Investigative Journalism Still Thriving in Albany

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By: Joe Strupp

(Feature report from E&P’s March print issue) Brendan Lyons knew at least a week in advance that one of the biggest steroid-connected raids ever was set to go down at a Florida drug center on Feb. 27, 2007. So when a law enforcement task force closed in on Signature Pharmacy in Orlando that morning, Lyons — an investigative reporter — and two photographers were waiting nearby in a rental car with a full view of the proceedings.

After the Orlando Metropolitan Bureau of Investigation completed its work, Lyons — who had written most of his story beforehand — finalized the report and broke the story on his paper’s Web site. The scoop included details of the yearlong investigation into Internet-based steroid sales; names of athletes, such as Los Angeles Angels star Gary Matthews Jr., and entertainers among the accused buyers; and the revelation that millions of dollars in performance-enhancing substances were being illegally sold online, nationwide.

But Lyons, 43, is not from a local Florida daily or a national newspaper like The New York Times. He hails from the Times Union in Albany, N.Y. — the 90,216-circulation daily based about 1,000 miles north of the Sunshine State that has no bureaus close to Florida and boasts just a two-person investigative unit.

So how did this lone journalist from a mid-sized, out-of-state paper beat all the local and national powerhouses on such a major story? And perhaps more importantly, why did he bother?

The answer lies in the origins of the 2006 steroid case, which actually began in the Albany County District Attorney’s Office — a place Lyons knows well from years of crime reporting for the TU. As the investigation led to Florida and several other states, Lyons was well-positioned to get advance word of the raid. Since then, he has broken multiple follows, including a report in January revealing that numerous stars, from singers Mary J. Blige and 50 Cent to Danny Bonaduce, were linked to the pharmacy.

“There was a lot of stuff we published on Page One that I think was a surprise to even the officials involved,” Editor Rex Smith says about the steroid blockbusters.

But Lyons’ steroid reports are not the only investigative stories the Times Union has broken in recent years. The paper has also uncovered an underground weapons operation involving local police officers; exposed a state practice of granting parole to violent offenders in an effort to keep prison populations down; and detailed a longtime congressman’s domestic violence dispute, a revelation many believe helped lead to his defeat in the 2006 election.

“The investigative projects have been stellar,” says Cailin Brown, a journalism instructor at the nearby College of Saint Rose, “particularly the work they did on the state legislature.”

Along with this investigative push, the TU has recently refocused on making its front page more local. On most days, all four stories on Page One are of a regional nature. Circulation officials credit that local push — as well as a string of distribution and marketing efforts — for the paper’s Sunday circulation increases, as well as a daily single-copy boost and retention rates that most newspapers would envy. Says Circulation Director John DeAugustine: “We have made changes to focus on what our customers want.”

The Times Union may not have the circulation of its larger Hearst Newspapers brethren in San Francisco, Seattle, or Houston — but from its two-story building on the outskirts of New York’s capital city, the daily has certainly aimed high.

Situated just a stone’s throw from busy Interstate 87, the paper’s large windows are covered top to bottom by a white, concrete facade that allows limited views in or out. One myth holds that Hearst officials built the stone-like wall around the place in the 1970s after Patty Hearst was kidnapped, to guard against any terrorist actions.

Editor Rex Smith’s glass-walled office sits in the middle of the first-floor newsroom, providing easy access to him for those seeking his guidance and allowing him to be close to staffers. On the day of E&P’s visit, a small meeting table with a bowl of oranges sits a few feet from his desk, and a rack of national and local competing dailies rests against one wall.

As a mid-sized paper, the Times Union truly must balance its print-edition and Web reporting, Smith believes. While the daily 3:30 p.m. news meeting is spent mostly discussing front-page stories and layouts, more and more staffers are moving on to Web stories in a conscious effort to bolster the online side.

“The push really began in the spring of ’06,” the editor says of his paper’s Web expansion. With its 134-person news staff essentially unchanged in recent years (losing just five people since 2004), Smith says, “We have started bringing in some people earlier; our first person starts at 7:30 a.m. But we will probably move that to 6 a.m.” The TU also launched an intensive video training program, with an eye toward enabling every news staffer to shoot content for the Web.

News meetings are more open than ever, with readers welcomed and usually in attendance about 25% of the time. “One time we had a high school student who offered a story idea that we had missed,” Smith notes. “It ended up on the front page.”

During one news meeting in late January, about a dozen editors gathered around the large, wooden conference table. After some noshing on leftover birthday cake, talk turned to a review of that day’s paper, with Smith commending the lead state budget story but noting that some of the Page One teasers could have been bigger. Top stories under consideration for the next day ranged from a local murder mystery being solved to a man whose $5,000 Rolex watch was accidentally lost in the garbage and retrieved by alert sanitation workers. Smith later offered his own Rolex for the Page One generic photo used with the story.

After a brief discussion, the editor surveyed the room for Page One choices, later deciding on his own what to spotlight. He and two other editors then sketched different layout ideas for the front page. “Most readers use us as a source for regional news — not hyper-local,” observes Managing Editor Mary Fran Gleason.

Investigative Packs a Punch
Ask anyone in the Times-Union newsroom why the paper has been on such an investigative spree, and all fingers point to one man: Bob Port. At 52, the senior editor/investigative brings more than 20 years of news experience, spanning Newsday, the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, and even the short-lived but much-praised APBNews.com, which enjoyed a brief life online before the dot.com bubble burst.

Calm but direct, Port was brought in less than three years ago as part of a Hearst- wide effort to encourage more investigative reporting. Editor Smith says the chain offered to fund one new investigative journalist at each of the company’s top five papers for one year. Smith, a veteran newsman and fan of investigative work himself, took the offer — and has kept Port on the payroll. “Not only is investigative reporting the right thing to do, but it is also good business,” says Smith. “What separates us from other online sites, for me, is the state, local, and investigative reporting.”

Port, who directs two investigative reporters from a small, windowless office just off the paper’s first-floor newsroom, says he began such work while serving in the U.S. Air Force from 1977 to 1981. He admits to feeding information to The Washington Post that helped break stories about CIA operations in Honduras. “I said a lot of stuff, and I am sure I could have been court-martialed at the time,” he says. “I am proud today that I helped.” Years later, he was among those involved in the Associated Press’ controversial No Gun Ri coverage that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for disclosing how American soldiers massacred hundreds of refugees early in the Korean War.

Early on at the TU, Port chose to dig in deep on what turned out to be a sensitive story involving the divorce of state senate majority leader Joseph Bruno’s son, Ken. The messy breakup included allegations of the son pulling a gun on his wife, having an affair, and cutting off money to her. “The publisher’s phone began to ring when we started to ask questions,” Port recalls. “Joe Bruno tried to get the story shut down.”

The resulting report focused mostly on a questionable $50,000 payment Bruno made to his father, with the divorce downplayed. “It triggered an incredibly negative reaction from the business community here,” says Port.

Eventually, Port got reporters to pursue other investigative stories. One result was a 2006 series on groundwater toxins that revealed areas with high levels of the gasoline additive methyl tertiary butyl ether (MTBE). It included an online component offering maps of specific contaminated sites. “It was the first, full-blown, professional investigative effort the Times Union had done,” Port says. The reporting, led by Matt Pacenza, inspired outcry for a cleanup.

Port’s involvement in the newsroom is not limited to his own reporters: He regularly assists those on numerous beats. “He is a wiz with documents and public records, and he advises me on all of that stuff,” says reporter Marc Parry, who joined the paper in 2005. He cited Port’s help with a 2006 series on questionable financial dealings by the local Episcopal Diocese: “He knows the [FOIA] laws so well, he could be a lawyer.”

Dig Deeper? No Problem
Port’s right-hand man has been Lyons, one of his two investigative unit scribes who has spent nearly 10 years at the Times Union building sources through his police- related beats while digging up documents and working leads. “I spent 17 years of my career cranking out stories. Now I may spend months working on one story without a byline,” Lyons says during a chat in the paper’s lunchroom. “If you carve out the ability for a reporter to take the time it takes, it pays results.”

One sleuthing effort resulted in his 2007 report on a group of Albany police officers illegally obtaining guns for personal use. The story began when Lyons looked into a lawsuit involving a local gun shop; a few FOIA requests and some source work later, and Lyons broke the story that at least 30 to 40 cops were involved.

That’s not to say Lyons, who previously worked at The Post-Star in Glens Falls, N.Y., is not also working on daily stories. During the cafeteria discussion, he stopped several times to check a Blackberry for updates on a rumor that the police and fire chiefs had gotten into a tussle at a local tavern. “They’ve gone at it before,” he remarks.

The paper received a tip in January 2006 that Rep. John Sweeney, a four-term Republican, had been the subject of a police call to his home for alleged domestic violence. Without documentation or other confirmation the paper couldn’t report it, but reporters worked leads for months. Finally, in October of that year, just days before Sweeney faced re-election, the paper obtained copies of the police report. “It came to me in an envelope,” Smith says. “I knew who gave it to me, but I didn’t know who gave it to my source.”

Lyons dug further into the story and discovered that police had been called to Sweeney’s home the previous December, where he allegedly abused his wife. Sweeney was never charged in the incident, but he lost re-election four days later, and the couple later broke up.

Less than a week after that Election Day, Sweeney was arrested for drunk driving during an incident in which a 24-year-old woman was found lying on his lap. Then, just last December, Sweeney was accused of failing to pay an $80 cab fare for a ride home from a gentlemen’s club. No charges were filed after he later paid the cab company, which chose not to file a complaint.

The Times Union never identified the woman in the drunk-driving incident — and received both praise and criticism for withholding her name. “She was not charged with anything, and we felt she was just not involved in this at all,” editor Smith says of the decision. “Her only mistake was getting in the car with a drunk ex-congressman.”

Anatomy Of A Scoop
But Lyon’s biggest scoops to date have been his steroids work, which dates back more than a year and was a result of both sourcing and document research. The story began in 2006 when reports surfaced of people being arrested and arraigned in Albany for “diversion of prescribed medicine” — which he calls “a very unique charge.”

For weeks, Lyons dug into the story, utilizing tips and law enforcement files. It turned out the Albany district attorney had gotten involved in 2005 after a Rome, N.Y., doctor was alleged to be prescribing drugs from his home without face-to-face consultations. “He told them about this world that they didn’t really know anything about,” Lyons says of the investigators. He learned that the district attorney’s probe was spreading beyond the Albany area to places like Queens, N.Y., and even a Houston “anti-aging wellness center.”

“I approached the DA, and he put me off for a while,” Lyons says. “Then he explained that they were in the throes of a multi-state investigation that would resonate from that office.”

Further digging found that the Orlando site was next. “I started working sources to find out as much as I could,” he says. “I found out that some celebrity athletes were involved.” Names such as boxer Evander Holyfield arose, and Lyons learned a big raid was in the works. But he did not report it, as investigators requested he hold off.

“I thought it was no different than being embedded with a military unit that was going to raid Kirkuk tomorrow,” Lyons says. “The pitch was, ‘If you publish it, they could potentially destroy records and computer files.'” Then Lyons learned that Sports Illustrated was also on the story. “I knew they were being given the same request to hold off,” he recalls. “And the clock was ticking.

“We knew some things and could have moderately reported it,” Port adds. “But if we had done it, we would have ruined their investigative plans, and they made a case that was true. The deal was, when it happened, we would report the heck out of it.”

While waiting for word from the authorities, Lyons traveled to Florida and spent a week poking around the Signature Pharmacy and another alleged hot spot, Palm Beach Rejuvenation Center. “It was a boiler room, kids in a sweatshop,” he says. Spending time at the sites, Lyons familiarized himself with details of the two locales, even noting which cars the top executives drove.

After the bust Lyons followed up with stories on every aspect of the investigation, from arrests to Cleveland Indians pitcher Paul Byrd’s admission he had taken Human Growth Hormone purchased from the facility. The paper’s work on the case made some stories easier to get, but also produced a backlash. “It actually got harder because the local media accused [investigators] of playing favorites, giving us the story,” he says. “And that isn’t what happened. Because of that intense blowback, law enforcement pulled back.”

But Lyons persevered and continued to break stories in the probe, among them the nationally recognized Jan. 13, 2008, disclosure that such non-athletes as singer Wyclef Jean and award-winning author/producer Tyler Perry were linked to the scandal. “Brendan is an amazing reporter,” says Port. “Maybe the best I’ve ever had work for me.”

Keeping Pressure on the Pols
In downtown Albany, it is somewhat appropriate that the Times Union Center arena, re-named for the paper under a 10-year, $3.5 million agreement, is located within clear view of the state capitol, almost keeping watch on the state officials doing business in the ornate, castle-like building. Along the capitol’s third-floor press row, high above Nelson A. Rockefeller Empire State Plaza, the Times Union capitol bureau boasts more reporters than any other daily paper, including the New York Times.

From two closet-sized offices with views of the courtyard below and piles of documents and books stacked around its computers, the capitol bureau has grown into a squad that state officials — and competitors — have had to reckon with. Jay Jochnowitz, state editor and an eight-year member of the bureau, says the current plan is to mix enterprise and investigative with daily stories that are not covered via AP or other outlets.

One of the first changes came about two years go with the launch of “Capitol Confidential,” the bureau’s blog where most political coverage is placed: The move freed up more print space for enterprise and original stories. The blog is routinely the most popular of the paper’s 69 blogs, Jochnowitz notes. Staffers also convinced editors to move the paper’s daily state page from the inside Capitol/Region section to Page A3. “When you open the paper, you are right at that page,” he says.

James Odato, a Times Union statehouse scribe since 1997, has led the capitol-related probes. Chief among his interests almost from day one have been the secretive yet lucrative “member items.” This $170 million worth of annual pork, equally divided between the State Assembly and State Senate for their hometown causes, was always a secret matter. (Another $30 million annually goes to the governor’s office for distribution.) For years, Odato had filed FOIAs and other requests for the details, but says he was constantly told to “take a hike.”

By 2006, under the direction of Port and the aide of Hearst General Counsel Eve Burton, the paper filed a lawsuit in state Supreme Court demanding access to the member items records. When the paper won the case four months later, the judge also awarded about $35,000 in legal fees that Burton allowed the paper to keep. With access to the information, Odato and staff were able to reveal which groups received the secret funding from which legislators. Among the disclosures was that senate majority leader Joseph Bruno had provided $500,000 to a local company in which his friend owned a stake.

Last year, the paper broke what has become known as “Travelgate,” revealing that Bruno had used state helicopters and other vehicles for personal trips. At the same time, Bruno is the focus of a long-running FBI investigation. Odato says his stories have prompted both the Albany County District Attorney and the State Ethics Commission to seek interviews with the reporter, but he has repeatedly declined. The Times Union’s reporting on both the member items and Bruno has spurned a series of reforms in state government. The paper also won a 2006 Investigative Reporters & Editors award for their work.

The TU’s statehouse investigations have also raised at least one competitor’s ire on a nearly regular basis. Fred Dicker, longtime state editor of the New York Post (whose two-man bureau sits just across the hall from the Times Union), regularly assails the paper in print and on his daily, one-hour radio show.

Does All The Work Pay Off?
So what is all of this hot news doing for profits? Plenty, says Circulation Director John DeAugustine. He points to a circulation increase on Sunday during each of the past three Audit Bureau of Circulations FAS-FAX reporting periods, with the most recent rise to 142,899 for the six months ending Sept. 30, 2007 (up from 140,184 during the same period a year earlier). And while daily circ during the same time period has slipped to 90,216 from 95,463, the Thursday paper has seen an average 115,000 circulation in recent years.

“We showed a significant increase on Thursday, which is our biggest [weekday] paper,” DeAugustine says. That day’s edition has become a favorite for an entertainment section, an autos section, and an improved features section that includes such reader offerings as two pages of shared recipes. Following this positive reaction to the Thursday edition, the Times Union in 2006 launched special end-of-week subscription plans to provide for a Thursday-through-Sunday rate, as well as home delivery of only the Thursday and Sunday papers.

“We don’t try to inundate new subscribers with seven days of papers,” DeAugustine adds. “We target the short-term subscription to new subscribers, then we follow up and call them to try the daily readership at a reduced price.”

Other promotional overtures include seeking former subscribers with a 25% discount to resubscribe; adding automatic renewal with credit cards in 2004, which now accounts for 40% of subscribers; and creating a “good neighbor program” in 2005 that has local businesses sponsoring three weeks of home delivery for some 6,000 local residents each.

“There has been a significant focus on the sale of it in key ZIP codes,” DeAugustine says of the Sunday edition. “We still have mass telemarketing. But a lot of our gains are based on understanding the needs of potential readers and getting the reasons for subscribing across to them.” He cites as an example a subscriber push focused on residents of Saratoga Lake, which promoted the paper’s information for boat owners and related needs. The Times Union reports 17% more new customers in 2007 than in 2006, with a retention rate increase of 20%.

The paper made flexibility a key in advertising, particularly classified ads, says Publisher Mark Aldam. Since September 2007, all classified ads for merchandise under $250, and vehicles under $5,000, are free in print and online. “That has increased our classifieds by about 40% year over year,” he adds.

Niche publications also have grown. A new monthly magazine, Life@Home, debuted in February, targeting 30,000 “select homes” for high-end readers. “We are looking at other niche publications,” says VP/Advertising Kathleen Hallion. She also credits recent ad efforts to include a variety of print-only, online-only and mixed packages for growth. “We were a little behind the curve in the past few years, so we have moved ahead,” she says. “We see our future with new niche products, more and more targeting, more and more customers needing to zero in and reach a certain group.”

But, as with most dailies in today’s ever-changing newspaper market, Smith and Co. are not content to rest on their accolades. The editor says changes are in the works for a newsroom reorganization, more reader involvement, and even new furniture that can be more easily moved to allow for beat shuffling.

“The days of being able to arbitrarily say this is what a newspaper ought to be are over,” Smith contends. “You have to listen to readers. Looking at reader interests alongside the social responsibility.”

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