My Register Experience

Tragedy, Economic Collapse in Aftermath of “New Poverty” Story

Posted in Aftermath by Michael Bugeja on December 3, 2009

The death of an unemployed nurse who drove her SUV into Gray’s Lake Park and a predicted $1 billion shortfall in Iowa’s budget happened this week, reminding Michael Bugeja and Dennis Chamberlin of the power of Watergate-era street journalism.

There were upbeat developments as well, but we’ll mention those later.

In our Des Moines Register enterprise piece, “Scene’s from Iowa’s Recession,” we located the unemployed walking around Gray’s Lake in mild November weather that prevailed throughout last month. I interviewed a jobless registered nurse who requested that we not use her name.

This was not the same nurse who drove her GMC Jimmy into the lake and drowned in the vehicle on Monday morning. She was identified as Buffy Renee Lucas, 34.

This was at the same spot where Chamberlin and I did interviews. Here is a thumbnail of a copyrighted picture by the Register’s Rodney White whose powerful slideshow captured the unfolding drama.

You can read the full account in The Register.

Like Lucas, the nurse whom I interviewed was unemployed, hoping to start a new position that fell though. Lucas, however, also had received a foreclosure notice on Nov. 3, according to this Register follow-up by Tom Alex and L. Lars Hulsebus.

Sometimes, a dramatic narrative with visuals such as Chamberlin and I composed, creates a tipping point that sparks new disclosures. A week after our story ran in The Register, the state’s Legislative Services Agency announced the largest projected budget shortfall in Iowa’s history: $1 billion.

You can read about that in this report by The Register.

A genuine Watergate journalist, James Hill, managing editor of The Washington Post Writer’s Group, predicted our “New Poverty” piece would be a tipping point in a hitherto untold story about Iowans who played by all the rules, paid their mortgages, and lost their homes and careers. The day after our enterprise ran, he wrote, “I would hope the Register would assign a few reporters to do some follow-up.”

They did.

We’ll close with four upbeat follow-ups that also illustrate the importance of street reporting:

Douglas Steenblock, M.D., president-elect of the Iowa Psychiatric Society, wrote me that our project, which broke the news about record suicides in Iowa, made him think more deeply about unemployment and mental health. “I ended up contacting some of my mental health colleagues at Des Moines University,” he wrote. “We are having discussions about a program that could be sponsored jointly by the Iowa Psychiatric Society and DMU. It would be on a Saturday morning at DMU and would provide education and support to those who are struggling with the psychological consequences of unemployment.”

The CBS Evening News was to follow up with on one of our primary sources, Suzanne Hull, founder of Unemployed in Des Moines Web site. Hull informed us that she was to be interviewed by the network, with the segment to run on Dec. 4.

Our enterprise piece was the most trusted news article for a few days on the international journalism social network NewsTrust last week, a few points behind an article appearing in The Wall Street Journal and another by The Washington Post.

Encouragement from Randy Brubaker, managing editor of The Register, who guided Chamberlin and me so that we could live up to the highest standards of journalism:

“[Y]ou should be pleased to learn I’ve spoken with another woman today who, with a group of friends, took lunch to Gray’s Lake to homeless folks. She said she didn’t find many at the lake who were interested in accepting, so they took the meal to Bethel Mission. But they were inspired by your article to take action. That’s always rewarding for a journalist!”

The reward for Chamberlin and me was the opportunity that Brubaker provided, allowing us to perform as models for students and faculty of the Greenlee School, reminding colleagues throughout the campus and nation of journalism’s necessary place in academe and society.