Long, hard preparation to tell a big story

Since that July morning more than two years ago when FBI agents began carting boxes of records out of the Cuyahoga County Administration Building and assorted homes and offices across Northeast Ohio, The Plain Dealer has published uncounted stories about the massive corruption investigation that ensued — the targets, alleged schemes, indictments, pleas, convictions, and what it all might mean.

But that was just a warm-up for the run of extraordinary journalism that you’ve seen in this newspaper over the last 10 days (as one reader put it, “With Boss Tweed getting nabbed today, you brought down Cleveland’s Tammany Hall!”)

That’s too kind. The feds nabbed Boss Tw . . ., er, Jimmy Dimora. But The Plain Dealer did the definitive job in reporting the story.

It began with a 12-page special report two Fridays ago — the day after the long-anticipated fall of former County Auditor Frank Russo — and has continued through Thursday’s section on the arrest of County Commissioner Jimmy Dimora, today’s coverage and inevitably beyond.

Only the federal investigators know where it will stop. But before we charge on with whatever happens next, I thought you’d be interested in knowing a bit more about how it all came together.

About three months ago, as it became more and more clear that corruption charges against Russo and Dimora were imminent, Metro Editor Chris Quinn convened a newsroom-wide meeting to put together a plan for what the paper would do when the big two finally fell.

It was, as Quinn described it, a freewheeling idea fest. Reporters who had worked on various aspects of the investigation shared what they knew, editors and designers kicked around ideas of how to break it into logical pieces and display it, artists and researchers brainstormed how to pull all the disparate information together most effectively for readers, and online editors worked on how they might get everything ready and cross-linked, so that when the big day came they were ready to go in an instant.

The assignments were made, and everyone went to work. The stories covered the gamut, from large profiles of the two major players, to smaller background pieces, to systematic storehouses of information that could be used when the news broke.

Of course, there was a limit to how much could or should be done ahead of time. But on the two biggest days of the most widespread case of political skullduggery in the city’s history — Russo Day and Dimora Day — all those months of preparation and sweaty, incremental reporting paid off. With the background work done, reporters could concentrate on the breaking news and unexpected developments, and online editors were ready to post a stunning array of stories, profiles and links almost immediately on Cleveland.com that stood as the authoritative word on the subject.

The names of worthy contributors could fill the rest of this column — so I’ll give you only one: a stalwart whose mostly unsung work continues to serve as the backbone of the project.

Long before Quinn’s planning meeting, reporter Rachel Dissell had been gathering string on the many people named — and mostly not named — in the documents, pleas and charges that the newspaper obtained over the two-year investigation.

Perhaps you saw the list of the more than 100 people and businesses referred to in federal documents from the investigation. If you didn’t, you can find it, and all the corruption coverage, at cleveland.com/countyincrisis.

Prosecutors seldom referred to anyone in these documents by name, unless they were charged. Otherwise, they referred to them cryptically as “PO5” or “Attorney 1” or “Business 36,” along with a terse description of their connection to the investigation.

So for more than a year, Dissell has been painstakingly connecting the dots — working with documents, other reporters and tips from readers to nail down 55 of the people and businesses identified by the prosecutors only by those symbols. It was to be vital information for other reporters trying to write concise, understandable stories.

Also, since January Dissell has been putting together short profiles of everyone charged, named or implicated in federal documents. By the time the Russo news broke, she had 89 of them, with their connections to the investigation, ready to go in the special section.

A newsroom in full cry in pursuit of a breaking story is a wondrous place to be, and nothing tops an iconic image like Marvin Fong’s on-the-spot photo of Dimora being led away in chains Wednesday morning. But even quick and savvy deadline reporting can fall short if you haven’t done the background work.

In this case, The Plain Dealer did both.

This column was originally published in the Cleveland Plain Dealer on Sept. 19, 2010.

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