Introducing The Missouri Independent: ‘Detectives for the people’

Exterior Missouri State Capitol building
Missouri State Capitol in Jefferson City. (Photo by ©Walter Bibikow)

Legendary New York muckraker Wayne Barrett was once asked to explain to his son’s elementary school what it meant to be an investigative journalist.

He quipped, “We are detectives for the people.”

That line always stuck with me.

Look: I’ve been a journalist my entire adult life, from my stint covering county government for an afternoon daily in southern Indiana to my eight years writing about Missouri politics for The Kansas City Star.

In those two decades I’ve watched colleagues lose their jobs, organizations close up shop and the level of public trust in the work we do shrink.

Yet I also saw something else: Journalists determined to hold power accountable; to be the eyes and ears of a citizenry that desperately needs information for democracy to work; to learn something new every day and share it with the world, without fear or favor.

To be detectives for the people.

It’s become a mission statement of sorts for me, and it’s what I hope defines the next chapter of my career as we officially launch The Missouri Independent. 

We’re a nonprofit news organization focused on covering state government, policy and politics in the Show-Me State. And we are part of States Newsroom, a network of sites dedicated to putting journalists back into state capitols after years of steep decline. 

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According to a 2014 Pew Research Center study, only 30 percent of newspapers had anyone assigned to their statehouses. If we’ve learned nothing else from the tumult of 2020, it’s that what happens in state capitols reverberates in our daily lives and our national politics.

With the help of individual contributors and institutional grants, The Missouri Independent will have the largest statehouse bureau in Missouri. 

And we built a team with decades of combined experience covering the state.

Rudi Keller

Rudi Keller will serve as The Independent’s deputy editor. There are few people who know the ins and outs of the state budget as well as Rudi. He’s been writing about Missouri for the better part of 30 years, most of that with The Columbia Tribune. He has a reputation as a fearless truth teller who can see all the moving parts of a story. 

He’s also written two books about the Civil War history of mid-Missouri, and you’d be shocked how often that knowledge comes in handy covering Missouri politics.

Rebecca Rivas

Rebecca Rivas has been reporting in Missouri since 2001, most recently as senior reporter and video producer at the St. Louis American. As a Fulbright scholar, she investigated Peru’s high maternal-death rate among Andean women and produced a 45-minute documentary that has been used as an educational tool in college campuses nationwide.

I’ve admired her work from afar for years, and I couldn’t be more excited that I somehow convinced her to join this ragtag team.

Tessa Weinberg

Tessa Weinberg spent the last year in Austin reporting on the wild world of Texas politics for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. Before that, she covered the Missouri Capitol for The Kansas City Star and the Columbia Missourian. During her time in Missouri, her reporting into social media use by the governor prompted an investigation by the Attorney General’s office.

She is an intrepid reporter and unshakable under pressure, and we are lucky to have her on board.

Together, our mission is to provide relentless investigative journalism that sheds light on how decisions in Jefferson City are made and how those decisions affect Missourians.

We provide this service for free to our readers. No ads. No paywall. 

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I know many of you will look upon us with skepticism at first. 

Frankly, I would, too.

My folks grew up in the Bootheel. It’s where I spent huge chunks of my childhood, and where most of my family still lives today. I know Missouri, so I know droning on for another 1,000 words to convince you of our journalistic ethics, our nonpartisan bona fides or our dedication to transparency won’t do much good.

I can’t rely on frothy eloquence to make the case. I need to show you.

And that’s what I promise we will do. Our work will speak for us. 

We won’t always live up to our lofty goals, and when we fall short we will own up to it. 

But we’ll always abide by another line Mr. Barrett dished out to his son’s elementary school the day he dubbed journalists “detectives for the people.”

Summing up our industry in a pretty straightforward way, Barrett said:

“There is also no other job where you get paid to tell the truth.”