporter at The Advocate, based in Baton Rouge, La. She is a member of the paper’s small team of reporters focused on investigative projects and enterprise stories. Last year, she produced a three-part series highlighting how the state’s powerful nursing home lobby fought off efforts to make it easier for the elderly and disabled to receive care in their homes. “As a result, nursing homes, ranked last in the nation in quality, have seen their budgets soar in a punishing financial climate where everyone from higher education to hospitals has seen dramatic reductions,” the paper said in introducing the series online.

  • Jayme Fraser, a reporter who will be working with the Malheur Enterprise, a weekly newspaper in Vale, Ore. Fraser has been an education and statewide projects reporter at the Missoulian in Missoula, Montana, and before that, at the Houston Chronicle. She has written about how the Indian Health Service isn’t meeting the needs of Native American patients, and about questionable science presented in a local “shaken baby” case. This fall, Fraser helped lead a first-time collaboration between the Missoulian and the University of Montana School of Journalism to investigate an issue at the intersection of health and criminal justice. The series will publish at the end of this month.

  • Molly Parker, an investigative reporter at The Southern Illinoisan, a newspaper in Carbondale, Ill. In the past two years, she has covered a public housing scandal in Cairo, Illinois, in which residents lived in deplorable conditions while managers of the housing authority received “hundreds of thousands of taxpayer dollars via questionable payments, bonuses, consultant contracts, retirement incentives and legal settlements in addition to their regular pay.” The crisis has drawn local and national attention.

  • Ken Ward Jr., a reporter at the Charleston Gazette-Mail since 1991 who covers the environment with a focus on coal mining, mine safety, the chemical industry and workplace safety. In 2014, when a chemical leak contaminated the drinking water of hundreds of thousands of people, Ward exposed significant flaws in federal safety guidelines for the chemicals and in the state’s water sampling program. His disclosures led to the appointment of an independent scientific team to examine the spill’s impacts. “I can’t think of many places that are in need of good journalism more than West Virginia is, or what higher calling journalists have than to try to write stories that make their home a better place,” Ward said in an interview with the Columbia Journalism Review a few years back.

One of our goals with this project is to not only reach communities ProPublica hasn’t previously covered, but to support journalism that emanates from those communities. Many of the reporters have long-established connections to the regions they’re now covering.

Parker, the reporter at The Southern Illinoisan, grew up and went to college in Southern Illinois. After graduating from college and graduate school, her journalism career took her to North Carolina, South Carolina and Mississippi. But home drew her back in 2014.

“What I quickly discovered through my reporting was that a lot had changed since I graduated from Vienna High School in 2000,” she wrote in her application to the Local Reporting Network, “Poverty has always plagued much of Southern Illinois, particularly the southernmost counties. But I don’t recall people being as hopeless as they are today.

“I don’t remember the poverty being as extreme and widespread, and indeed, data indicators show this is a growing problem and imminent crisis. I enjoy reporting in the region that raised me. Southern Illinois can serve up hefty servings of frustration, and the economic suffering I see breaks my heart. But there is an abundance of beauty here, of the natural and human variety. For me and many others, this will always be home.”

Charles Ornstein is a senior reporter at ProPublica and will be the senior editor in charge of the Local Reporting Network beginning in January.

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