A tough year for the mainstream media. But is watchdog journalism really dead?

A tough year for the mainstream media. But is watchdog journalism really dead?

2009 was a brutal year for the Express-News. We lost a third of the newsroom in March from painful layoffs, and the exodus of talent was demoralizing, there’s no way to sugarcoat it. Even after the layoffs, we’re still occasionally losing bright journalists who don’t see much of a future in mainstream news.

They might be right for leaving and I might be an idiot for staying. But right now, I still see the Express-News as a place that gives reporters a chance to do good work.

It seems like every day I read an online comment accusing the mainstream media of abandoning watchdog journalism. But at the Express-News, we still have a crew of skilled journalists who are paid full-time salaries to dig up stories that tell readers what’s really going on in the city. That’s huge.

Take a look at these headlines published in 2009:

  • La Villita for sale: Reporter Guillermo Garcia revealed how the city was privately discussing a plan to sell two historic icons in downtown San Antonio: La Villita and Market Square. After a public outcry, the city backed off the deal.
  • Missing police reports

  • Brian Chasnoff unearthed stories about missing police reports at the San Antonio Police Department; a speeding police officer who crashed into citizens; and officers who shot at moving vehicles, creating dangerous situations if the driver is incapacitated. He also learned that an officer of the department’s elite Tactical Response Unit was suspected of driving drunk and wrecking an undercover police car. The scandals have prompted a top-to-bottom review of the department.
  • Top salaries and overtime at City Hall: Greg Jefferson and Kelly Guckian analyzed a city payroll database and discovered which employees were paid the most in salaries and overtime. The database was posted online for everyone to search.
  • Left at bus station, mental patient dies: Karisa King and I examined the little-known practice by state psychiatric hospitals of dropping off mental patients at bus depots to find their own way home. One patient, Raquel Padilla, was dropped off at the Greyhound station downtown and given a ticket to Laredo. Three days later, she was found dead.

    The story prompted new, potentially life-saving legislation authored by state Sen. Carlos Uresti, D-San Antonio, that requires hospitals to draw up specific transportation plans for their patients, to make sure they get home safely.

  • Tax exemptions for … miniature donkeys? This year Karisa also delved into the murky world of property appraisals in Bexar County, and how agricultural valuations are used as a way to drastically reduce taxes on property. Analyzing county data, Karisa found the case of a wealthy couple who received a tax break for raising a herd of miniature donkeys on their estate, and how the controversial site of the PGA Village golf course sought a tax break by claiming the course served as a wildlife refuge. The county’s database of property appraisal protests was posted online for readers.
  • Ambulance chasing thrives: We’ve all heard of ambulance chasers — lawyers who hound accident victims in an attempt to drum up new clients. But this fascinating story by John MacCormack names names and goes into great detail about how ambulance chasing is actually done — and how the accident victims end up losing.
  • Trouble at the Alamo: Scott Huddleston revealed how the Daughters of the Republic of Texas, the caretakers of the Alamo, have been feuding over fundraising disputes, causing some members to form a splinter group. Scott wrote a cool story by doing what reporters are supposed to do — following the money — and looked at how the Daughters spent funds raised from license plate sales. It turns out the Alamo received a relatively small portion of that money.
  • Dead by Mistake: The Express-News assisted in a nationwide investigation of fatal medical errors. Hearst-owned news organizations across the United States spent months investigating a little-known problem that plagues the health-care system: “Every year approximately 200,000 Americans die from preventable medical errors and healthcare-associated infections as tools to fight these needless deaths go unused at many hospitals.”

    The project has its own Web site, Twitter account, Facebook page and YouTube channel, and reporters are still tracking the issue with follow-up stories.

  • Theme park injuries go unreported

  • Amusement ride injuries go unreported: I found a unique database kept by state officials that tracks injuries that occur at Texas carnivals and theme parks. We posted the data online, published a story about injuries that went untold, and examined the woes of Kiddie Park, where aging rides have literally fallen apart with children inside. (The park was closed when the story was published and Kiddie Park is now under new ownership.)
  • Unregulated puppy mills: The media is often accused — and rightly so — of publishing too many stories about cute fluffy animals. But Brian Chasnoff found a puppy story with some teeth. Brian investigated unregulated “puppy mills” run by breeders who sell sick animals to unsuspecting buyers. The story revealed how there’s little anyone can do to prevent the practice. “Populated by cash-hungry breeders and brokers, the puppy industry grinds on across Texas, unburdened by laws that would ensure the health of its stock,” Brian wrote. It’s a heart-breaking read.
  • Developers vs. the U.S. Army: We’ve written a lot of stories about the conflict between the U.S. Army’s Camp Bullis, and the real estate developers who want to develop new neighborhoods nearby. A tiny, endangered bird called the golden-cheeked warbler is caught in the middle of the squabble. Josh Baugh found out a San Antonio lobbyist was behind an effort to amend the Texas Constitution and allow investment zones near military bases — including Camp Bullis. Baugh’s article revealed local officials didn’t want the amendment to pass.
  • Hard times hit home in San Antonio: My girlfriend Jennifer Hiller has been covering the wave of foreclosures that swept across San Antonio this year. Analyzing foreclosure data, she told the human toll of the housing crisis, and maps ran with her story showing the hardest-hit areas of the city.
  • Mexican immigrants denied sanctuary from drug war: Todd Bensman revealed how U.S. immigration judges have denied sanctuary to immigrants fleeing the drug war in Mexico. “‘The government is fighting them tooth and nail,’ said El Paso lawyer Carlos Spector, who has lost several cases, including one by a police officer who arrived in El Paso with eight fresh bullet wounds.”
  • Southwest Airlines ticket scandal: Guillermo Contreras covered an unusual scandal at the Bexar County courthouse: Thousands of stolen airline tickets were sold at a discount to county employees — including judges and other public officials. Guillermo obtained a database of ticket purchases showing which employees bought stolen tickets, how much the tickets were worth, and where the employees flew. The database was posted online for readers to examine themselves and understand the sheer scale of the operation.
  • Uncovering an “embarrassing” arsenic problem at UTSA: Education Writer Melissa Ludwig found a story that the University of Texas at San Antonio would prefer go untold — elevated levels of arsenic at a campus greenhouse. Internal e-mails Melissa obtained show the school viewed the arsenic problem as “an embarrassing public relations problem” for the university. The problems were laid bare on the newspaper’s front page.
  • CPS Energy’s nuclear plans fizzle: A team of reporters spent months examining CPS Energy’s controversial proposal to expand the South Texas Project nuclear plant in Matagorda County. Anton Caputo and Tracy Idell Hamilton have led the coverage with scoop after scoop about the real costs of the project, and how CPS kept them hidden from the public. The newspaper set up a Web page where readers could check out online resources and the latest stories about the controversy.
  • I’m not here to be a cheerleader for every decision made by the Express-News or its parent company, Hearst Corp. I’m personally frustrated by the glacial pace of change at the paper — we don’t even have an iPhone app yet, for crying out loud.

    But this is still a newspaper that publishes hard-hitting investigative stories that truly make a difference. As long as it remains that kind of paper, my New Year’s resolution is this: I’m going to try to stick it out.