As we begin a new decade, there is no better time to thank you for your investment in local journalism. Your financial support has saved the lives of newborns, shielded children from physical harm, protected the elderly and infirm, and will provide education to those incarcerated.
Your child can head to college safer, because we exposed fraternity hazing that cost a wonderful young student in Ohio his life. In Detroit, the team's reporting detailed early production problems with the new Ford Focus and Fiesta's transmission. Despite concerns raised by company engineers, the car was still put on the road.
For two years, we fought to unseal court filings of a how a politically connected businessman secretly settled claims of sexually abusing boys and his own employees — which, in one instance, included cash plus a new pickup to silence an accuser.
The Louisville Courier-Journal spent a year uncovering how a Mexican drug cartel has overrun not just Kentucky but the United States, with so much opioids and other drugs that thousands have died. That project so touched a philanthropist that his foundation plans to underwrite the cost of subsequent investigations — with no editorial control on his part.
This work is from the heart.
"Each one of these projects took many months of research and writing, not to mention a hefty financial investment," said Emily Le Coz, editor for national data and investigations. "It's all worth it if we can save one life, enlighten one mind, hold to account one person."
We are aided by silent heroes, in government or the private sector, who trust us with sensitive information. And we sometimes are aided by those who hold a grudge and just want to get even. Regardless, we take seriously our role in discerning motive and aim to independently verify what we hear or obtain.
Let me present a smidgen of our journalism, exemplary, ambitious work — often unearthed against a culture of intimidation and silence. We are the bulldozer of truth.
►If you have driven a Ford Focus or Fiesta and the vehicle suffered from transmission problems.The Detroit Free Press showed readers why in its "Out of Gear" series. As a result, Ford insiders provided reporters with previously unseen company documents and direct accounts of Ford's effort to cover up the problems.
"The Ford project was the result of relentless and deep reporting. Our reporter got wind of the problem through legal cases, and her initial report led to more documents and car owners all across the country reaching out to her," said Peter Bhatia, editor of the Free Press. "After our initial investigative story published, the flood gates opened, and Ford insiders and aggrieved owners took us deeper into the problems and further validated that Ford knew what it was doing in releasing cars with faulty transmissions."
As a result of the stories, the Justice Department has launched an investigation. Ford extended the clutch warranty on about 600,000 of the cars not covered by a 2014 extension.
►Across Texas, the utility companies shut power to poor and elderly customers during brutal summer heat waves because they could not pay their bills. Other cash-strapped customers rationed the use of air conditioning. More than 100 Texans died. The Texas investigations team, working with the Austin American-Statesman, exposed in "Hostage to Heat" how lawmakers chipped away at protections for low-income homeowners who ration their air conditioning during the summer.
The reporting prompted two state lawmakers to push for public hearings, as early as January, on rules that allow private companies to disconnect customers’ electricity.
►The Columbus Dispatch investigated the death of Ohio University fraternity pledge Collin Wiant, 18, and the hazing that plagues campuses across the country. The Dispatch investigation, "Broken Pledge," ran also on the front page of USA TODAY. The podcast series had more than 43,500 downloads.
And Collin's death is not in vain. The series resulted in indictments of nine people on criminal charges and prompted Ohio University to crack down on hazing.
► Reporters at the Oklahoman, working with the Gatehouse's national investigative team, published the numerous untracked deaths of babies due to botched out-of-hospital deliveries and the lack of accountability for the midwives overseeing them. The series, "Unaccountable," prompted at least six lawmakers to publicly announce their support for a bill regulating midwives in the state — which is one of about a dozen with no oversight of the practice. Earlier reporting resulted in the arrest of one Oklahoma midwife for practicing medicine without a license.
►The Sarasota Herald-Tribune exposed how Florida — home of the nation’s third largest prison system — offers virtually no meaningful education to inmates, despite overwhelming evidence that it is the strongest antidote to recidivism. The project, "Wasted Minds," prompted calls from the governor and several state lawmakers to increase funding for prison education programs by as much as 20%. The project also is now required reading at the University of Florida law school.
"Wasted Minds" is particularly important to us because we see our journalism as a lifeline to those incarcerated. More than 11,500 inmates receive USA TODAY in local, state and federal prisons.
►After a local judge sealed the entire case in North Carolina, The Fayetteville Observer sued to make public a civil lawsuit involving accusations of sexual abuse of minors by a prominent political figure and businessman. The fight took two years.
An appellate court sided with the newspaper and established a valuable legal precedent for the public's constitutional right to access court records in North Carolina. The unsealed records showed that the defendant agreed to pay more than $1.9 million to the boys' families and others.
►A nine-month investigation by the Courier-Journal documented the devastating influence of the growing Mexican drug Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación, aka CJNG, which has inundated small towns across the United States with tons of ultra pure fentanyl, heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine.
I spoke with a veteran investigative reporter in Mexico City who called the Courier-Journal series the most authoritative works done on the violent cartel — not easy when the Louisville reporting team learned that CJNG members were tracking the journalists as they traveled through Mexico.
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“Our series had been published on courierjournal.com for less than 24 hours when I heard from the president of a national foundation that praised our investigation," Editor Rick Green said. " ‘This is the kind of work that makes a difference in the lives of so many on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border, and we want to be part of it,’ she told us."
Green said this philanthropic support will allow his team to take its investigation international in 2020: "It’s further proof that high-quality journalism is needed, appreciated and delivers positive change in our communities."
Thank you once again for supporting our mission. Wishing you a wonderful 2020 and beyond.
Manny Garcia is USA TODAY's Standards Editor. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 1-800-872-7073.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Exposing drug cartels. Preventing hazing. Protecting children.