How a local news site busted open Chicago’s biggest sports story this year

February 16, 2015

After 16 years of reporting on Chicago, Mark Konkol has developed an ear for neighborhood chatter. That’s how he got on the trail of his latest scoop, a series of articles for local news site DNAInfo Chicago that threw a huge bucket of ice water on a fairytale sports story.

It started in August, when Konkol began hearing whispers that eventually exploded into a scandal: Jackie Robinson West, a Little League team from the South Side that won the U.S. World Series and captured the hearts of Chicagoans, had been accused of cheating. Against regulations, parents, coaches and league officials secretly took over territory that belonged to neighboring leagues, allowing the team to recruit ringers that helped win the title.

Gradually, Konkol unspooled the scandal in a series of exclusives. The first, which ran for nearly 4,000 words, was published on Dec. 16 and laid out the accusations from a rival team that was trounced by Jackie Robinson West in the playoffs. Two more stories followed in December that pried the scandal open over a chorus of “no comments” from league sources. By the end of January, Little League International was traveling to Chicago to reopen the investigation after telling Konkol it was closed the month before.

As he kept digging, more sources came forward. The president of a neighboring league went on the record two weeks after Konkol’s first story, accusing Jackie Robinson West of expanding its territory without permission. In February, the president and coach of U.S. runner-up Mountain Ridge Little League told Konkol Jackie Robinson West should be stripped of its title.

The turf dispute story was a natural fit for his newest employer DNAInfo, the Chicago edition of a local news site that began in New York. Launched in November 2012, DNAInfo Chicago has 19 neighborhood reporters and aims to provide granular coverage of the city. As writer-at-large, Konkol has the freedom to tackle ambitious investigations or smaller features.

“As with many of our stories, this one began with a reporter being plugged in to his community, and actually listening to what people were saying,” Shamus Toomey, managing editor of DNAInfo Chicago, told Poynter in an email. “He began the reporting process and started pulling on the thread.”

This isn’t the first time Konkol has received attention for his neighborhood reporting. In 2011, during an eight-year stint at The Chicago Sun-Times, he was part of a team that won a Pulitzer Prize for a multi-part investigation into Chicago gun violence.

Konkol says the Jackie Robinson West investigation was criticized on social media for spoiling a feel-good story for Chicago. The series, which called into question the validity of hard-won glory from a group of youngsters, didn’t sit well with some readers. But for Konkol, who followed Jackie Robinson West’s championship run, the investigation wasn’t about the kids.

“It was kind of horrible to hear that adults would allegedly do things to try to win the Little League World Series,” Konkol said. “It was a tough story to do because nobody wants to take anything away from the kids.”

While DNAInfo published scoop after scoop in December, Chicago’s two newspapers of record, The Sun-Times and The Tribune, remained relatively quiet. Both papers followed Konkol’s first story with articles of their own that acknowledged his scoop and reported Little League International’s denial of wrongdoing. An Internet search didn’t turn up any other news articles on the subject from either paper until February, when The Tribune followed a DNAInfo report explaining that Little League International’s investigation was ongoing.

Because of its local news model, DNAInfo is well-positioned to sink its teeth into neighborhood stories, said Craig Newman, the managing editor of the Sun-Times. He disputed the characterization that the story went mostly uncovered by Chicago’s mainstream press and added that it was difficult to report on in its infancy because it concerned allegations against children.

“Until Little League baseball starts to move on it, you’re basically going after little kids,” Newman said.

The Tribune did not return calls for comment on this story.

After weeks of gadfly reporting by Konkol, Little League International stripped Jackie Robinson West of its title last week, awarding it instead to Mountain Ridge Little League. In an interview with The Tribune in the wake of the announcement, Little League International CEO Stephen Keener credited Konkol for bringing the scandal to light, saying he “kept after us.”

Since the announcement, the Chicago press has jumped on the story. The Sun-Times and The Tribune rolled out breaking news and contextual coverage and spun out timelines, some of which credit DNAInfo for digging up the story. The scandal continues to unfold — Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel praised the team and promised them championship rings. The team hired a lawyer to examine whether Little League International was justified in taking its title away.

Meanwhile, Konkol continues to report on the story, turning out articles examining the fate of more than $200,000 in donations and reporting on death threats made against Chris Janes, the man who blew the whistle on the scandal. Despite all the attention it’s gotten, Konkol says he takes no satisfaction from the outcome of his investigation into Jackie Robinson West.

“My whole position was I reported the facts and I reported what people’s reactions were to the facts, and I continue to do that,” he said.


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