A Madison-based newspaper produced mainly by teens, an environmental group whose exhaustive examination of a former Wausau wood-waste plant prompted the Department of Natural Resources to launch an investigation, and a journalist who fact-checks politicians were honored Tuesday at the ninth annual Wisconsin Watchdog Awards.
Emmy-award winning journalist Jessica Arp, the assistant news director and chief political reporter for News 3 Now and Channel3000.com, was named the 2019 recipient of the Distinguished Wisconsin Watchdog Award, the night’s highest honor.
Arp’s boss, Tom Keeler, vice president and general manager of Morgan Murphy Media, recounted this anecdote: “One question that Jessica Arp was asked by her staff at one time: If you could possess one superhuman power, what would it be?” Keeler said Arp wished for supersonic hearing.
“I’ve always wondered what went on behind closed doors – especially at the Capitol,” Arp replied at the time.
For more than a decade, Arp has used innovative reporting techniques to hold public officials accountable. She has fact-checked more than 100 claims made by politicians in News 3 Now’s ongoing Reality Check series, uncovered a lack of oversight of limousine companies following a deadly 2016 crash, and most recently analyzed problems with the completion of a multi-million dollar computer upgrade of Wisconsin’s online benefits system.
Arp thanked the formative figures in her life who prodded and nurtured her into the committed journalist she is today, including her parents, who encouraged her curiosity and did not dissuade her from pursuing journalism as a career.
“To me, in an industry where there are so many question marks, and there are so many voices, and there’s so much important information that we can dig into every day, doing the most relevant thing and presenting it to people in the most innovative, convenient way, that’s where I think we can all make a mark and we can all elevate the work that we do,” Arp said. “And it’s what gets me out of bed and gets me to work in the morning.”
Three former Distinguished Wisconsin Watchdog Award winners, an honor that recognizes an individual’s extraordinary contributions to open government or investigative journalism, joined the crowd of 150 journalists, donors and activists for Tuesday night’s ceremony held at The Madison Club.
The award is presented jointly by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, the Wisconsin Freedom of Information Council, the Madison Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, the Wisconsin Newspaper Association, Wisconsin Broadcasters Association and University of Madison-Wisconsin School of Journalism and Mass Communication.
Bill Lueders, president of the Freedom of Information Council, presented the Openness in Government awards, or “Opees.”
Political Openness Award (“Popee”): State Sen. Chris Larson, D-Milwaukee, for introducing legislation to end a rule that exempts the Wisconsin Legislature from records retention rules in place for all other state and local government officials.
The exemption, an “invitation to corruption” according to Larson, has been used by lawmakers to destroy communications and records they want to keep secret. Larson said ending the exemption is about “public integrity and transparency” in government.
Media Openness Award (“Mopee”): Simpson Street Free Press, a Madison-based newspaper produced mainly by high school students.
The paper has pushed back hard against the claims made by a group affiliated with the Madison School District that the group was not subject to the state’s open records and meetings laws. The effort prompted one school board member to call for requiring any group that includes school district representatives to follow openness laws.
Jim Kramer, executive director of the news organization, accepted the award. He pointed to a table of teens sporting black-and-white “Simpson Street Free Press” T-shirts, saying they are doing the real work of exploring their own neighborhoods and “following the money.”
“Young, indigenous voices are a very powerful thing,” he said.
Citizen Openness Award (“Copee”): Citizens for a Clean Wausau, including co-founder Tom Kilian, who spent countless hours looking into soil contamination at the site of a former Wausau wood-waste plant, unearthing piles of records.
This prompted the state Department of Natural Resources to open an investigation and ask the manufacturer’s parent company to submit a cleanup plan. According to Wausau Pilot & Review reporter Shereen Siewert, who covered the story, “the action taken by the DNR is a direct result” of the efforts by Kilian and others.
“Many of us joke that Tom is the Erin Brockovich of Wausau,” said group member Randy Radtke, referring to the legendary environmental activist whose tireless efforts exposed drinking water pollution caused by Pacific Gas and Electric Company of California in the 1990s.
In introducing the group, Lueders said it is important to remember that most people who use Wisconsin’s public records and open meetings laws are not journalists but ordinary members of the public.
Open Records Scoop of the Year (“Scoopee”): “Lessons Lost,” the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s multifaceted report that examined the challenges presented by large numbers of students who transfer schools each year.
Reporter Erin Richards, with data analysis by Kevin Crowe, photos and video by Angela Peterson, and design and graphics by Erin Caughey and Andrew Mollica, produced an incisive and disturbing portrait of this largely unexplored problem affecting schools in Milwaukee and throughout the nation.
The ambitious project collated records on 2 million students in Wisconsin over 13 years and tracked each one of them as they moved between schools. The group found that, on average, one in four children across Milwaukee does not stay in the same school all year round.
“For the first time, we could put numbers to something that teachers have told me was an enormous problem in Milwaukee year after year, in that they start the year with 30 kids, and they end the year with 30 kids, but it’s not the same 30 kids,” Richards said in accepting the award.
Whistleblower of the Year (“Whoopee”) award and No Friend of Openness Award (“Nopee”): Racine alderwoman Sandra Weidner and the city of Racine, respectively.
The two awards went to opposite sides of the same issue. Not only did Weidner file suit over the city’s efforts to claim that some of her own email exchanges with constituents could not be made public because they dealt with advice from the city attorney’s office, she was actually cited for contempt of court for disclosing information about her case, which a Racine County Circuit judge decided to conduct in secret.
After media groups intervened, virtually all of the case records were made public, but it was Weidner’s efforts and tens of thousands of dollars of her own money that allowed the public to see what Weidner and the city attorney had been feuding about in closed court sessions.
“But if not for alderperson Weidner, no one would have even known that this case happened at all,” Lueders said.
“People need open, honest and transparent government so that they can judge that the powers they have given their government are not abused,” Weidner said. “Without the press, such abuse would be rampant in government.”
Prior to the awards ceremony, the fourth annual Watchdog 101, a free investigative journalism workshop, was led by by Wisconsin Watch staff and Keegan Kyle, Wisconsin Public Radio Morning Show producer. The tips covered in the training are posted on the “Be Your Own Watchdog” page on WisconsinWatch.org.
Lead sponsors for the 2019 event were the Wisconsin Newspaper Association and the law firm Schott, Bublitz & Engel. Other major sponsors included the Pines Bach law firm, Wisconsin Watch supporters Betty and Corkey Custer and the Wisconsin Broadcasters Association. The Capital Times, The Edgerton Reporter, the Wisconsin State Journal, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Dick Record, the Milwaukee law firm Gass Weber Mullins and Wegner CPAs also supported the event.