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2 Scrappy Media Outlets Hitting it Out of the Park

Updated: Nov 20, 2023

Being a journalist is a lot harder these days than it was back in my day on the federal beat in Las Vegas. You now have more platforms to feed, more deadlines to meet, and fewer resources to partner with.

I expect the conglomerate-owned media companies with more money than megachurches to support their local outlets, and I expect them to do a good job covering the news. Those expectations aren’t always met. But what’s really inspiring to see is that some of the small outlets are making a big impact covering their communities. Here are my favorites.

1. East Idaho News – For Owning the Most Complex Murder Conspiracy Case Ever.

Mid-day May 12, 2023, word got out that an Idaho jury had reached a verdict in the trial of Lori Vallow Daybell, who had been charged, along with her fifth husband Chad Daybell, with killing her children, J.J. Vallow, then 7, and Tylee Ryan, 16. She also was charged with conspiracy to murder Chad’s former wife, Tammy.

Daybell was dubbed the “Doomsday Mom” when news of her odd life unraveled. She and Chad shared strange and dark cult-like beliefs and authorities believe they killed or conspired to kill a host of family members who were “in the way” of their relationship and lifestyle. There were the kids, and Chad’s wife who was first believed to have died of natural causes, but an autopsy showed she’d been asphyxiated. There was also Lori’s husband Charles Vallow – the guy she’d need to move out of the way to facilitate her new romance with Chad Daybell. Charles was shot by Lori’s brother Alex Cox who claimed self-defense. But then Cox died of what’s reported to be a blood clot and authorities dug deeper. They indicted Lori for conspiracy to have Charles murdered. And there was one more case—the attempted murder of a man named Brandon Boudreaux. He is the estranged husband of Lori’s niece, Melani, a woman reported to have the same “religious” beliefs as Chad and Lori.

If you’re not following all that, I get it. It’s a lot.

What you really need to know Is that Lori’s trial for the deaths of J.J., Tylee, and Tammy, came first. It’s a trial that made international headlines but was best covered by a small news outlet called East Idaho News, headquartered in the communities where J.J and Tylee were reported missing, and later found dead. The trial lasted for six weeks – six weeks of heartbreaking testimony and “how-could-she” moments as details spilled out about the “Doomsday Mom” – a woman who sat smiling and pretending to believe she was a goddess throughout most of the proceedings.

As the judge prepared to bring the jury and all the parties back into the courtroom, East Idaho News fired up a chat on one of its social media channels, where a livestream of the verdict would soon be shown. It seems the world was watching and waiting, hoping to see justice for the children and for Tammy Daybell.

“Where are you watching from?” asked Nate Eaton, EIN’s News Director and the primary reporter covering the case.

“Sydney, Australia,” a viewer answered. “From the UK,” another said. I answered, “Oregon City, Oregon.” Someone was online in France, many watched from the east coast where Eaton has a large following dating back to the years he spent reporting in Richmond, VA. And hundreds were watching from every corner of Idaho. It was clear that to many of these online followers, Nate Eaton had become like family. They’d relied on him for every detail for years, and for real-time posts from the courtroom every day of the previous six weeks. Throughout the trial, Eaton, sometimes fighting emotion after a day of gruesome testimony, hosted “Courtroom Insider” chats online after hours, often from his own living room.

When the verdicts were announced – guilty on all counts -- online followers posted their tears and cheers in the chat. And most stuck around as Eaton and a videographer then moved outside to the courthouse steps where Kay and Larry Woodcock, the kids’ grandparents, held a live news conference to thank the jury, the judge, the prosecutors, and all the investigators.

Nate Eaton and the team at East Idaho News owned every aspect of the Lori Daybell case.

They owned the story from September of 2019, when the children were reported missing in tiny Rexburg, Idaho, to the day Eaton confronted the couple at the Kauai Beach Club, asking why they were relaxing in Hawaii when their kids were still missing. It was an utterly memorable interview. “Where are your children?” he asked as they tried to dodge the camera. It wasn’t a grandstand-y interview a cub reporter trying to land in a bigger market might have done; Eaton had already worked in a larger market before returning to Idaho – a place he and his family love – to help launch East Idaho News in 2015. It was an interview that asked what everyone, including detectives, wanted to know. “Did you do something to your children? Are your children still alive?” The next part stayed with me. In old school journalism, you’re told not to put yourself in a story, not to talk about yourself. But this next moment beautifully and humanly fits today’s rulebook for fair, truth-seeing coverage. Eaton said, “That’s a simple question. I’ve got three kids of my own. I can tell you every minute where my kids are at. Where are your children?”

East Idaho News also broke the bizarre story of the kids’ toys and other personal items being found in Lori’s abandoned storage unit, as though J.J. and Tylee were long-gone memories, even though at that time they were still missing. And EIN reported the horrific details on June 9, 2020, when the children’s bodies were found on Chad’s property.

The EIN website isn’t all dark news; they’re out in the field looking for good news and catching people doing things right. They’re covering the environment, family news, things to do in the community, and more. And if you can make it through any of their Secret Santa episodes without crying, something might be wrong with you.

As we say in the news business, wait! There’s more. And it’s bizarre.

Following a pre-sentence investigation that could take months, Lori will be sentenced. Chad will then be tried for the murders of J.J., Tylee, and Tammy. Lori still faces the music for Charles’ death, and the investigation into the attempted murder of Brandon continues.

It’s as twisted as a case can be, too complex, even, for a made-for-TV movie.

But East Idaho News won’t likely miss a beat covering it all.

2. Oregon Capital Chronicle– For Being the Little Engine that Did.

For years, people in the northeast Oregon town of Boardman have had to buy their own drinking water. That’s because, according to a series of stellar investigative reports by the Oregon Capital Chronicle, the local aquifer is tainted with farming chemicals and the water is unsafe to drink. The residents of the community are historically disadvantaged – low income and Latino – and according to the Capital Chronicle, the state did little to nothing about the situation. That started to change after dogged reporting by Alex Baumhardt and two interns, Cole Sinanian and Jael Calloway. Finally, the government got off its duff. An emergency declaration was issued over the contaminated residential wells. The state started a water testing program, and Governor Tina Kotek has gone on her own fact-finding mission, visiting the area and talking with the residents.

For their work, the Capital Chronicle team was honored with a first place, National Headliner Award for online investigative reporting. The National Headliners is among the nation’s oldest and largest programs honoring the best work of journalists, and every year, many of those who are recognized, also win Pulitzer prizes.

It’s not unusual for news outlets in the Portland-Salem metroplex to garner national honors. The Oregonian/OregonLive and the Willamette Week have won Pulitzer Prizes, and the TV stations here have lined their trophy cases with Emmy and Edward R. Murrow awards.

But they all have more than four people on their teams. Yes, I said four. The Oregon Capital Chronicle was founded in 2021 and is a nonprofit news organization stood up to cover state government and politics.

“We are just over a year and a half old, and we have a small online-only newsroom, with three full-time reporters,” wrote Lynne Terry, the news outlet’s editor, when the award was announced. “But as the award shows, we’re playing a big role in covering stories of state failures and the consequences on Oregonians.”

Don’t get me wrong. The Capital Chronicle’s three full timer reporters and their editor, have serious chops. Terry has been in the industry for 30 years, edited the Lund Report, reported on health and food safety at the Oregonian for 18 years, was a senior producer for Oregon Public Broadcasting and a Paris-based correspondent for National Public Radio. Baumhardt has reported “from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media and from Minnesota and Oregon for the Washington Post,” according to her online bio. She was a Fulbright scholar who earned a master’s degree in digital media. Her colleague Julia Shumway is an award-winning journalist who covered government in Nebraska, Iowa, and Arizona before joining the Capital Chronicle. And their other reporter, Ben Botkin has won a number of awards covering education, state government, and criminal justice in Idaho, Nevada, and Oregon.

Qualifications aside, for this small outlet to be able to invest in investigative reporting while covering all things Oregon politics is remarkable. Thanks to some innovative partnerships and support from grants, donors, and readers, this red-hot little engine is smokin' down the tracks.

Postscript: I personally cannot think of another time when a couple of interns helped to bag a National Headliner Award. That’s really remarkable. And, if the LinkedIn profiles of Cole Sinanian and Jael Calloway are up-to-date, it appears they’re looking for their next opportunities in journalism. Perhaps some smart news outlet will scoop them up.

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