Iowa Capital Dispatch celebrates 1st birthday: No cake, just big scoops

Iowa Capital Dispatch is celebrating its first birthday this week. (Creative Commons photo via Pxhere)

This week marks the first birthday of Iowa Capital Dispatch. We don’t have any cake but we’ve served up lots of big scoops.

Hard to believe it’s been a whole year. Equally hard to believe it’s been only a year.

We knew when we pushed the button to publish our first stories on Jan. 7, 2020, we were in for a wild ride. The start of the 2020 legislative session was a week away, and the Iowa caucuses were coming up in less than a month. None of us had ever worked for an all-online newsroom. We had laptops and cell phones but no office.

We’d never heard of COVID-19 or a coronavirus.  By the end of the year, we had published more than 800 stories and columns related in some fashion to COVID-19 and the state and federal governments’ response. We experienced some of the pandemic’s fallout first hand: We finally managed to lease office space in Des Moines’ East Village and got the Wi-Fi hooked up on March 17. That was the day Gov. Kim Reynolds shut down many businesses and WFH became part of the national lexicon.

Despite the challenges, I’m proud of what Iowa Capital Dispatch has accomplished in our first year. We had a lot of “firsts.” Here are just a few:

  • Iowa Capital Dispatch was first to report allegations that managers at Tyson Foods in Iowa were taking bets on how many workers contracted COVID-19. National news
    Tyson workers have had plastic dividers separating them on the production line. (Photo provided by Tyson Fresh Meats)

    media picked up Clark Kauffman’s report, and the result was an investigation and firing of employees the company said were involved.

  • Perry Beeman was first to report on a company’s efforts to get permission to sell billions of gallons of Iowa water to out-of-state customers, a story that generated significant statewide conversation.
  • Beeman was also first to report that Des Moines Water Works plant operators were being sequestered in trailers to avoid COVID-19 infection and that the city of Des Moines had lost millions in revenues because downtown workers were flushing in the suburbs instead of downtown offices.
  • Linh Ta broke statewide news of hundreds of layoffs by Hy-Vee as the company closed fulfillment centers and restructured its management.
  • Capital Dispatch was the first in Iowa to report on the hidden fees and restrictions on prepaid debit cards used to deliver coronavirus stimulus dollars to taxpayers.
  • Kauffman’s investigation into a faith-based Iowa charity showed it was  spending $4.2 million of taxpayers’ money staging workshops on dating and marriage and offering workshops with titles like: “How to Avoid Falling for a Jerk (or Jerk-ette).”

From the beginning, Iowa Capital Dispatch has been an advocate for open and transparent government:

  • One of Kauffman’s very first stories in January exposed a secret list of property owners held by a county official.
  • His reporting also uncovered the fact that secrecy by Iowa’s health care facilities and
    Alice Bandy of Manchester, Iowa, was one of at least 14 patients whose pain killers were stolen by an Iowa nurse who worked at Manchester’s Regional Medical Center and two other health care facilities before she was caught. (Hospital photo by Clark Kauffman/Iowa Capital Dispatch; inset photo courtesy of Alice Bandy’s family)

    regulators allowed nurses and other health care workers who had been fired for misconduct to keep working in the state.

  • Kauffman also reported that state regulators were keeping secret dozens of allegations against Iowa doctors, ranging from criminal assault, patient neglect, sexual misconduct and other serious offenses.
  • Our COVID-19 reporting has highlighted glaring omissions in the data state government reports to Iowans, including information on the deaths of nursing home workers.
  • The state public information board warned state agencies about restrictions on public records requests after Iowa Capital Dispatch filed a complaint.

One of the reasons Iowa Capital Dispatch exists is to help taxpayers hold their government accountable. Our first year has made a mark in watchdog reporting:

  • Dozens of Iowa Capital Dispatch reports have exposed state agencies’ lack of oversight over Iowa’s nursing home industry, where COVID-19 has taken a heavy toll, as well as a lack of transparency over enforcement of restaurant regulations.
  • Iowa Capital Dispatch’s Linh Ta was the first to report that delays in unemployment interviews had left jobless Iowans hanging without income for weeks and forced others to repay thousands of dollars in benefits that were later challenged.
  • Ta also was first to report that the state was turning away half of the people who were seeking help to avoid evictions while sitting on $18 million in aid money.

Part of our mission, beyond producing our own high-quality reporting, is to support community journalism on a broader scale. We do that by making our stories available for free republication by other news outlets. The response has been beyond our expectations.

The Des Moines Register has made regular use of our content, as have the Omaha World-Herald, Ottumwa Courier, Marshalltown Times Republican, North Scott Press, Storm Lake Pilot-Tribune and others. Successful Farming, a national farm magazine published by Meredith, has recently begun sharing our top-notch agriculture and environmental reporting. We’ve become a trusted source cited by news outlets ranging from the Washington Post to the Cedar Rapids Gazette.

Ericka Petersen, a supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders, brought her two children, ages 3 and 1, to the Iowa satellite caucus in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Robin Bravender, States Newsroom.)

Our national not-for-profit organization, States Newsroom, is also growing. Iowa Capital Dispatch was the 16th outlet for the network; the 20th is expected to launch soon and five more are planned for 2021. Our sister publications share ideas and content and have collaborated on joint projects ranging from coverage of Iowa satellite caucuses around the country to a national project looking at voting challenges headed in the November election.

None of this would have been possible without all of you, our readers. You have signed up by the thousands for our free newsletter and have liked and shared our content on Facebook and Twitter. Many of you have supported our enterprise with generous donations, even as the pandemic has squeezed many families’ budgets. We thank you and look forward to continuing to serve you in 2021.

There’s a lot of reporting to do in the coming year.  Iowa Capital Dispatch will start the year at the Statehouse, where lawmakers will be wrestling with the pandemic’s economic fallout and issues ranging from child care and education to housing, criminal justice reform, broadband, the environment, mental health care and taxes.

Along with our experienced States Newsroom bureau in Washington, D.C., we’ll cover the beginning of the new presidential administration and what it means for Iowa.  And we’ll continue to push for transparency and accountability related to Iowa’s COVID-19 response, the rollout of vaccinations, the spending of federal relief money, the toll on Iowa’s nursing home residents and other vulnerable populations, and much more.

Thanks again for joining us on this wild ride. We’ll look forward to more adventures with you in 2021!