The goal of most good reporters is to “move the needle” a little bit when they produce a story or a column. The idea behind this phrase is that you want your work to yield some sort of tangible outcome for the people who read, hear or see it. The work might lead to something as complex as the downfall of a president or as simple as having people donate “coats for kids.” Either way, the journalism should do something for somebody.
Alex Crowe, the news and social media director for WMDC in Mayville, Wisconsin, spent the last six months weaving himself in and out of a local story that galvanized the area, had the mayor threatening him and led to an interim police chief getting a full-time job.
Crowe arrived in Mayville in March after spending two years doing radio in Sisseton, South Dakota, a town of 2,000 people. Just before he came to Wisconsin, Mayville’s police chief, Christopher MacNeill was placed on administrative leave before abruptly signing shortly after that. A Wisconsin Department of Justice criminal complaint later surfaced that charged MacNeill with misconduct in office and obstruction in connection with the falsification of a police report. (That report pertained to the son of another police officer in Mayville, who also left department around that time to take a job in the Cudahy Police Department.)
“I thought the big story was there, so I did a lot of investigative research, but the Cudahy chief had his attorney threaten me and my station, and since we don’t have the funds to do battle in court, I was forced to drop the investigation,” Crowe said.
In an interview shortly after MacNeill resigned, Mayville Mayor Rob Boelk told Crowe he hoped the Police and Fire Commission would “Do the right thing and hire the next Chief from outside the department.” This didn’t sit well with the interim chief, Ryan Vossekuil, who released a statement to Crowe saying he planned to serve as interim chief until the PFC told him not to. It seemed all very pedestrian until Crowe said he heard from a source that things were getting weird.
“I was eventually contacted by someone in the know, who told me the mayor had placed a gag-order on the entire Mayville PD, stating that they could no longer talk to the media, and mentioned me specifically by name,” Crowe said. “The department took exception to this, because they felt all discipline should be handed out by the PFC, as outlined in Wisconsin State Statute. The tensions between the mayor and interim chief continued to fester.”
The whole thing seemed likely to end when the PFC interviewed about a dozen candidates and picked Vossekuil for the full-time chief. When Crowe called Vossekuil for a simple congratulations and follow up story, he found out Vossekuil was rejecting the offer. He showed Crowe a swath of documents that included the gag order, the contract and some email chains between him and the mayor, but to fully understand them Crowe needed copies of the documents.
“I filed an open records request with the city, but they told me no, and once again with no legal funds we were at a dead end,” he said. “Then, that person in the know who had contacted me earlier about the gag-order, asked why I had not reported on the matter yet. I said I couldn’t report without documents and solid evidence in my possession to back up my reporting. Lo and behold, the documents were leaked to me, and I began writing.”
Crowe found a contract that was filled with terms he described as “unbelievable.” It required Vossekuil to agree to a 12-month probation period, during which he could be fired any time and for any reason. He would have to waive his ability to avail himself of Wisconsin’s “Police Officer’s Bill of Rights,” which meant he couldn’t appeal his firing and he would lose any benefits he built up over his 15 years on the job. After he fully understood what it was the interim chief faced in this contract, Crowe said he went to work on the rest of the story.
“The main thing I did was talk to people,” he said. “Once I talked to one council member with details of the offer, they would offer me more information. All chats were off the record, but I took notes and then called the next council member with what I knew, and so on. Eventually I had an entire notebook full of names, details and information. By the time I wrote my first rough draft, I had talked with multiple members of the common council, Police and Fire Commission, the chief himself and others in law enforcement and City Hall. The only one who refused to meet was the mayor. I finally sent him a long email, telling him that I had the documents and information, and the story was going live no matter what, and that I truly wanted and needed his side before publishing. We met, and after that I thought I finally had enough information to publish my story.”
Once the story hit the air and the web, it went viral.
“It was read by over 20,000 people, more than twice the population of Mayville,” Crowe said. “The citizens mobilized, and organized a group called “Voices for Vossekuil.” They gathered at a Public Safety and Information meeting, and one citizen after another hounded the council and mayor. Finally, after an hour and a half, the mayor took the podium to speak. He trashed me and my reporting, and said it was full on inaccuracies and ‘misinformation.’ He later called my boss’ boss at Radio Plus Inc, and asked them to retract the story. After he refused, the mayor showed up at my station, unannounced to ‘apologize.’ He asked me and my boss three times to reveal my source. I did not. He called me a week later and asked me to retract my story, which I again did not. It was kind of frightening to have someone in City Hall that consumed with me and my reporting, but I kept my bosses in the loop the entire time and continued to do my job.”
After the story broke, the city council agreed to reopen negotiations with the Vossekuil on a reworked contract that didn’t contain the probationary period and added several benefits. Vossekuil accepted the new contract and is slated to be sworn in later this month.
“I felt a lot of pride, but not because I got a chief a job, but I felt pride because for the first time, I saw what real journalism could do,” Crowe said. “I saw that by investigating and reporting and continuing to simply do my job, I was able to get the truth out there and let the process work itself out. The attacks on journalism and reporting are so prevalent in our society today, and I really can’t describe the feeling of knowing I had made a difference in this community simply by reporting facts, staying opinionated and doing my job. It’s something that I’ll never forget, and something that makes me want to do this every single day for the rest of my life.”