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Feed Willy

A great reporter and the state of journalism

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The editors of the New York Times will never forget Willy Stern. Stern's Business Week story about how two consultants bought their way onto the NYT bestseller list disgraced the paper before the entire nation. Because of Stern's no-holds-barred investigative reporting, the Times changed how it compiled the list.

When he wrote for Forbes, Stern was one of the investigative reporters who ferret out the net worth of those on the magazine's list of richest Americans. It's a task so daunting, given the multitude of places these people stash their money, that when folks this wealthy are under criminal investigation for financial misdeeds, it typically takes a team of investigators with subpoena power six months to accomplish the task. Stern did it in a week.

Remember the stories about the counterfeit plane parts industry that gave passengers the jitters about riding on discount airlines? Stern broke those stories. The rest of the national media followed behind.

With a resume like that, you'd think this Harvard-educated reporter could name his price at any of the mid-to-large-size daily newspapers in the country. Stern thought so, too. So when his pregnant wife could no longer make it up the stairs of the Upper West Side highrise they called home, the couple decided to move to the hinterlands to seek a new life. They picked 15 to 20 cities they thought they could live in, and Stern sent out his resume to the dailies in cities like Memphis, Portland and Austin.

"I wrote the dailies all over, thinking that I was a fish swimming in the wrong direction," said Stern. "Most reporters were trying to get to the big dailies at the big cities. I just figured people would be chomping at the bit to get me."

Stern says that those that deigned to reply to him sent form letters with variations on one of two general themes.

"It was, "Everyone at our organization is an investigative reporter,' or "We don't have a star system here at Gannett,'" says Stern.

The shock set in. Over the previous dozen or so years, while Stern was holed up in his office with his telephone, busting chops and ferreting out the unknowable, his beloved profession of investigative reporting, unbeknownst to him, had been dying a slow death at daily newspapers all over the country.

But Stern wasn't the type to give up. He put the heavy schmooze on the Tennessean in Nashville, a daily paper with an impressive history of investigative reporting at the vanguard of the civil rights movement.

"They said plan on spending the day at the paper," Stern says. "It was going from one to another of these godawful meetings about making people feel good and not offending anyone. All I ever want is a phone and an office and to be left alone to do my stories."

At end of the day, the paper's managing editor offered him a job covering transportation and utilities -- and making substantially less than half of what he was making in New York. No investigative funny stuff. Just report the news.

Naturally, he turned the job down, which was how he came to be sitting in a bar across the street from the paper, drinking a beer and feeling sorry for himself. To pass the time, he picked up a copy of the Nashville Scene, a weekly alternative newspaper.

"There were compelling narratives, not lowest common denominator pablum," says Stern. The editor not only took his call, he offered to match his New York salary.

After that meeting, Stern wrote alternative newspaper editors all over the country. The response warmed his heart, he says. There were places left that still cared about good journalism.

Today, Stern writes for the Nashville Scene and teaches at Vanderbilt University. He's racked up over 20 national reporting awards in his half decade at the Scene, far more than he won while writing for the national media.

"My career didn't take off until I made the mistake of trying to practice journalism at a piss-ant paper with sex ads," says Stern.

Since he's been there, national caliber newspapers like the Washington Post have tried to hire him, but still not a peep out of any of the mid-to-large size dailies who once turned him down. For now, though, Stern's not budging.

I don't blame him. Today, taking a job at most of the dailies in this country means volunteering for censorship at sub-par wages. Dig too deep into anything that might embarrass any of your advertisers, or the supposed leaders of your city, and you'll short-circuit your career. Best to keep your mouth shut, cram some feel-good junk into an 18-inch space and hope your ticket onward and upward comes soon.

The last time I checked, American newspapers weren't government-controlled, though if you spend enough time reading dailies like the Charlotte Observer you get the eerie feeling that those who run them wish they were.

It all kind of makes you wonder. If much of the fourth estate isn't watching what's going on, who is?

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