CINCINNATI -- It began from a late-night text message with a trusted source’s tip.
Seven months later, after more than 100 interviews and scouring thousands of pages of documents, a small nonprofit center devoted to investigative reporting in Kentucky released its stunning findings on the dark history of a bombastic church pastor-turned-state legislator.
The report Monday included Rep. Dan Johnson’s links to arson cases, repeated alcohol violations in his church and the detailed story of a woman who said the pastor sexually assaulted her when she was 17. The Republican legislator elected in 2016 sharply denied the allegations on Tuesday from his Heart of Fire church’s pulpit, then fatally shot himself the next day in a secluded area.
The exhaustive expose by the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting also spotlighted the increasing role of such nonprofit, nontraditional reporting organizations in an era of shrinking newsrooms embattled by declining advertising and readership in the digital era. Newsroom surveys have estimated that more than 20,000 jobs disappeared across America in a decade’s time.
“Many newsrooms today are facing difficult choices,” said Brendan McCarthy, a veteran newspaper and TV reporter who is the Kentucky center’s managing editor. “Here we believe investigative reporting isn’t a luxury, but a necessity.”
The center aims to meet a need for more “watchdogs” to root out wrongdoing and hold officials accountable, McCarthy said.
“They’re doing stories that some newspapers just can’t do any more,” said David Thompson, who is executive director of the Kentucky Press Association. “They are filling a void there.”
New York-based ProPublica has already won four Pulitzer Prizes in the less than 10 years since it was founded as a nonprofit, independent organization dedicated to “exposing corruption, informing the public about complex issues, and using the power of investigative journalism to spur reform.”
Others include the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, which uncovered unsafe drinking water issues, and North Carolina-based The War Horse, which focuses on military and veterans issues and reported on sexual harassment in the Marine Corps.
The organizations usually rely heavily on donations.
“The accountability and investigative function of journalism is essential for our democracy and has been under-resourced for many years,” Kathy Im, director of journalism and media at the MacArthur Foundation, said in a statement promoting a fund-raising drive for nonprofit newsrooms.
ProPublica and other recently formed reporting groups often collaborate with longtime mainstream news outlets including The Associated Press. The global organization structured as a not-for-profit has sought to expand its reporting through partnerships, such as efforts with the nonprofit Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education to increase its science journalism.
Louisville Public Media, a National Public Radio member with news, information and music stations, launched the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting in 2013. It has grown from three full-time investigative journalists to five.
Louisville Public Media President Michael Skoler said the story Monday brought an outpouring of support, including a wave of new donations.
“Many, many people are calling (saying) this is the type of reporting that we need and want,” Skoler said.
After Johnson’s suicide, everyone at the center was shaken and sympathized with Johnson’s family, friends and the community, he said.
But, he added, there is “pride about the quality of our work.”
On Thursday, the center posted a statement online saying it would not broadcast the last two parts of its series on a local radio station that aired the first three parts “out of respect for victims of trauma in the immediate wake of Johnson’s suicide.”
All five parts of the story are on the center’s website “so the listeners have the full story as we intended to tell it.”
Associated Press writer Adam Beam in Frankfort, Kentucky, and AP News Researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York contributed to this report.