Last August, Gilbert Bailon, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s editor, started overseeing coverage of a story that was just beginning – the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Speaking to Poynter then, Bailon said “the satellite trucks and anchors are focusing on a few blocks in suburban St. Louis. And the agencies involved and responsible are a tangled web, which partly explains the withholding of investigative information and disconnection among the various local agencies involved. Ferguson is an inner-ring suburb of 21,000 that has never seen such glare of the national media.”
One year later, the Post-Dispatch looked back on what happened in Ferguson while reporting on the continuing story. I caught up with Bailon via email to talk about covering this story, the paper’s Pulitzer-winning work and what’s changed.
And some things have changed, he said. Bailon, who won the National Press Foundation’s editor of the year award, also spoke of practical lessons for all journalists who might be confronted with a similarly combustible story, as well as economic challenges in the industry that haven’t gone away.
What has changed (in the newsroom, in St. Louis, in the country) in the last year?
Nationally, police-involved shootings are being viewed through a different prism. While the Michael Brown case did not involve video of the actual shooting, the public reaction and unrest focused attention on issues regarding police tactics and how police interact with minority communities. Nationally, federal changes have occurred in police equipment standards, use of police body cameras and dashboard cameras as well as how some shootings elsewhere in the country have been investigated and how quickly some prosecutions have occurred. Cities throughout the nation are keenly aware of how Ferguson combusted, and public officials have worked to stave off more unrest, although that did not happen in Baltimore.
Locally, many changes have happened or are in evolving stages. The U.S. Department of Justice is working to achieve a consent decree with the City of Ferguson, which has a new interim police chief, city manager and more African-Americans serving on the city council. Municipal court reform aimed at fighting notorious speed traps and predatory policing that resulted in people being excessively fined and jailed on misdemeanors has taken hold with a new state law. Other court reforms including new judicial oversight have occurred. The Ferguson Commission created by the governor after the Aug. 9  shooting will be delineating a large report with recommendations for action this fall. The commission has conducted many public meetings throughout the region as it gathered information across all sectors.
Also, many efforts to rebuild the area in Ferguson and Dellwood that were burned and looted are continuing, although some businesses have closed and overall business has suffered over the last year. Longer-term efforts to beautify the streets where the riots occurred are being planned and ongoing efforts include community fundraising, job fairs and an Urban League recreation center being built.
What hasn’t changed?
The deeper societal underpinnings remain intact. Issues of poverty, unemployment, inadequate education, racial segregation and lacking minority representation in police departments and among locally elected officials present much more complex problems that defy simple solutions. Ferguson is just one of many North St. Louis County municipalities that face these issues. With the city of St. Louis 10 minutes down I-70, some neighborhoods face these same issues with even greater intensity. The city of St. Louis is experiencing an ongoing surge in homicides this year. The St. Louis police chief calls the surge in crime the “Ferguson Effect”‘ attributable to more brazen and bold criminals since the events after Ferguson. That has been debated, but without doubt, violent crime has surged in St. Louis.
Social justice and the relationship between the black community and police have been in the news regularly since Ferguson. Have you or anyone in your newsroom reached out to journalists in other communities covering similar stories?
Issues of social justice and minority/police relations have arisen in a number of cities over the last year. Our journalists have spoken at many public forums and media industry panel workshops. Some of our journalists have frequent contact through social media and by phone with other journalists who have covered police-related shootings and the public reaction in other cities.
Photographers at the Post-Dispatch won a Pulitzer for their coverage of Ferguson, but the newsroom also recently had another round of layoffs. How do you talk about these two extremes with your newsroom?
We had some buyouts and three people laid off in recent weeks. None of those involved the Photo department. As the Guild seniority system works, some veteran journalists decided to take the buyout, which meant four reporters who initially were laid off were retained in their jobs. We do have a net decrease in the newsroom, but we have just filled sports writing jobs and are in the process of recruiting for three newsroom jobs. Like many newsrooms, buyouts have been offered and some new hires are being made with different job descriptions.
Finally, what advice do you have for other journalists who could find themselves reporting huge stories like Ferguson?
For others encountering a volatile, complex story with long-lasting story lines and impact: take care of yourselves when the emotions are highest and the adrenaline of pursuing a big story reaches its apex. Such a big story that lasts for months pulls together the mission of a newsroom into a tighter focus. The story reigns supreme over issues and how resources get deployed. Longer-term, dig and dig some more. As with Ferguson, many antecedents and deep threads run through the underpinnings of a big story. Aggressively use open record requests, gather your own data and pursue deep coverage that attempt to answer the how and why with greater context that can be hard to find among other media in mid-sized markets. The impact of photo and multimedia visuals tell powerful stories. All departments across all platforms must have a stake in the coverage.