The story that got a mailman his dream vacation — and other ways journalism did good in 2019

January 8, 2020

Last year, local reporters:

  • Live-tweeted a mailman’s last day
  • Listened to a source with ghost stories
  • Looked into a new dataset from the Census Bureau
  • Invited readers to share their outrageous medical bills
  • And followed up on a question from a reader.

It’s probably not the kind of work that Hollywood will make movies about.

It is the day-to-day work of local newsrooms, and in these cases, the kind that made things happen.

That tweetstorm led to a crowdfunding campaign and a dream trip to Hawaii for a Georgia mailman.

That ghost story led to the discovery of lost African American cemeteries across Tampa Bay.

That dataset showed the spread of digital deserts in Buffalo and was followed by a legislative resolution to fix it.

That share-your-bill invite has led to the erasure of more than $300,000 in medical bills and a change in Colorado state law.

And that question the reporter followed up on led to an underfunded high school football team in Austin getting new equipment.

“The most impactful stories just might be waiting for you at the end of your driveway,” said Jennifer Brett, a multiplatform journalist and digital coach with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Here are five stories that show the impact of local journalism in 2019.

Related: What’s working in local news? Find out in our weekly newsletter, Local Edition. 

Celebrating the mailman

“THREAD: Floyd Martin retires after nearly 35 years as a mailman tomorrow,” Brett tweeted on the afternoon of May 22. “I went with him on his route today.”

That tweet was retweeted more than 67,000 times, led to stories from national and international TV networks and publications, a Go Fund Me and a dream vacation.

Brett found the story of the mailman’s last day and the community’s celebration of him just by living in Marietta, her community.

“Two of my friends from Sunday school were among the people getting the block party and mailbox decorating brigade together,” she said in an email, “and I knew lots of folks who participated.”

Brett shared the tweets as a kind of first draft of the story, which she does often. She showed the people who came out to see him on his route, the potluck block party they surprised him with, and the line of people waiting for hugs and photos.

She also kept track of how the story went viral and what happened next.

“Neighbors have started a Go Fund Me to help Martin realize his dream of visiting Hawaii,” Brett reported two days after her initial tweets, “and Delta Air Lines contacted The Atlanta Journal-Constitution to make it happen. We called this morning to let him know.”

The story resonated and reached as far as it did, Brett thinks, because “people were just starving for a positive, uplifting story.”

She and Martin keep in touch. He’s still planning his trip to Hawaii. And he was the grand marshall in the Fourth of July parade, where a TV company based in Japan sent a crew to film a segment about the retired mailman.

“Who would have thought a small-town mailman would become an international star?” she asked.

Related training: Strategies for creating compelling content

From the June 23, 2019 front page of the Tampa Bay Times

Remembering the forgotten

Paul Guzzo wrote about a man who talks with ghosts.

In the fall of 2018, the Tampa Bay Times reporter wrote that the man says “ghosts reached out to him and asked him to help restore their respectability.”

After that interview, the man told Guzzo that the real story was Zion Cemetery.

What’s that? Guzzo asked.

The man didn’t know. But the name kept coming up on old death certificates. He’d never heard of it, which probably meant it had been built over.

Guzzo was ready to move on to his next story – how do you write about a thing that doesn’t seem to exist? – but Times staff photographer James Borchuck urged Guzzo to look into it, he said. (Disclosure: Poynter owns the Tampa Bay Times and I’ve worked with them on an obituary project.)

The result, after nine months of reporting, was the discovery of one lost African American cemetery after another. 

“Zion Cemetery, the first African-American cemetery recognized by the city, has been forgotten,” Guzzo wrote in that first story. “Acting on a tip last fall, the Tampa Bay Times began examining what became of it.

“After reviewing thousands of historic records, and conducting dozens of interviews, reporters identified death certificates for 382 people who were buried at Zion from 1913 to 1920. There were likely many more.”

It’s been one of the fastest-moving stories Guzzo’s ever been a part of. Each time he thinks it’s winding up, he gets another call or tip and another cemetery is discovered.

Related: Local journalists uncovered the sex cult Nxivm years before Hollywood paid attention

Taking one for the team

Screenshot, Austin American-Statesman

A reader asked Julie Chang to look into something: Was there a policy in Texas to help address the imbalance between high schools in high- and low-poverty areas and their ability to win football games?

“With the help of my colleagues on the sports desk, I compiled the winning rates of all the big high schools in our region, ran a simple statistical correlation, and started calling up coaches at the high-poverty schools,” said Chang, an education and social services reporter with the Austin American-Statesman, in an email. “Travis High School coach Joe Frank Martinez was particularly candid about the financial circumstances of his football program and the students’ families that the story essentially wrote itself from there.”

Her story, “Why high-poverty schools lose more football games,” ran Oct. 4.

“The reaction from the community was almost immediate,” Chang said. “Within days of the story running, Coach Martinez said he had received phone calls of support, help with writing grants and monetary and food donations from across the country.”

A week after the story ran, the coach called Chang and told her about an anonymous $5,000 donation. He bought helmets for his team and wanted Chang there to cover the moment when they got them.

“To watch the joy on the students’ faces and the learning lesson Coach Martinez turned the surprise into was the best gift this career has ever given to me,” she said.

Discovering digital deserts

After the Census Bureau released a block-level data set on internet access, Caitlin Dewey started mapping areas in Buffalo, New York. Her first story ran in January of 2019.

The Buffalo News enterprise reporter wrote:

“The data, released by the Census Bureau last month, expose for the first time the true depths of the digital gap in the region: While 80 percent of households in Erie and Niagara counties are online, low-income pockets of Buffalo, Lockport and Niagara Falls have fallen off the grid.”

After her story ran, “I think a lot of readers – and even a lot of local experts – were surprised and alarmed,” Dewey said in an email. “I heard variations of this sentiment again and again from people working in the public schools, the library system, in non-profits, etc.: ‘We thought this might be a problem, but we had no idea how bad it was.’”

In March, Erie County Legislature passed a resolution to build a county-wide broadband network, Dewey said, “which cited my reporting at length. A few weeks after that, our county executive, Mark Poloncarz, announced plans to build out a $20-million, ‘last mile’ fiber network to address access inequities. Mr. Poloncarz says that proposal was already in the works, so I can’t take credit for it. But since there’d been no public movement on it for a number of years, I like to think we helped it along a bit.”

Buffalo has also installed free public wi-fi in one of the places Dewey focused on in her first story, and she’s heard more will follow.

“To me, it feels like the reporting started, or at least amplified, an important conversation,” she said. “I’m not sure our local school and government officials would have felt as much urgency to act without it.”

Related training: Investigative reporting – From numbers to narratives

Following the money

About four years ago, Chris Vanderveen started reporting on free-standing emergency rooms. Vanderveen, an investigative reporter with KUSA-TV in Denver, started an email address where people could share their bills as a crowdsourcing technique. People didn’t just share bills from free-standing emergency rooms, though.

Four years later, Vanderveen says The Show Us Your Bills investigations have helped identify more than $300,000 in medical overcharges and billing errors, including the story of a family who was charged for their baby girl’s circumcision. It also helped lead to a state bill to end surprise medical billing practices.

Related: A local TV station dedicated three years to investigating hospital bills

It’s common now for newsrooms to take a watchdog role with outrageous medical bills, Vanderveen said. But four years ago, it wasn’t, and he was shocked then that people were willing to share their stories and their information (which the station has worked hard to keep private.)

It wasn’t that people were just trusting, he said, but really, really mad.

He’s since kept up the coverage, including spending a year reporting on people who had liens taken out on their homes due to medical bills.

“People have felt like they didn’t really have advocates,” Vanderveen said. “We became the defacto advocate.”

Kristen Hare covers the transformation of local news for Poynter.org. She can be reached at khare@poynter.org or on Twitter at @kristenhare