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The Brown Estate
After recording artist and musician James Brown, the “Godfather of Soul,” passed away in 2006, his multi-million dollar estate fell into a troubling controversy. Brown had willed his estate to scholarships for disadvantaged children in Georgia and South Carolina, but the process had been bogged down in legal proceedings.
A freelance reporter named Sue Summer, working for a small local paper in South Carolina called the Newberry Observer, was investigating the story in an attempt to cut through the maze of legal proceedings and questionable actions on the part of the courts.
Suddenly, Summer found herself served with a far-reaching subpoena from the state of South Carolina demanding a huge range of information – all of her on- and off-the-record material pertaining to the case.
The story caught the eye of Lou Ann Anderson, a citizen journalist from Temple, Texas who operated a website called Estate of Denial, which focused on news and analysis of probate-abuse. The story smelled of an intimidation tactic, so she wrote an article defending Summer and questioning the government’s motives for investigating a reporter who was simply doing her job. The actions of state officials, she argued, call into question issues of government transparency and accountability.
Soon after, the Columbia Journalism Review and a number of local news outlets and legal sites had picked up the story. A month later, Attorney General Alan Wilson issued a statement announcing that the subpoena had been canceled.
“A lot of times you’ll never know,” Lou Ann says, “Did it really make a difference?”
She pauses, in thought. “You certainly can suspect at times that it did.”
From business, to the home, to the press
Aside from majoring in Journalism and Public Relations in college, Lou Ann never had any professional training or experience as a reporter. She spent her career immediately after college in the private sector, though over the years, all of the positions she held had a common theme. Each required her to use and develop communicative skills – particularly with the written word.
In the middle 1990s, she left the workforce to be a mother, right as the Internet boom began. She had the foresight to see that computers, now suddenly interconnected through the World Wide Web, would turn the communications world upside-down, so she made a point to learn about it. Over a decade later as the citizen journalism movement began to take shape in America, she started to focus on an underreported field: probate issues. The media, she noticed, deals with probate stories only in the occasional high-profile cases; aside from that, it merely captures the surface level without exposing the underbelly of corruption and abuse. She started to see how people were being hurt, and how they often had no legal recourse once property rightly belonging to them had been ordered away.
“The media isn’t [reporting] this, but you have knowledge of the issue,” she recalls a friend telling her at the time, “You have the ability to write. Sounds like you’ve got a task ahead of you.”
Lou Ann agreed. In the Internet age, when the media fails to cover an issue or misses an important angle of a story, any citizen can step in,fill the gap and report the news. For Lou Ann, this meant launching EstateofDenial.com to report untold probate stories. It wasn’t long before she connected with other like-minded groups where she expanded her audience and learned to keep up to speed on the big issues. All the while, Estate of Denial continued to flourish.
When she heard about a new website called Watchdog Wire at a summit in August last year, becoming a contributor was a no-brainer.
Grab Bag News
Living in the second largest state in the union both geographically and in terms of population, Lou Ann always has something to write about. This year, she says, has been particularly hectic with the Texas Legislature meeting for its biennial session. However, it has also provided a huge window of opportunity for Watchdog Wire, as Texans tend to be more engaged with political news this time of year.
As such, Lou Ann has seen her own stories gain traction. At events in Austin, the state capitol, she regularly encounters people who have read her stories at Watchdog Wire and consider it a credible news entity.
As Texas news transitions out of a focus on state politics, however, she says the challenge is to find a healthy mix between state and local issues. The region has been in the national spotlight a number of times over the past several years. The 2009 Fort Hood shooting took place 25 miles away from the little town of Temple, Texas where she lives. And the fertilizer plant explosion in West, Texas last year happened just 40 miles away. Furthermore, on any given day, between past sources, the news cycle, and local government proceedings, Lou Ann may encounter dozens of potential stories.
“Trust me,” she laughs, “there’s plenty going on.”
The key is to find the stories that matter and learn how to make connections. Lou Ann’s coverage of the Texas taxpayer-funded school curriculum program CSCOPE – a program paralleled with Common Core—amplified concerns over its lack of transparency. This program was being used for years in over 800 public and private Texas schools, yet little media attention was given to the big picture. Lou Ann consistently covered its many components: the lack of oversight, complaints of it being poorly written, its anti-American undertones, and the insufficient accesses parents had to information.
Her coverage built a narrative of incompetence in the program and led to the Texas Attorney general writing a letter addressing CSCOPE’s failure to include parents on critical information regarding their child’s education. Soon after, a bill was introduced calling for the Texas Board of Education to provide oversight on the lack of transparency in programs like CSCOPE. The bill became center-stage of this year’s state legislative session, which proposed sweeping changes to the program.
But an unexpected move occurred on the day the Texas House was scheduled to vote; CSCOPE’s governing board agreed to discontinue production of lesson plans effective Aug. 31. A reason was not stated, but some infer that CSCOPE leaders would rather discontinue the program than face the disinfectant of transparency and oversight.
Many citizen journalists would have claimed success and moved on. But Lou Ann didn’t stop at education- there was more work to be done in Texas. She reported on a series of concurrent local police misconduct stories that uncovered a pattern and perhaps culture of poor police behavior. One story highlighted a Temple citizen who was pursued and arrested by police for violating multiple traffic laws while en route to to visit his dying brother in the hospital. Another story exposed the sad details of a 15-year-old, 100-pound boy who was hospitalized after two police officers accused him of theft and violently apprehended him.
Some news outlets may have overlooked these seemingly cut-and-dry crime stories. But Lou Ann’s Texas-sized heart never stops caring for those who may be mistreated or underrepresented.
Cooler heads prevail
Lou Ann sees a future for citizen journalism, but it hinges on citizen journalists being just that – journalists. More than anything, she stresses the need to produce a consistent, quality product.
“Being fact-based and being credible are two critical components of your writing,” she says. That’s what will give citizen journalists legitimacy in the public square.
“These days,” she adds, “everybody likes to write opinion,” but reporting news can be just as influential as an op-ed. “That is something that is missed today… When you take more of an orientation to news in your writing, and you approach it, fact-based, with credibility, I think that that can be a real powerful combination.”
“Passion is a wonderful thing,” she says, “but unbridled passion makes you seem crazy and irrational… I don’t think that helps you make your case.” The Internet has been a great vehicle for people to express themselves, but when the conversation dissolves into rant-laced op-eds and misinformed comment threads, credibility suffers.
“I don’t think people put value on [credibility] like they should,” Lou Ann says, “Once it’s lost, it’s tough to get back.”
In this sense, it’s not so much cold objectivity that matters, but fairness.
“You need to be fair in laying out the facts,” Lou Ann says, “I prefer much of what I do to be fact-based or reason-based.” As a journalist, she always strives to explain how she came up with the information and why she’s drawing her conclusions so that people see a reasoned sequence to her thinking.
Other times, she finds fresh stories come in much more entertaining environments, like at Bon Jovi’s “Because We Can” tour last April. While surfing the web on her phone in $200 seats as Bon Jovi sang about the “working man,” she noticed that Kid Rock had announced $20 tickets through Wal-Mart to make his shows more affordable to those having a hard time.
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