Reflecting on the year just past, while ushering changes in the New Year

As the new year gets into full gear, It’s a good time to look back at the work FIJ grantees have produced. Last year, grant recipients have published about three dozen projects.

In December, we feature a trove of stories – including a deep dive into the background of a Kentucky legislator, further risks of corruption in Colombia and stories about the criminal justice system from two of our FIJ/Schuster Institute diversity fellows.

FIJ’s ability to sponsor this kind of reporting depends on the financial support we receive from donors.

FIJ is fortunate to get additional backing from longtime supporters like the Morton K. and Jane Blaustein Foundation, which recently awarded FIJ $35,000 for each of the next two years.

In addition, The Nara Fund has given FIJ another $15,000. In its award letter, the fund said it was inspired by FIJ’s work, and it was “honored to help support it, especially so at this time.”

Hard-hitting, fact-based journalism is needed more than ever, and FIJ is determined to help freelance and independent journalists continue to deliver quality watchdog journalism in the New Year.

The New Year also brings new leadership to FIJ’s governing board. Marcia Bullard, a past president and chief executive officer of the national magazine USA WEEKEND, will take the helm of the board when current president Ricardo Sandoval-Palos steps down.

“This is a critical time for America to support independent and investigative journalism,” Bullard said. “It’s energizing that so many people are donating to FIJ so we can continue this work. I expect 2018 will bring many important stories to light.”

Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune will assume the role of vice president, the post Bullard currently holds. In addition, Mark Greenblatt of the Scripps Washington Bureau will fill Page’s current position of Treasurer.

Ron Nixon of the New York Times; David Ottaway, a Woodrow Wilson Center fellow; and Tisha Thompson of ESPN will also be departing the board because of term-limit rules.

In December, the board voted in three new members to the board: Lottie Joiner, a freelance journalist and current FIJ/Schuster Institute diversity fellow; Susanne Reber, the executive editor of Reveal, a nationally broadcast public radio show; and Joe Stephens, who is the Ferris Professor of Journalism in Residence at Princeton University.


FIJ/Schuster Institute diversity fellows deliver projects focused on criminal justice system


In a story for The New Yorker,  FIJ/Schuster Institute diversity fellow Lisa Armstrong reports on the movement to end solitary confinement for juveniles. Her piece, “A Teen-Ager in Solitary Confinement,” chronicles the plight of Jermaine Gotham, who was 16 the first time he was locked in “the box” in an upstate New York county jail. In 2016, President Obama banned solitary confinement for children in federal prisons. Several states, including California and Massachusetts, have limited the practice in state prisons. But in other states, juvenile solitary confinement continues. Even where reforms are underway, local jails typically determine their own rules.

The founders of First 72+ hope to help former felons free themselves from the cycle of recidivism. (Photo by Jarrad Henderson/USA Today)

Lottie Joiner,  another FIJ/Schuster Institute diversity fellow, completes her series on recidivism for USA Today by looking at the experiences of incarcerated men in Louisiana, which has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country. In her latest multimedia installment for her “Policing the USA” project, Joiner featured former felons getting help from a program called “First 72+,” which is trying to help men break free from the cycle of crime and imprisonment. Joiner reported that the United States spent more than $56 billion in 2015 to lock up people. Studies show that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world. African American men, in particular, are jailed at higher rates than other groups. As part of her project, Joiner also interviewed best-selling author Shaka Senghor, who went to prison when he was 19 after being convicted of second-degree murder.

Balloons and a cupcake festoon a cross on the Lohman Avenue bridge, where Juan Gabriel Torres was shot to death by police.(Photo by Robin Zielinski/

Southern New Mexico’s fragile behavioral health system has taken many financial hits in recent years and hasn’t met the region’s needs, according to a series of reports by in collaboration with the Las Cruces Sun-News and KRWG News. Law enforcement is increasingly tasked with handling crises they can’t fix, data shows. Policymakers have taken some steps to help, but progress has been slow. The news collaboration sought to explore possible solutions, including new law enforcement programs, a mental health court and expansion of the state’s psychiatric hospital.

Kentucky state Rep. Dan Johnson at a 9/11 memorial event in Bullitt County on Sept. 10, 2017. (Photo by Jacob Ryan/KyCIR)

The Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting revealed what it called “a Kentucky preacher-turned-politician’s web of lies” after a seven-month investigation into a state legislator. The center exposed what it said was a series of deceptions over decades by state Rep. Dan Johnson, a self-anointed “pope, bishop and minister to outcasts.” The investigation partly focused on the allegations of a 21-year-old woman who said she was molested by Johnson in his church basement when she was 17. It was part of a broader examination of the institutional failures that allowed Johnson to ascend into positions of power, including election to the statehouse. Two days after “The Pope’s Long Con” was published on Dec. 11, 2017, Johnson killed himself.

A team of 18 reporters from 11 national and local  publications across Colombia launched an ambitious investigation into the work of 20 local comptrollers’ offices (hipervínculo en español) and the apparent conflicts of interests in the auditing of government agencies and the public treasury. The investigation, led by Colombian NGO Consejo de Redacción and published by El Espectador, found that comptrollers’ offices sometimes employed people who were being investigated or who had close ties to governors, mayors and other officials who were supposed to be under scrutiny. What’s more, comptrollers signed off on contracts worth hundreds of thousands of U.S. dollars that involved relatives or close associates. The investigation revealed a system that has few checks and balances to prevent abuse.

Further investigation  by WNIN and Side Effects Public Media called into question the work of a government-hired psychologist on thousands of Social Security Administration disability claims. The news outlets had previously reported on concerns that the psychologist might have falsified at least two dozen mental competency exams related to criminal court cases.. The scrutiny arose after he was convicted of falsifying one such exam. The widening scrutiny stemmed from his role in 10,567 disability cases for which he performed services for the Social Security Administration. The psychologist, Albert Fink, was paid more than $1.6 million between 2006 and 2016, according to public records obtained by the news outlets.