In what is becoming an annual tradition, we’re looking back at the past year to bring you the 10 biggest inewsource stories of 2014, as calculated by combined pageviews on the inewsource and KPBS.org websites.
We’ve also shared some near-misses and a few important stories reported by KPBS staffers under the editorial direction of inewsource executive director Lorie Hearn. So be sure to read to the bottom.
Takeaway: The North County Transit District, the subject of inewsource’s longest-running investigation, lost at least 20 high-level managers and employees in 2014 at a cost of several hundred thousand dollars in severance and related pay. Two former employees spoke to inewsource about likely reasons for the exodus.
Takeaway: On June 3, San Diegans went to the polls to decide the fate of the Barrio Logan Community Plan. When the votes were counted, the two propositions implementing the plan were soundly defeated.
inewsource created an interactive map to show voting results, precinct by precinct. Readers loved the map, which sparked an engaging discussion online.
Related stories: Barrio Logan strongly disagreed with city voters.
Takeaway: Although reported out in 2013, inewsource’s series on end-of-life care once again became essential reading a year later, as questions about hospice and long term care became more prevalent nationally in the wake of the Affordable Care Act.
“When does end of life begin” was the first story in the series, and documented the final days of LC Sallis, an 89-year old with stage four congestive heart failure. LC and his wife Betty allowed inewsource into their home to record LC’s hospice care, which helped start a larger conversation about hospice care nationwide. The story and series eventually took six first-place awards in local journalism contests — including Best in Show — in radio, television, health and investigative reporting categories.
Takeaway: In June, Charles and David Koch held their semi-annual secret summit in Dana Point, just up the freeway from San Diego, where the brothers raised hundreds of millions of dollars for conservative political candidates and set policy for the Koch’s network of political organizations.
Two inewsource reporters managed to book a room at the hotel, and spent 24 hours gathering details about the agenda, the political operatives and elected officials in attendance before being escorted off the property by security. The story was picked up by Politico and the Huffington Post, and helped shed light on what was to come for the conservative movement in the US.
Takeaway: On Nov. 4, San Diegans in California’s 52nd Congressional District went to the polls to decide whether incumbent Rep. Scott Peters or former San Diego City Councilman Carl DeMaio would represent them. Peters eventually won, 51.55% to 48.45%.
inewsource created an interactive map showing the results, precinct by precinct.
Related stories: Outside groups pump millions into DeMaio-Peters contest, Early voting underway in DeMaio-Peters congressional race, Sex Harassment Claims, Leaked Emails Dominate Last Weeks Of DeMaio-Peters Race.
Takeaway: We looked at Mello-Roos, a tax named after two California legislators who found a way around the tax-limiting Proposition 13, as part of our intermittent series on inequities in public education. This special tax generates money for schools, roads and other infrastructure in new neighborhoods.
An inewsource investigation started in 2013 found mistakes in the way the tax was assessed, which eventually led to refunds for homeowners, and it also found questionable purchases made by school districts with Mello-Roos money. inewsource even created a searchable database for homeowners to use to see what they were paying in Mello-Roos taxes.
The series won some of the highest awards in the country, including three Edward R. Murrow awards and a Golden Mike, as well as first place awards in radio and television reporting.
In 2014, Faryon followed up with new stories about Poway Unified School District and its students.
Takeaway: inewsource’s most ambitious project to date, An Impossible Choice dove into a world few knew existed — more than 4,000 men, women and children living on life support in California’s special wards, sometimes called “vent farms.”
The project culminated in a separate website, complete with stories, photographs and video, of three families with loved ones living on life support. The unprecedented access and cooperation of doctors, patients and medical staff helped lift the veil on a hidden population, as well as the emotional, physical and financial toll suffered by those left behind.
In September, PBS’ NewsHour aired inewsource’s 10-minute special to a national audience.
Takeaway: On Feb. 11, the citizens of San Diego went to the polls to decide which of two mayoral hopefuls would serve out the remaining 33 months of former Mayor Bob Filner’s term. When the votes — all 290,667 of them — were counted, Republican Kevin Faulconer emerged victorious, 52.8 percent to Democrat David Alvarez’s 47 percent.
inewsource created an interactive map showing the results, precinct by precinct.
Takeaway: It’s safe to say — no one at inewsource saw this story generating as much buzz as it did: San Diego Unified School District received a mine-resistant ambush protected vehicle for free as part of the Department of Defense’s Excess Property Program. The program sends unneeded military equipment, like weapons and body armor, to local police forces for no cost.
The irony of a school district acquiring such a weapon didn’t go unnoticed — the story was picked up across the country, and even made the Colbert Report. Less than two weeks after inewsource broke the story, the district vowed to return the vehicle.
Takeaway: Our biggest story of the year, in terms of pageviews, came in June when reporter Joanne Faryon found that most of the people who got whooping cough in San Diego County this year were up to date with their immunizations.
This was the same conclusion inewsource and KPBS reached in 2010 when California’s worst pertussis epidemic in 60 years sickened thousands and killed babies. The joint investigation was the first in the country to raise questions about how well the vaccine worked.
When Immunity Fails: The Whooping Cough Epidemic, a documentary and series of stories co-reported by KPBS and inewsource, led to several scientific studies which found that immunity faded sooner than expected after people were vaccinated.
As Faryon reported in June and again just last week, the efficacy of the vaccine is still a major issue. San Diego County is seeing its highest number of whooping cough cases on record so far this year, and still — most of the people who have gotten sick were immunized.
Other notable stories this year:
Takeaway: KPBS reporter Angela Carone went deep into what was happening behind the scenes at the San Diego Opera when it announced in March that its 2014 season would be its last. Under inewsource executive director Lorie Hearn’s guidance, Carone interviewed more than 20 people, poured through years of budgets, tax filings, employee contracts and retirement funds to piece together a picture of a venerable institution in turmoil.
Takeaway: Prior to Supervisor Bill Horn’s reelection in May, inewsource reporter Brad Racino dug into Horn’s finances and found that he ran a religious charity called the Basic Faith Foundation for decades — one he claimed to have “owned” and used to hold money from real estate deals.
Five experts with national reputations in tax law and nonprofit management reviewed the transcript of inewsource’s eventual interview with the supervisor, as well as supporting documentation from state and federal agencies, and all reached the same conclusion: the way Horn used his “charity” violated both state and federal laws, civilly and possibly criminally.
Takeaway: In January, news broke in San Diego about a mysterious “foreign national” bent on influencing San Diego politics by illegally funneling money to political campaigns through a retired San Diego police detective and an undisclosed “straw donor.” It didn’t take long for reporters to piece together clues — mainly by combing through publicly-accessible information from the San Diego City Clerk’s website — to uncover who was involved.
inewsource wanted to show readers how anyone with a computer connection could reconstruct the investigation using only publicly-available websites and documents. The resulting story — which included a step-by-step tutorial — won Best in Show at the San Diego Press Club Awards, as well as first place in the public service category. The story was also covered by Poynter, a website for the nonprofit school for journalism in Florida, and showcased at the annual Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in San Francisco.