As Simone Biles delivered stirring testimony before a Senate committee about her abuse at the hands of the doctor Larry Nassar, she blamed a system that failed to protect her and later kept her in the dark, even as she competed at the summer 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
In fact, the Olympian said, “I didn’t understand the magnitude of what all was happening until The Indianapolis Star published its article in the fall of 2016 entitled ‘Former USA Gymnastics doctor accused of abuse.’ ”
That article—in which former gymnast Rachael Denhollander publicly accused Nassar of abuse—was part of an investigative series from the Indianapolis newspaper called “Out of Balance.” The project, which brought accountability where there had been none, all began with the Star acting swiftly on a tip.
In March 2016, Indianapolis Star reporter Marisa Kwiatkowski had been reporting on the problem of schools failing to report abuse when a source told her to look into a similar issue with USA Gymnastics, which is based in Indianapolis.
“Marisa took off one day from the newsroom, and you could tell something big was going on,” recalled fellow reporter Tim Evans. She got on a plane to Georgia the same day and came back with thousands of pages of documents related to a lawsuit filed there by a former gymnast against both a coach and USA Gymnastics. She had moved quickly, concerned the court was about to seal the records in the case.
Kwiatkowski and Evans, along with their reporter colleague Mark Alesia, pored over the documents, conducted numerous interviews and dug up more information that eventually led to their first blockbuster story, published Aug. 4, just as the Rio Olympics got underway. The story detailed how Indianapolis-based USA Gymnastics, the national governing body of the sport, had dealt with sexual abuse allegations against coaches who continued to work with young girls. The Georgia court documents helped expose the organization’s long-standing policy of not reporting child sex abuse allegations to law enforcement or child welfare, unless the complaints came directly from athletes or their parents.
Sometimes investigative journalists can feel like they are plunging down a rabbit hole, unsure of whether there’s actually a major story there. But Kwiatkowski felt confident they were on solid ground, having learned about USA Gymnastics’ policy early on. “So the step after that was figuring out the impact of the policy on the kids. We knew there was an important story on the front end.”
The reporters had no idea Biles and other Olympians had also been abused, but their article prompted Denhollander to contact the paper with her story of abuse by Nassar—a public admission that led to more than 150 other women coming forward with similar stories about Nassar. He would eventually be sentenced to up to 175 years in prison for sexual abuse.
The project underscores the crucial role that local and regional newspapers have in producing significant investigative journalism, as these papers “are in the best position a lot of times to learn about these stories and go after them,” Evans said.
“If people like us and our editors didn’t let us do this kind of work, people who want to do bad things would have no one watching over them,” he added.
But getting those stories took nearly the full-time effort of three reporters over a year, trips to 14 states and legal challenges mounted by parent company Gannett. Evans recalled how the paper even adjusted its budget and scaled back on sending sports reporters on the road to fund the project.
Alesia recalled spending three nights in Phoenix, chasing down an angle that never materialized. “We really got nothing out of that, but they spent the money for that and for us, that was a big deal.”
The Star’s investment on a single story was especially astonishing at a time when local and regional newspapers around the country have faced shrinking ad revenue or hedge-fund takeovers, some of them closing altogether. One study found that even before the pandemic triggered further cutbacks, nearly 6,000 journalism jobs and 300 newspapers had vanished since 2018.
The Star’s newsroom has also changed since the story first ran. In 2016, the newspaper’s union had 60 members; today, their ranks barely approach 40. (About 90 percent of Star employees eligible to join its union are members). Last summer, Gannett instituted pandemic-related furloughs. And there have been at least two rounds of buyouts, which saw the departures of Alesia and “Out of Balance” editor Steve Berta. (Evans is still at the paper, and Kwiatkowski is now on the investigations team at Gannett’s USA Today.)
“I frankly had very little confidence in the future of corporate local journalism, and Gannett had what I thought was a generous offer on the table,” said Alesia, who now works in public relations for a university.
And yet, great investigative work is still being produced by such newsrooms—including a Pulitzer Prize-winning project by the Star, in conjunction with not-for-profit Marshall Project and AL.com, about police dogs.
“It’s going to sound cliche, but our role is to shine the light in dark places,” Kwiatkowski said. Despite the realities of the industry, “I’d say there’s incredible investigative journalism being done in local newsrooms around the country.”
“There should always be more,” she said, “but it still exists.”
It’s not unusual for local papers to prioritize this kind of hard-hitting, investigative reporting, said Columbia University professor Bill Grueskin. And a number of not-for-profits, such as ProPublica, have risen up to focus on producing similar work.
The real loss, he worries, is having fewer journalists covering the day-to-day working of public institutions—the kind of “beat” reporting that leads to reporters getting tips like the one Kwiatkowski first received. “You can’t just parachute into a big story. A lot of it has to come organically in daily or beat coverage,” he said.
Many media observers and journalists argued that the Star’s reporting on USA gymnastics and the Nassar case, which won other major awards, was worthy of a Pulitzer. The prosecutor trying Nassar’s case credited journalism for bringing the case to trial. “What finally started this reckoning and ended this decades-long cycle of abuse was investigative reporting,” she said at his sentencing.
The Star’s journalists are a little uncomfortable with some of the praise they’ve received; the story, after all, is not truly about them. At a 2018 congressional hearing where former USA gymnastics boss Steve Penny repeatedly invoked the Fifth Amendment, a number of victims approached Evans to tell him he was their hero.
“It was an embarrassing moment,” Evans said. “Those young ladies were the real heroes, who stepped out of their comfort zones and going out on a limb to do the right thing to stop a monster … We’re just people doing our jobs, and at times that job can be important. The real heroes are the people whose stories we tell.”