Anthony Dixon grew up in Montclair, N.J., the town where my wife and I raised our children. Anthony later joined the military and was in a transport vehicle in Iraq when a roadside bomb exploded. Shrapnel pierced the floorboards, killing the 20-year-old soldier. When I was deputy managing editor for news at the Philadelphia Inquirer, we published an investigation showing that too little armor protected military vehicles in those years. Our reporters tracked down proof that steel companies in Pennsylvania and vehicle assembly lines in Ohio operated as directed by the military on a normal schedule, with weekends off, even while Pentagon officials were saying they were doing everything they could to safeguard the troops.
One order from Washington, one more shift at the assembly plant, one more armored vehicle in Baghdad, and Anthony would be alive today. Lawmakers, families and military officials read our articles and changed policies. Today, troops in the field are better protected.
Nothing can bring about positive change more quickly than quality journalism. Journalism is also the sector of our economy undergoing the most profound disruption. While others may lament the uncertainty and the erosion of incumbent business models, the same technologies that have been so disruptive also provide new opportunities — opportunities for more people than ever before to use more powerful tools to create and distribute quality journalism.
A friend and neighbor, Steve Engelberg, spoke recently about his work as managing editor of Pro Publica, the non-profit newsroom based in New York that produces powerful investigations that serve the public. Steve talked about the intense data crunching that produced Dollars for Docs, a single database that lists doctors who received a total of $258 million from drug companies promoting pharmaceutical sales. Is your doctor on the list? Now you can find out with one click.
Steve noted a stark example of what happens when news organizations are not providing scrutiny. He discussed the case of city employees in Bell, Calif., who were each paid many hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in salaries. Eventually, two reporters at the Los Angeles Times, Jeff Gottlieb and Ruben Vives, uncovered the sky-high payments and a web of corruption in the town. No community newspaper revealed the story for the simple reason that there was no community newspaper in Bell.
Terry Francke, an open government consultant, described the long decline in his article, Why the Bell Scandal Happened and What Can Be Done:
These multi-community publications attempted to be the same watchdogs over local councils and school boards that their individual predecessors had been but were spread far more thin.
The former Industrial Post (last known as the Community News) went through several chain companies' hands until disappearing as even an independent name. And whatever close coverage of local news it had into the 1990s has been gone for the past decade.
Some newsrooms are taking an important step and developing ambitious goals for local coverage, with rollouts planned nationally by Patch and MainStreetConnect, state efforts from Oregon to Texas, and more focused efforts dotted across the nation, from Philadelphia to San Diego.
Then there are the tools, new software that citizens can use to pinpoint problems in their own communities. Companies that offer such tools include CitySourced and SeeClickFix. Outside the United States, I Paid A Bribe is just one website that puts similar tools in the hands of people who want better government. President Obama praised that site during his trip to India this month.
Even the most ordinary acts of government have an extraordinary impact on the lives of ordinary people. With the right vision and tools, journalists can continue to shine a light on these actions. One way to pay tribute to Anthony Dixon is to make sure that light shines brightly.