Watchdog journalism is alive and kicking in the local press.
Morning Call reporters Spencer Soper and Paul Muschick discussed their investigative work during a March 28 presentation titled “Watchdogs: Journalism with Teeth.”
Investigative journalism shines a light where it’s needed. “There is a power simply in illumination,” Soper said during the presentation in College Center 220.
Critics say investigative journalism is not as strong as it once was for a variety of reasons, but Soper has not been deterred.
“Hard news sells. People want hard news,” he said.
Muschick agreed, saying, “There is an appetite for it.”
The Morning Call had an investigative team that printed about six stories a year, Muschick said, but the team no longer exists because the reporters have either left or are covering other areas.
But Soper and Muschick continue to do investigative work. Soper recently wrote a series on the Amazon distribution facility in Breinigsville, examining working conditions.
The Morning Call, which is based in Allentown, originally ran sort of “cheerleader stories” about Amazon, good news for thousands of unemployed people looking for work, Soper said.
Then he received a call from the angry mother of an Amazon employee.
The mother said that her son had applied for a temporary job and was hired, quitting his other job to focus solely on Amazon. But when her son arrived for his first day of work, Soper said, Amazon told him he didn’t have the job.
Soper contacted Amazon’s corporate public relations office but received no response, he said. “When there’s radio silence, that’s a sign of a red flag.”
When Soper later heard that Amazon officials would be visiting Lehigh Carbon Community College, he drove over to see whether he could talk to someone.
Soper said he was sitting outside waiting to find someone to speak to when two men sat down near him. Overhearing them discuss email problems Amazon was having with applicants, he approached them.
Soper introduced himself as a reporter and said he was trying to write a story on Amazon. Both men referred Soper to the corporate public relations office, only telling him that they had technological glitches with their emails but that everything was fixed.
Soper told them he had spoken to the public relations office already but asked the men to call the office and tell them that he was trying to write a story and needed information. He never got a response from Amazon, but the story ran anyway.
“How many people left their jobs for Amazon to show up and not have one? That’s a pretty big deal,” he said.
Initially the story was not a big deal but it got the ball rolling, Soper said.
Stories such as this develop into a series and effect a change, Muschick said.
Soper began hearing from Amazon warehouse employees soon after the article ran.
“Most people would say, ‘You don’t even know the half of it,’” Soper said.
He learned that ambulances were stationed in the parking lots in case workers collapsed due to harsh working conditions in the warehouse. He was told that although temperatures rose to 110 degrees or higher, workers were still expected to meet their daily work quota.
Soper dug further, gaining enough information to write an article on the working conditions.
Although Amazon never responded to Soper, only offering a small corporate statement, it spent more than $50 million on installing air conditioning in its warehouses across the country, Soper said.
Soper’s work earned him a Sidney Award, a monthly award that focuses on investigative pieces that nurture social and economic consciousness.
Muschick has done his own investigative work, helping military veterans obtain benefits that had promised them. He wrote columns about how they had been previously denied.
Soper and Muschick had advice for journalism students.
“Let people know you’re not going to go away,” Muschick said. “Let the company know you’re not going away and become a contact for concerned people.”
Soper stressed the importance of getting people to trust you and in turn writing an accurate story that helps and protects them.
Both reporters told students not to get discouraged. “Stick to your guns,” Muschick said.
Muschick said that there will always be a need for journalists, and that investigative journalism is still going strong at The Morning Call.
Both said they liked their work a lot. “It’s fun. I enjoy going to work,” Soper said.
Soper told about how he woke up one Saturday after his Amazon story ran, feeling good. He took his children to Breinigsville and pulled his car over on the side of the road. Getting out of the car, they watched as helicopters flew in air conditioners to the warehouse he had written about in his series.
“I said to my kids, ‘You’re dad made that happen,’” Soper said.
People were suffering and he was able to make it better. “It made me feel like a good citizen,” he said.
Watchdogs: Journalism with Teeth was sponsored by NCC’s Journalism program.