February 3, 2016

Tuesday’s front page from The Cincinnati Enquirer leads with a memo. And that memo is at the heart of a special report by the Enquirer’s Dan Horn and Sharon Coolidge into Cincinnati’s Metropolitan Sewer District.

Here’s how the story begins:

The Metropolitan Sewer District spent as much as $680 million in public money during the past decade with little or no oversight from anyone outside the agency.

The spending began with a six-line memo from Cincinnati City Hall in November 2007 that changed the way the sewer district does business. An Enquirer investigation found that the memo, written by former City Manager Milton Dohoney, eliminated critical checks and balances just as the sewer district embarked on the largest project in its history.

“The simplicity of the memo led to the simplicity of the front page,” said Michael Kilian, news director at The Cincinnati Enquirer.

Editors sent the idea to Chloe Moloney in Gannett’s regional design studio. Moloney presented them with this:


The Enquirer’s investigation began last year, when the FBI started looking into the city’s sewer district. Through open records requests, reporters got thousands of pages of documents and were able to piece together a narrative about unchecked spending, questions about contracts and work done.

“But it all came back to this one memo in November of 2007 that authorized the then-director of the sewer district to sign off on all this spending,” Kilian said.

I sent a link with the Newseum’s copy of the front page to Sara Quinn, a Poynter affiliate faculty and the president of The Society For News Design. Quinn told me the front made her want to go to 4A and read the story.

“Often times that’s the reason to do something so different,” she said. “Anything that’s apart from the norm will really stand out to readers and make something engaging.”

There’s also real interest when readers can see (and in this case download) original documents for themselves, she said.

“Even online where you have unlimited space, it can be a really powerful thing to put original documents from reporting because people like to see it in black and white.”

And the Enquirer readers seem to be doing just that. Kilian said that online, they’re spending an average of four minutes with the story. Sewer bills have been rising for years, he added, so “our readers are pre-gruntled to anything that has to do with the sewer district.”

Editor’s note: We’re trying something new with front pages this week. Instead of publishing a daily piece on Poynter.org, we’re putting our picks on Tumblr each day. When we do publish a piece about a notable front page, we’ll try to include the voices of people who help put it together and someone who can comment on the design.

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Kristen Hare covers the people and business of local news and is the editor of Locally at Poynter. She previously worked as a staff writer…
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