Farfel Prize winner "Profiting from Public Service" identifies ethical reform issues in New Jersey
By Amy Wells
College of Communication Week provided an opportunity for professionals from the field of communication to share their expertise with students. Among those professionals were editors Paul D'Ambrosio and William "Skip" Hidlay from New Jersey's Asbury Park Press who discussed their award-winning investigative series "Profiting from Public Service." The Press received the first Ursula and Gilbert Farfel Prize for Excellence in Investigative Reporting for the 38-page, eight part series.
"It's a high honor, to be recognized and to compete against all the great stories," said Paul D'Ambrosio, investigations editor at the Press. "To be the recipient in the first year of the Prize is a great honor, and it's humbling that out of all the great pieces the judges felt this one had the most impact and found it to be the best example of investigative reporting."
A $500,000 endowment established by Ursula (AB '56) and Dr. Gilbert Farfel during Ohio University's Bicentennial Campaign funded the $25,000 annual Prize. Administered by Ohio University's College of Communication, the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, and the Scripps Howard Foundation, the Prize was presented at the Scripps Howard Foundation's National Journalism Awards at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., on Friday, April 23, 2004, and at the College of Communication Awards Banquet on Sunday, April 25, 2004, on the Ohio University campus.
"As important as this award is to fuel ongoing initiative in investigative reporting," said Ohio University President Robert Glidden, "it also provides for the recipient to share their knowledge, their expertise and their curiosity with our students by inviting them to join us at Ohio University as a visiting professional in our College of Communication."
"I'm excited to come to Ohio and speak with students," said D'Ambrosio. "The exciting things are to encourage students who want to go into the profession and give them tips and resources to becoming great investigative reporters."
Single journalists or teams from print media who covered a story completely and raised public consciousness and/or awareness about a topic were eligible for the annual award. In this, the Prize's initial year, Ohio University received 43 entries that judges indicated were, overall, of excellent quality. Judges unanimously selected the Press' submission based on its scope and its effort to involve readers.
"Investigative journalists do an important job, bringing to light things that we wouldn't know," said Ursula Farfel. "Gilbert and I admire their courage and tenacity, and we wanted to do something to reward them for that."
The five-month, joint investigation by the Press and six other Gannett New Jersey newspapers exposed many questionable ethical practices common among the New Jersey legislature. Reporters uncovered a form of abuse dubbed "legislative greed," which included legislators padding their pensions, hiring relatives and handing out millions of dollars in no-bid contracts to employers, friends or party bosses.
"Being the first recipient, we got to set the standard and that's exciting," said D'Ambrosio.
An excerpt by staff writer Jason Method, from day five of the eight part series declared:
"It's a world in which lawmakers are plied with golf outings, baseball games and filet mignon dinners while ostensibly gaining insight into issues that will help them make sound public policy.
It's a world in which those who want to influence government -- and those who have the most to gain from government -- provide campaign contributions to those who make the laws.
And it's a world in which the players are interchangeable -- where lawmakers and their staffers become lobbyists after they retire or resign. Or, in at least one case, a lobbyist quits to become a lawmaker.
It's also a world where influence and connections reign, and even the top players say ethics rules can be bent or broken."
"The staff was excited to embark on a project that no one had done in New Jersey," said D'Ambrosio. "The reporters were given time and free-range to pursue different leads and after publication they were surprised by the reactions, and the impact went beyond all expectations."
As a result of the publication, the senate president and five other incumbents with ethical problems were swept out of office.
"The legislature didn't really understand the concept until publication," said D'Ambrosio. "We sent surveys and from the handful of respondents they thought ethics disclosure would be the whole story. They were shocked by the story although admitted it was true. We held a mirror to their activity."
Staffers at the Press got mixed responses from Republicans and Democrats while collecting information. According to D'Ambrosio, both Republicans and Democrats were suspicious of the reporters' inquires. Both parties accused inquiring writers of working for the other party, but conversely each party also saw the work as giving tips on the other party's activities.
During the project the Press dealt with attorneys, was threatened with one lawsuit, and a reporter on the project was the target of an attempt to discredit his work.
"The early days after publication we were uncertain of the legislature's response, but by the close of the election, candidates were focusing on ethics and many incumbents were promising ethics reform," said D'Ambrosio. "Ethics reform became such an undercurrent in New Jersey politics; it's the umbrella under which everything works."
"It's hard to imagine how Gannett's New Jersey newspapers could have tackled a broader topic -- self-dealing, double-dealing, nepotism, favoritism and just plain, old-fashioned cronyism by important politicians from both parties at all levels of New Jersey government," said judge Alan Horton, senior vice president/newspapers for the E.W. Scripps Company. "Collectively, the papers skewered one and all and then pointed to ways taxpayers could take their state back."
D'Ambrosio described the impact on the statehouse as "genuine and realistic." The ruling party realized it couldn't move forward without ethics reform. Currently, 25 points of reform are going through the legislature.
"It is a starting point," said D'Ambrosio. "I predict that in about a year the tone of New Jersey politics will change dramatically."
The Press concluded its series with five points for starting ethics reform in New Jersey. Soon after the publication, the paper received more than 300 letters and e-mails and more than 80,000 hits on its Web site.
"Investigative reporting is not cloak and dagger. It's not meeting mysterious sources in parking garages," D'Ambrosio said. "It's paying attention to detail and being methodical. It's a giant jigsaw puzzle and you have to make sure every single piece will fit with one another."
D'Ambrosio finds great value in rewarding investigative reporting. "It focuses attention to critical issues, not just for investigative reporting but also shows the impact, gives solutions and the opportunity for follow-up," he said.
The College of Communication provides both specialized training and a broad liberal education in all 44 programs offered by its five schools. It also provides experiential training through internships at 1,000 businesses and organizations and hands-on campus opportunities at six radio stations, two television stations, an award-winning regional magazine, a video production company, a cable news show, a public relations company and an independent student newspaper.
The Bicentennial Campaign -- which has raised more than $198 million toward its goal of $200 million to celebrate Ohio University's bicentennial in 2004 -- will provide money for scholarships, endowed professorships, technological enhancements, innovative programs and selected capital improvements.
Amy Wells is a development communication assistant for the Division of University Advancement.