How San Diego reporters covered a scandal while staying seated

It had everything a good story needs — a foreign national, a straw donor, money, an election. There was even a retired cop. Then, Brad Racino and Joe Yerardi of the San Diego news nonprofit inewsource threw in a couch.

OK, it was actually two chairs. A crappy black one from Ikea and a wooden dining room chair covered in paint splatters.

Now, put two journalists in those uncomfortable chairs late one night last week, and we’re back to the good story.

On Tuesday, Jan. 21, Yerardi went to Racino’s home and the two sat down to dig through an unsealed FBI complaint.

They wrote a story called “How to uncover a scandal from your couch” about what they found, telling readers how they can find the same kind of information.

News broke in San Diego last week about a mysterious foreign national bent on influencing San Diego politics by illegally funneling money to political campaigns through a retired San Diego police detective and a undisclosed “straw donor.” Now, the politicians on the receiving end of the tainted funds are scrambling to distance themselves from the scandal.

The two also produced a radio piece for KPBS about how they found what they found.

“We’ve been doing a ton of stuff on campaign finance,” Yerardi told Poynter in a phone interview. So, he says, they knew where to go to uncover the names of the people in the FBI complaint.

In the last year or so, Racino said, inewsource has experimented with transparent storytelling, including publishing a retraction letter from North County Transit District with a point-by-point response, with links, backing up the reporting.

That story got great feedback from readers, Racino said in a phone interview with Poynter.

So with this piece, they did it again.

When the complaint was unsealed, lots of journalists in San Diego went digging, Yerardi said. But through their own digging, the two also found campaign contributions from a city councilperson in a neighboring city that hadn’t been reported.

“So in the course of doing this sort of reporting, we decided it would be a good idea to show readers and to tell listeners how to do this kind of digging themselves.”

This kind of unpacking wouldn’t work with huge stories containing lots of documents, Racino thought, but other reporters could easily do the same by keeping a document open with the sites you visited and the chronology of those visits. Then it’s just some time-consuming screen shooting and letting the story unfold.

There’s a hunger, Yerardi said, and an expectation for transparency in stories online. The first part of the story ran Monday and, again, readers seemed to appreciate pulling back the curtain.

“Thank you,” one commenter said. “You did more for ‘open government’ in this one post than [local politician] Donna Frye did in 10 years. It proves the old proverb: ‘give a man a fish and you feed him for a day; teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime’. It is better to teach the public to check up on their government than to do it for them. Keep it up.”

On Wednesday, inewsource published part 2 of “How to uncover a scandal from your couch.” And, they proved, uncovering a scandal from your chair works, too.

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