In the spring, following a two-year investigation, The Spokesman-Review reported that Spokane Mayor Jim West:
Allegedly molested two or more young boys while serving as a deputy sheriff and Boy Scout leader nearly 30 years ago.
Had, as a long-time legislative leader and powerful Republican, pursued an antigay agenda while living a secret life as a gay man.
Admitted to trolling for young men on an Internet Web site, even going so far as to offer benefits and a city hall internship to an online correspondent who was actually a computer forensic specialist hired by the newspaper to confirm the mayor’s online activities.
The stories were predictably explosive. In the days prior to publication, Spokesman-Review editors decided readers would need considerably more information than traditional news reporting would allow.
We knew the mayor would come after the newspaper with every tool in his considerable political arsenal. Our defense, we decided, would be full disclosure, up front, of the information underlying our stories. We concluded total transparency would allow readers to review all of the material with which we were dealing so that they could decide for themselves if we had been fair to the mayor, if we were contextually accurate as well as factually accurate, if, in short, we were credible.
To accomplish this, we posted on our Web site (www.spokesmanreview.com) vast quantities of material—full transcripts of all conversations the mayor had with our computer consultant who was presenting himself as a 17-year-old high school student, full transcripts of all interviews with the mayor and his chief accusers, full written and audio transcripts of the mayor’s response to our stories, news conferences, etc., PDF copies of all official documents and reports used in our reporting, and so on. We even posted my raw notes from an early Sunday morning conversation I had with the mayor when he called me to tearfully explain his hellish life as a closeted, conflicted and now accused gay man.
This unprecedented opening of our raw reporting materials achieved its purpose. The lengthy transcript of the key interview between West and our investigative reporters attracted nearly 7,000 unique page views outside our subscriber firewall. The transcripts of his conversations with our consultant, using the screen name Moto-Brock, attracted 34,000 views. PDF documents attracted 6,000 and audio transcripts and clips another 19,000. In all, the West materials drew 519,000 unique page views outside our subscriber firewall in the two months following initial publication on May 5, 2005. Statistics for subscriber views are still being tabulated as I write this.
Again and again readers told us how much they appreciated seeing the background material. Some readers still disagreed with our reporting, disputed our conclusions, or attacked our methodology. But they did so with full knowledge of what we had done. A great many more reviewed the background and told us they had a better appreciation for our reporters’ work.
Did our strategy provide the desired defense against the mayor’s attacks?
In a publicity blitz in late June, aimed at turning his political crisis into an anti-Spokesman campaign, the mayor denied, among other things, ever offering Moto-Brock a city hall internship in return for a sexual relationship. The transcripts, he said flatly, showed the consultant had raised the issue first and had sought the internship.
Unfortunately for the mayor, our readers knew otherwise. In a subsequent fact-checking story, we were able to point them to all of the points in the conversations where the internship was discussed, showing, without a doubt, that the mayor was the voice behind the offer and the aggressor in pursuing the relationship.
This experiment in newsroom transparency does not mean we’ll routinely post the raw material behind our stories. But it shows that in some cases and, when it matters most, such practices can enhance credibility. We can live with that.