When investigative reporter Jeff German was killed in September, his colleagues at the Las Vegas Review-Journal were determined that his stories would not die with him.
But there was another story German had just begun before his death. And when The Washington Post reached out to offer assistance, the Review-Journal’s editor had an idea: Could The Post help finish it?
In early November, Post reporter Lizzie Johnson flew to Nevada to join a long and solemn journalism tradition. At the Review-Journal newsroom, she was handed a stack of folders, neatly labeled in pink highlighter. German had written an outline for the story that she would try to pursue.
“It was a no-brainer for me,” Johnson said. “I can’t imagine anything more meaningful than continuing a slain journalist’s work so that the story can live on even when they can’t.”
On Wednesday, Johnson’s collaboration with Review-Journal photographer Rachel Aston — recounting how an alleged $500 million Ponzi scheme targeting Mormon investors ended in an armed standoff and gunfire at a desert mansion — published on both papers’ websites simultaneously.
It was the latest project by journalists who have set aside competitive pressures and their usual beats to help finish the work of a fallen colleague.
In August 2007, Oakland Post editor Chauncey Bailey was shot and killed while walking to work. He had been reporting on the troubled finances of a local business called Your Black Muslim Bakery; prosecutors would later say that his murder was ordered to stop his coverage. Instead, three dozen people from California news organizations and journalism schools quickly came together to complete his reporting. Their coalition, the Chauncey Bailey Project, received funding from major philanthropic and industry organizations.
“In the beginning, it was very chaotic,” said Thomas Peele, a veteran Bay Area journalist who later wrote a book about Bailey’s murder and was the project’s last full-time staffer by the time its work wound down in 2011. “The first meeting was kind of a herding-wet-cats experience. But everybody was on the same page that we had to do something in response to Bailey’s murder.”
There were challenges. “Reporters and editors accustomed to competition, not collaboration, gritted their teeth and forced themselves, haltingly at first, to share their best sources and their best scoops with others,” group members wrote in a retrospective of the project.
In the end, Peele said, the project contributed to the arrest and indictment of two additional people beyond the man who had confessed to pulling the trigger. And it helped send a message that “if you kill one of us, a whole bunch of us are going to show up and do a lot more reporting on you than that one reporter could have done.”
The Chauncey Bailey Project was modeled on the Arizona Project, which in 1976 brought together 38 journalists from 28 newspapers and TV stations around the country to complete the work of Arizona Republic investigative reporter Don Bolles, who was killed by a car bomb while reporting on organized crime.
Bolles had been a founding member of the group Investigative Reporters and Editors, and his fellow members wanted to send a message to those responsible for his death that journalists would not be deterred from pursuing similar stories, despite the risks. The collaboration ultimately published more than 40 stories over 23 days in 1977.
Still, the collaborative effort “was exceedingly controversial,” according to IRE’s history of the project, and some major news organizations, including The Post and the New York Times, declined to participate, troubled by the idea of reporters on a crusade.
“Critics called the IRE’s efforts everything from vengeance journalism to vigilantism,” according to a retrospective published in 2006 by Bolles’s former employer, the Arizona Republic, which chose not publish the series at the last minute. The project even drew opposition from then-Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-Ariz.), who viewed the journalists flocking to the state as carpetbaggers.
Peele said that journalists who had worked on the Arizona Project urged the Chauncey Bailey Project to focus more narrowly on who was responsible for his murder — as some said they wished they had done with the Bolles case 30 years earlier.
In 2017, French journalist Laurent Richard launched nonprofit organization Forbidden Stories to stand up against censorship by creating coalitions of journalists to complete the work of those who had been killed or jailed. Its first project focused on the work of Daphne Caruana Galizia, a Maltese journalist killed by a car bomb in 2017. With 45 journalists from 15 countries and 18 news organizations, “The Daphne Project” published stories following up on her reporting about a “passports for sale” program in Malta and other acts of official corruption in the country.
“Collaboration makes sense because, first, collaboration brings protection,” Richard said. “If you show that you are not alone, then there is no interest to kill your journalist if you know that 50 others will continue his work.”
The organization also provides a platform for journalists to store sensitive research and reporting, with the understanding that their work product will be continued in the event that they are killed. Around 50 journalists have uploaded their ongoing investigations, Richard said. “It could act as a deterrent,” he said. “It’s not a guarantee, of course.”
One of the journalists using the service was Rafael Emiro Moreno, who had reported extensively in his native Colombia on political corruption and the illegal arms trade. On Oct. 16, he was killed by two assailants. “The Rafael Project” was launched eight days later, as a collaboration between his colleagues and other journalists in Colombia and overseas.
When Lizzie Johnson arrived in Las Vegas last fall, she was surprised to see Jeff German’s desk — surprisingly tidy for an investigative reporter.
The pages of the file his colleagues gave her were neatly aligned and stapled at the corner. “That was the first time he felt really real to me,” she recalled this week, “holding his work and seeing the way that he carried it.”
Johnson said she tried to pursue the story with German’s rigor and passion but shied away from trying to emulate his style, “because then I would have been incapacitated by the anxiety of it all.” She spent a week in Las Vegas trying to find sources to go on the record. “I would find myself in these idle moments where I was like, I wonder how Jeff would have approached this.”
But she was able to hear his voice: While driving around Nevada, she listened to a podcast, “Mobbed Up,” in which German told stories about covering organized crime in the 1970s and 1980s.
After her story published, she was pleased by the reaction from his former colleagues and sources, commending her on the work and saying that German would have been proud. Still, she said, “I wish he could have lived to do this story himself.”