In the Spotlight: Amanda Podgorny, Northern Star, NIU

According to Amanda Podgorny, The Northern Star at Northern Illinois University sports a handful of student journalists known simply as “the muckrakers.” “During any given school year, you will see the Star break anywhere from two to five in-depth investigative stories that the local papers seem to be lacking,” said Podgorny.  “These people take their roles as watchdogs very seriously, and continue to file FOIA after FOIA to get all the facts.”

Podgorny is a star muckraker for the Star.  One of her highest-profile investigations launched last fall- sparked by a single concerned citizen and centered on a DeKalb, Ill., alderman and a possibly shady series of business contracts with the city which he serves.  For her FOIAwesomeness (yes, I went there) and general journalistic passion, Podgorny rightfully earns a place in the CMM Student Journalist Spotlight.

Below, she recalls the camp that sparked her j-love and the alderman contracts story that tested her reporting mettle and document digging and requesting skills.

How did you become interested in journalism?

My initial reaction to this question: I suck at math and science. :-)  In all seriousness, I attended a journalism camp the summer before my senior year of high school.  The only reason I applied for the camp was because I wanted to be the editor in chief of my high school newspaper and this would help my chances.

Journalism had never even crossed my mind as a career option, mostly because I did not realize there were people actually getting paid to write the articles I saw in the newspaper and online.  I was accepted into the camp, and it was free for me thanks to the Illinois Press Foundation and the Dow Jones Newspaper Fund.  I spent two weeks of my summer learning journalism.  In the second week of camp, we went to different newspapers and shadowed real journalists.

During the camp, we put out a total of three newspapers to show that we actually learned something.  I went back to my high school, landed the EIC position, and  was miserable.  While I had spent the summer learning everything our newspaper was doing wrong (the whole paper was an editorial), the rest of the staff could not wait to write about their favorite memories or favorite songs of the summer.  I could not get anyone to follow AP Style, or even comprehend what it was, so I just laid low for awhile.  Needless to say, I have no clips from The Devil’s Advocate in my portfolio. I started college in August 2007, and landed an interview at the Northern Star during the second week of classes.  I have been running with the big dogs of journalism ever since.

Why does the Northern Star rock?

We have an entire staff of awesome, passionate journalists working to put out a paper every day, striving to make it better than the last.  Our adviser, Jim, is always there to offer suggestions and guidance on any topic- whether it be design advice, a roadblock with a source or where we should go for lunch.  Students are taking anywhere from six to 20 credit hours and still managing to put out one of the top college newspapers in the country.  Another thing that really makes the Northern Star staff stand out is our involvement within the city of DeKalb.  Yes, we are a campus newspaper, but it’s not our only focus.  We are in direct competition with the local newspaper to see who can put out the news first, and see who does it better.  To sum it all up, we are full-time working journalists who just happen to still be in school.  We do it all, and we do it damn well.

How did you first become curious about the alderman contracts story?

The story came my way via a concerned citizen.  My city council reporter received a phone call one night around 5:30 p.m., right when I was coming out of budget.  He was talking to the citizen, when suddenly I heard the words that mean you are about to hear something really good or get yelled at: “Umm, let me get you my editor.”  I took the call, and that’s when the concerned citizen gave me the run-through.  We met at the Founders Memorial Library on campus about an hour after she called me so I could meet with her in person and talk to her about the situation and her concerns.  Basically, one of her rituals was to look through the city’s check register and look up who the city had been writing checks to.  She just happened to find that the city was writing checks to a company owned by an alderman.  She did not know where to go next, so she turned to us.

My job was then to get all the documents I could to prove this claim to be true. Once I gathered all the documents I requested, I was able to see the story clearly. The basics: a company owned by an alderman was receiving contracts to do masonry work downtown.  At the time, there were no city ordinances banning this, or really saying anything about it, other than if there is a conflict of interest, they must abstain from a vote.  The city attorney apparently told the alderman and city manager that she did not see any conflict of interest, so he was awarded the contracts.

No one knew about the alderman doing the work in the city except for him- and the city- even though he was being paid with TIF (tax increment funding) money, which comes from DeKalb taxpayers.  Also, Illinois state law says that if a project is under $20,000, it can be approved by the city manager without being presented to the city council.  All the alderman’s projects totaled around $50,000, but no single project was more than $20,000, so it never went to council (although there is speculation that the city did this intentionally).

Obviously as a college journalist I was excited to work on a story that would potentially make a real impact.  I was used to covering meetings and writing features, but this- this was big, and I knew it.  One thing that really got me working extra fast was the citizen’s words to me: “I told the other local paper about this, and they didn’t seem very interested, so I came to you.”  This was a chance to prove that the Northern Star is the real deal.  The next day I filed my Freedom of Information Act requests, and waited.

What was the key to breaking the story, and did you run into any roadblocks along the way?

The city pulled a fast one on me, and I can’t say that I was happy about it. The city decided to put out a press release saying that it would be talking about its policy on awarding alderman city contracts (I wonder where that idea came from?) on the same day I received my last FOIA back.  I had a leg up on the local paper because I had all the documents I needed in order to add some background to the story, but I was still a little bummed.  I was able to catch the city manager before he left the office, and after I had asked him all the interview questions, I asked why the city decided to put out this press release about a topic that would look totally random to the community.  His response?  “Your requests.  How did you find out about this?” When I told him that someone had come to me with a concern, and wouldn’t give him a name, he hung up on me.

What’s your advice for j-students who want to similarly do some digging and be an investigative reporter extraordinaire?

My advice to other j-students is to listen to people within the community.  Try and see what their concerns and thoughts are on issues within the area.  Most of the time it will just be people blowing off steam, but every once in awhile you will find a diamond in the rough.  Once you have that lead on a story, you have to know how to clean it up and make it something great.

Do not be afraid to stir something up.  As journalists, it is our job to make sure the people in charge know that we are watching their every move.  I think that sometimes, because we are still in school, people in positions of power discount our ability and will give us the run-around.  So make sure you know what you are looking for.  It also helps to know the laws (FOIA and OMA), so when they say you can’t have a document because it would take too much time to copy, or that it will cost you $500 to get the copy, you can recite the law and catch them in not only a lie, but a violation of the law.

Also, student journalists need to take advantage of their school newspapers.  The newspaper industry is not dying, but it sure is changing.  When j-students graduate, they are expected to have several skills.  I am graduating in December and I am trying to learn all aspects of the newsroom before then.  I am learning design, how to post things online, and how to edit and shoot video, on top of the skills I already have.  Take advantage of the opportunities to learn these skills while you still can because once you get into the working world, they will expect you to do it all, and might not be so friendly if you mess something up.

You wake up in ten years.  Where are you and what are you doing?

I hope to be a successful journalist at a fairly large daily newspaper.  I am not aiming for the New York Times in ten years, but  something like the Chicago Tribune would be nice.  Honestly, I will be happy wherever I am, as long as I am able to put out news that people care about.  In ten years, I want to be the journalist who has 1,000 comments on every story she writes.  That way, I know people are reading my work and that I am indirectly making a difference in the community, wherever that may be.

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