Commentary

Two years after launching The Missouri Independent, we’re still detectives for the people

October 20, 2022 5:55 am

Missouri River and Capitol Building during sunset in Jefferson City (Getty Images).

I often joke that 75% of my job involves aimlessly wandering the Missouri Capitol in the hopes of bumping into news. 

But the only funny part of that bit is that it’s not really a joke. 

Look: I’ve covered statehouses around the Midwest for nearly 20 years, and there has never been a day when any news happened in my office. My job is to pull back the curtain so Missourians have a better understanding of their state government. And that doesn’t happen if I’m sitting at my desk. 

Decisions that impact the lives of people across this state are happening in the House and Senate chambers. They’re happening in the statehouse hallways and in crowded committee hearing rooms. They’re happening in quiet conversations in legislative offices and public gab sessions in the Capitol rotunda. 

And so, I wander. 

When I was building the team that would become The Missouri Independent, I knew I needed journalists who, like me, could not sit still. Reporters who knew where great stories lived and would move heaven and earth to get to them.

But covering state government means more than covering the state Capitol, so I wanted to take that restless philosophy and expand it. I wanted reporters eager to fan out across the state to understand how decisions in Jefferson City ricochet around Missouri.

Today, on our second anniversary, I couldn’t be more proud of what our team has built.

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Dispatches from every corner of the state helped inform Missourians about people like Chris Turner, a Black college student in Fayette who was the target of two late-night raids in his home by local police. Rebecca Rivas’ coverage of the case uncovered new evidence — and turned up a new witness — leading to the charges against Turner being dropped. 

And about the Good Samaritan Care Clinic in Mountain View, where a dedicated staff and an army of volunteers provided care to the uninsured for 17 years. Tessa Weinberg was there on the clinic’s final day, telling the story of some true Missouri heroes and the litany of factors that led to it closing its doors for good.

And about Rebecca Varney in Edgar Springs, who spoke with Rudi Keller on her front porch about her years-long quest to ensure local officials in the town of 200 conducted public business in an open and transparent manner.

When we weren’t on the road, we were filing records requests. Lots and lots of records requests. 

A mountain of internal memos, requests for assistance to the CDC and emails between local health departments, state officials and the federal government revealed how tension and lack of coherent coordination stifled efforts to mount an effective defense as Missouri became the epicenter of the suge of the delta variant of COVID-19. 

Hundreds of emails obtained through Missouri’s Sunshine Law offered a glimpse behind the scenes into why Missouri child care providers faced a months-long backlog for payments from the state for serving low-income families — which put many in danger of permanent closure.

Missouri’s public records law even helped us reveal Gov. Mike Parson’s plan to permit government agencies to withhold more information from the public and increase costs of obtaining records from the government.

These kinds of stories, which require extensive travel or expensive records requests, are only possible because of our readers, many of whom have dipped into their pockets to support the work we are doing. 

That’s not hyperbole. Even small donations add up to us being able to do these kinds of stories.

And that support also allowed us to grow. 

Our staff of four expanded in the last two years to add Allison Kite to cover agriculture and the environment and Clara Bates to dig into Missouri’s social safety net. 

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Two years ago, I introduced The Missouri Independent by quoting legendary New York muckraker Wayne Barrett, who when asked to explain to his son’s elementary school what it meant to be an investigative journalist, quipped: “We are detectives for the people.”

I asked Missourians not to trust us. Force us to prove ourselves and live up to our lofty promises. Make us show you that we truly want to be detectives for the people.

So on our anniversary, I’ll quote another legendary journalist, the late David Carr of the New York Times, who once said, “no one is going to give a damn about your résumé. They want to see what you have made with your own little fingers.”

The work we produce says more about our values than anything I can write here. And the support of our readers — and the countless news organizations around the state who republish our work every day — means more to me than I could ever put into words. 

We are firm believers that news is a community asset, and that an informed Missouri is a better Missouri. 

As proud as I am of the last two years, I’m even more excited about what the future holds. 

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Jason Hancock
Jason Hancock

Jason Hancock has spent two decades covering politics and policy for news organizations across the Midwest, with most of that time focused on the Missouri statehouse as a reporter for The Kansas City Star. He helped launch The Missouri Independent in October 2020.

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