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An investigative journalist was killed. What about his unfinished story?


When investigative reporter Jeff German was murdered in September, his colleagues at the Las Vegas Review-Journal were adamant that his stories would not die with him.

They plunged into the coverage of his death by stabbing outside his suburban home — and the complex saga of Robert Telles, the former Clark County clerk whose turbulent management style German had investigated and who was now in jail, charged with murder.

But there was another story German started just before his death. And when The Washington Post reached out to offer help, the Review-Journal editor had an idea: Could The Post help pull it off?

In early November, Post reporter Lizzie Johnson flew to Nevada to participate in a long and solemn journalism tradition. At the Review-Journal office she was handed a stack of pamphlets, neatly labeled in pink highlighter. German had written an outline for the story she would try to pursue.

“It was a no-brainer for me,” Johnson said. “I can’t imagine anything more meaningful than continuing the work of a dead journalist so that the story can live on even when they can’t.”

On Wednesday, Johnson’s collaboration with Review-Journal photographer Rachel Aston — who recounted how an alleged $500 million Ponzi scheme targeting Mormon investors ended in an armed standoff and gunfire on a desert mansion — was simultaneously published on the websites of both newspapers.

An alleged $500 million Ponzi scheme preyed on Mormons. It ended with FBI gunfire.

It was the latest project of journalists who have put aside the competitive pressures and their usual beats to finish the work of a fallen colleague.

In August 2007, Oakland Post editor Chauncey Bailey was shot while walking to work. He had reported on the troubled finances of a local company called Your Black Muslim Bakery; prosecutors would later say his murder was ordered to stop his reporting. Instead, three dozen people from California news organizations and journalism schools quickly gathered to wrap up his reporting. Their coalition, the Chauncey Bailey Project, received funding from major philanthropic and industry organizations.

“It was very chaotic at first,” said Thomas Peele, a veteran Bay Area journalist who later wrote a book about Bailey’s murder and was the project’s last full-time staffer by the time work stopped in 2011. The encounter was kind of a wet cat experience. But everyone agreed that we had to do something in response to Bailey’s murder.”

There were challenges. “Reporters and editors accustomed to competition, not collaboration, gritted their teeth and forced themselves, hesitant at first, to share their best sources and their best firsts with others,” group members wrote in a retrospective of the project.

Ultimately, Peele said, the project contributed to the arrest and indictment of two more people in addition to the man who had confessed to pulling the trigger. And it helped send a message that “if you kill one of us, a lot of us will show up and cover you a lot more than the one reporter could have.”

The Chauncey Bailey Project was modeled on the Arizona Project, which in 1976 brought together 38 journalists from 28 newspapers and TV stations across the country to complete the work of Arizona Republic investigative reporter Don Bolles, who was killed by a car bomb. life came while covering organized crime.

Bolles was a founding member of the Investigative Reporters and Editors group, and his fellow members wanted to send a message to those responsible for his death that despite the risks, journalists would not be deterred from pursuing similar stories. The collaboration eventually published more than 40 stories over 23 days in 1977.

Still, the joint effort was “extremely controversial,” according to IRE’s history of the project, and some major news organizations, including The Post and New York Times, declined to participate, alarmed by the idea of ​​reporters on a crusade.

“Critics called the IRE’s efforts everything from revenge journalism to vigilance,” according to a retrospective published in 2006 by Bolles’ former employer, the Arizona Republic, which chose not to publish the series at the last minute. The project even met opposition from the then senator. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), who viewed the journalists flocking to the state as carpetbaggers.

Peele said journalists who had worked on the Arizona project urged the Chauncey Bailey project to focus more closely on who was responsible for his murder — as some said they wish they had with the Bolles 30 years earlier. thing had done.

In 2017, French journalist Laurent Richard launched the non-profit organization Forbidden Stories to stand up against censorship by forming coalitions of journalists to complete the work of those who had been killed or imprisoned. The first project focused on the work of Daphne Caruana Galizia, a Maltese journalist who was killed by a car bomb in 2017. With 45 journalists from 15 countries and 18 news organisations, “The Daphne Project” published stories following its coverage of a “passports for sale” program in Malta and other acts of official corruption in the country.

“Collaboration makes sense because first and foremost, collaboration is protection,” said Richard. “If you show that you are not alone, then there is no point in killing your journalist if you know that 50 others will continue his work.”

The organization also provides journalists with a platform to store sensitive investigations and reports, with the understanding that their work product will continue in the event that they are killed. About 50 journalists have uploaded their ongoing investigations, Richard said. “It could be a deterrent,” he said. “Of course it’s not a guarantee.”

One of the journalists using the service was Rafael Emiro Moreno, who had extensively covered political corruption and illegal arms trafficking in his native Colombia. On October 16, he was killed by two attackers. “The Rafael Project” was launched eight days later, as a collaboration between his colleagues and other journalists in Colombia and abroad.

How a newsroom in Las Vegas tried to solve the murder of a colleague

When Lizzie Johnson arrived in Las Vegas last fall, she was surprised to see Jeff German’s desk—surprisingly neat for an investigative reporter.

The pages of the file his colleagues gave her were neatly aligned and stapled in the corner. “That was the first time he really really felt for me,” she recalled this week, “holding his work and seeing how he carried it.”

Johnson said she tried to continue the story with German’s rigor and passion, but shrank from emulating his style, “because then I would have been rendered incapable by the anguish of it all.” She spent a week in Las Vegas trying to find sources to go on the record. “I would find myself in these idle moments where I thought, I wonder how Jeff would have handled this.”

But she could hear his voice: As she drove through Nevada, she listened to a podcast, “Mobbed Up,” in which German told stories about organized crime in the 1970s and 1980s.

After her story was published, she was pleased with the response from his former colleagues and sources, who praised her for the work and said German would have been proud. Still, she said, “I wish he could have lived to do this story himself.”

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