Investigative Journalism Producing Change, Local Edition

One of the main arguments for why it's a bad thing if the newspaper industry dies is that newspapers cover local affairs in a way that nobody else does, and that has demonstrable effects on people's lives. Most of the time we don't see those effects, but every once in a while, a story comes along that proves all over again why newspapers are so vital, not just because of what they can expose but because of the change that can come from it.

The Washington Post is in the midst of a series of articles about an unbelievable scam victimizing some extremely vulnerable citizens of the District of Columbia. It's one of those combinations of government incompetence, private greed, and sheer immorality that just makes your blood boil. Here's what happened. The D.C. government, like any local government, has lots of outstanding tax bills from citizens it would like to see paid. Some of these are large, and some are small. Since it doesn't have the resources to go out and hound people to pay their bills, it auctions off the tax liens. The theory is that if somebody owes $1,000 on their property tax, a private company can buy the lien from the government for $1,000, then begin charging interest and eventually get the person to pay up. The government gets its $1,000, and the private company makes some profit on the interest it charges until the person pays the bill. Doesn't sound too terrible.

But as the Post's investigation revealed, that's not how it worked in practice. Companies would buy a lien for an unpaid tax bill of a few hundred dollars, then inform the homeowner that they were charging them exorbitant interest and legal fees. When the homeowner was unable to pay a bill that had now grown orders of magnitude from what it originally was, the company would initiate a foreclosure proceeding and take the house. The series begins with the story of Bennie Coleman, a 76-year-old retired Marine who got thrown out of the house he owned—and that's owned, no mortgage—because of a $134 property tax bill. And of course, the dirtbags who destroy people's lives to make a buck in this way prey on the elderly and poor, since they're the people least likely to be able to come up with the money to pay their ballooning bill and least likely to have the resources to fight when someone basically steals their home out from under them.

There's more to the story (here's an installment about the bid-rigging some of these companies engaged in), but now we get to why this could only have been a newspaper story. It isn't that a television investigation couldn't have uncovered the abuse, but in practice, they just don't. A national news program might have found it in one of those "Fleecing of America"-type pieces, but it would be a one-off story that officials could ignore. A local news station might have done it, but that would be highly unlikely—the story took months to complete, and required reporters to spend untold hours sifting through thousands of city records, and that just isn't something local TV reporters do. But the Post decided to devote the necessary resources to the story, not just in time and money, but in space in the paper over multiple days. The story broke, and then continued to build as they returned to it. And most importantly, as the city's biggest paper they have a position unlike that of any other media outlet. You can bet everybody in city government saw the series, and the political leadership felt they had no choice but to respond. Which is why in today's Post we see this:

Top District officials said Monday that they were outraged to learn about an aggressive practice of recouping city tax debts that pushed hundreds of city landowners into foreclosure.

Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and a key D.C. Council member said they would pursue emergency legislation next week to reform the practice after learning about it Sunday in an investigative report published in The Washington Post.

We don't know whether the emergency legislation will pass (though I'd be shocked if it didn't), and we don't know whether in the aftermath this system is going to be cleaned up in the way it should be. But at the moment, it looks like an ongoing injustice is going to be stopped. And it could only have happened because of what the newspaper did.

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