by Hilary Niles
Campus Coverage Project
Our first in an occasional series of interviews with professional investigative journalists features Jill Riepenhoff.
JILL RIEPENHOFF, an investigative projects reporter, joined The Columbus Dispatch in 1985. She and her colleagues have won dozens of state and national awards for their work on Ohio’s foreclosure woes, the state’s flawed teacher-discipline system, state laws aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration, youth sports, and abuses of a federal student privacy law by college athletics’ departments. Most recently, she investigated wrongdoing involving the Ohio State football program that led to the forced resignation of coach Jim Tressel.
What’s one thing you wish all young reporters and editors knew?
When I was a young journalist, I sought out the counsel of the “elders” in the newsroom. I don’t see that happening today. I don’t know if it’s a generational thing or what, but younger reporters typically don’t seek out help, guidance or advice. They go it alone and rely strictly on their skill set. Also lacking is the passion for journalism. I clawed my way into every big story no matter how small my role so that I had a front-row seat to see how the pros did it.
What’s the most recent investigative project you completed?
In 2011, my time was devoted to an ongoing investigation into NCAA wrongdoing at Ohio State that led to the forced resignation of football coach Jim Tressel. We worked on that for months and wrote dozens of stories beginning in March. The lead writers/investigators were me and fellow projects reporter Mike Wagner and city desk reporter Randy Ludlow.
In May, we published a three-day series examining the issue of low wages among adults with developmental disabilities. And when I say low wage, I mean some people are earning a penny an hour. This was an idea born out of an IRE conference in 2010 and took months to nail down largely because county officials didn’t want to cough up public records that showed the wages of disabled adults. The others involved in the project were education reporter Jennifer Smith Richards and social services reporter Rita Price – one of the best writers in the industry.
What did you learn from it about investigative reporting?
I wouldn’t say I learned anything new but every project reinforces for me the great need for watchdog/investigative journalism. That’s what keeps those in power honest.
What are you working on now?
We are dissecting a federal law and exposing weakness that can hurt consumers’ financial well being. Sorry for the intentionally vague answer.
If you were entering the field today, what path would you choose?
I’d want to do exactly what I’m doing now – trying to make life better one investigative-story at a time, holding government officials accountable and educating the public about a wrongdoing or an injustice.
Who are your heroes?
Mike Berens, former Columbus Dispatch reporter now at the Seattle Times. He was my unofficial mentor who introduced me to the exciting world of computer-assisted reporting back in the early 1990s. His work makes a difference to everyday people time and again.
Doug Haddix, former projects editor at the Dispatch now the director of the Kiplinger program at the Ohio State University. He was my editor from 2004-2008. I learned more from him in those four years than I did in my previous 19 years. He’s a natural teacher. He’s also a personal hero – he’s the consummate family man with a charitable heart.
Anything else to add?
Learn Excel. If you can master data-crunching with Excel, you will add incredible depth to your stories. It opens up a world of stories that many reporters in the newsroom do not have don’t have access to because they can’t crunch.