By: Nu Yang
When the Gannett Wisconsin Media Investigative Team was created in 2012, team editor John Ferak’s vision was to build a platform for the 10 Gannett markets in the state that would not only raise awareness, but also raise the bar for investigative reporting. He put together a team comprised of two full-time reporters and recruited reporters from Gannett-owned state papers to contribute. Ferak is based at the Appleton Post-Crescent.
It was in Appleton that Ferak came up with the idea of a series focused on cold cases in Wisconsin. Titled “Cold Cases: Tracking Wisconsin’s Unsolved Murders,” the series launched July 14 and wrapped up on Sept. 8. It can be found at postcrescent.com/coldcases.
In March, Ferak started to brainstorm and form an outline for the series. He said he made it a point to visit all the Gannett sites to meet with the paper’s editor and reporter. From there, he was able to sell the project early on, which was critical to the series’ success. “Even though there are 10 different papers, we were all doing the same thing,” he said.
The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism in Madison also partnered with the team, contributing two stories.
Originally conceived as a six-week project, Ferak scaled it back to four consecutive weeks. Each week, an unsolved murder was spotlighted. Ferak said he left it up to each individual paper to select the case. Stories were published in print on Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday, totaling 12 stories overall. In addition, the series incorporated video interviews, live online chats, photo galleries and an unsolved murders database with cases dating as far back as 1926.
The database was a crucial component of the project. “We knew it was either to make or break the project,” Ferak said. “We needed an ingredient that would push the envelope and take investigative reporting to the next level.”
According to Ferak, Wisconsin, like many other states, does not have a centralized database for unsolved murders. The I-Team’s database currently profiles almost 400 cases, and Ferak said there are plans to maintain and update the database.
During the series, Ferak said they achieved good cooperation from law enforcement and families. “Between 80 to 90 percent of families wanted to talk,” he said. “They don’t want people to forget the case and they want to keep the pressure on cops.”
So far, the series has sparked several tips, but Ferak said, “Only time will tell if this series will make a major impact. Our goal is to see a handful of these cases over the next few years result in arrests or to get solved.