Non-profit center, IowaWatch, launches with report on fall missing person tragedy

Lyle Muller
Published: May 28 2010 | 2:53 pm - Updated: 31 March 2014 | 1:50 am in
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UPDATED May 29, 2010

The front page of today's Gazette has a special report on how police, the University of Iowa and even news outlets like The Gazette did not respond full speed to a missing person report last fall about a UI student from Haiti.

Sadly, Jacques Similhomme went to Cedar Rapids and killed himself, a medical examiner investigation found. But a report by James Malewitz, a UI master's candidate in journalism, explains how the response to Similhomme's missing person's report varied from that of other recent disappearances -- notably of Iowa State University student Jon Lacina.

Malewitz wrote a series of articles for IowaWatch.org, a news service started this year by two people with UI ties and concerned about the future of public affairs journalism – Stephen Berry and Robert Gutsche Jr.

The non-profit news service comes from the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism. Others have joined the effort, including Bill Casey, publisher of the Daily Iowan so long he was there when I was a reporter learning some skills at the place; and Erin Jordan, a former Gazette investigative reporter who moved to the Des Moines Register before becoming a victim of newsroom budget cuts there the past year and a half.

Leaders at the center hope young journalists can collaborate with news organizations to produce in-depth stories that shrunken reporting staffs tackle with less frequency now that the resources have been cut.

The Gazette is the center’s first partner to publish an IowaWatch story. GazetteOnline has special content, too, now, with video and other added features.

I see the center as a resource providing public affairs and investigative reporting that can supplement what Gazette Communications reporters produce. In the meantime, young journalists get to see published important information that they have learned and reported.

News consumers should be the winners here because of the focus on journalism.

Berry, Gutsche and the rest are doing this because they feel public affairs journalism is vital in order to keep people informed; the center is not affiliated with the UI.  The center charges nothing for its stories, which any news outlet may publish and when IowaWatch is ready to post on its website, you may read or view it simply by clicking in .

“We’ve got some good stuff,” Berry, a UI associate professor of journalism and the center's interim executive director, says. Berry is a capable judge of “good stuff.” He won a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting in 1993 with Jeff Brazil at the Orlando Sentinel for exposing a Volusia County, Fla., sheriff’s drug squad that targeted minorities while seizing money unjustly from Interstate 95 motorists.

Gutsche is a UI doctoral student who has been a freelance writer for publications like the Milwaukee Journal Sentinal, Chicago Tribune, Washington Post and New York Times.

Malewitz has been working on the Similhomme story for some time. He sent me a note about it last fall and submitted something but it was too long and had some holes to fill so we didn’t publish it. Still, he kept after it, filling the holes and rewriting with Berry’s help. I told Berry earlier this year we still were interested in the story.

Opportunities

Other students with important stories to tell, from the UI but also from other universities and colleges in Iowa, can have that opportunity through the Iowa Center for Public Affairs Journalism, Berry says. They will work with professional editors who challenge their work so that it is ready for something far beyond a letter grade on a classroom paper – general public consumption that stands the tests of accuracy, fairness and relevance.

“The goal is to subject these students to really tough professional editing they can’t get in journalism school,” Berry says.

Supporting the effort

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism has agreed to be a sponsor for the Iowa center. Its site, www.WisconsinWatch.org, has stories about underreported sexual assaults on college campuses and an increase in suicides in Wisconsin. Its series on the political dilemma immigrant dairy farm workers have handed lawmakers friendly to the industry but not to immigration reform is a collaboration with Capitol News Connection. That’s the Washington, D.C., non-profit The Gazette recently signed with for coverage from Capitol Hill.

Eventually the Iowa center will present its work online at its Web site, www.IowaWatch.org/ The site has information about the effort but posting stories will wait until legal paperwork –libel insurance, for example – is in place. Berry hopes stories start appearing on the site this fall.

In the meantime, we expect to see more stories from IowaWatch in The Gazette and also other newspapers and Web news sources in Iowa.

Have you found an error or omission in our reporting? Is there other feedback and/or ideas you want to share with us? Tell us here.

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