How IowaWatch alums are shaping COVID-19 coverage across the U.S.

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In late 2011, IowaWatch reporters gather around co-founder Stephen J. Berry discussing stories. Left to right, Emily Hoerner, Berry, Laura Arny, Lauren Mills Shotwell, MacKenzie Elmer.

Elderly folks are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. So are jail and prison inmates living in close quarters that allow the virus to easily spread. 

That means elderly inmates face a double whammy of risk. So why was Illinois offering so few reprieves to elderly inmates at a time when the state was letting out hundreds of other prisoners to alleviate crowding? And why does Illinois incarcerate so many older folks to begin with

Emily Hoerner is answering such life-and-death questions for Injustice Watch, a Chicago-based nonprofit news outlet that exposes institutional failures that obstruct justice and equality, where she has reported since 2015. 

Hoerner was among IowaWatch’s first interns in 2011 and 2012 as a University of Iowa student, and she is among a long list of IowaWatch alums who are now watchdogging government officials, shining a light on injustices and offering critical information to communities during a pandemic that has upended life across the United States.

“IowaWatch was the place where I really first learned about the importance of understanding the nuance in stories. There, I learned to look at the numbers, listen to what people are saying, but then dig deeper. It’s a lesson that has stuck with me for years,” Hoerner told me. 

The Gazette front page, May 29, 2010, featuring Jim Malewitz’s story about the disappearance of University of Iowa graduate student Jacques Similhomme.

I can relate. I reported for IowaWatch during its infancy, gaining the skills, values and inspiration that propelled me to my current role: investigations editor at Wisconsin Watch, where I’m shaping coverage of the public health crisis and its effects on Wisconsin. In the past months, our newsroom has spotlighted a dysfunctional unemployment insurance system that has left laid-off Wisconsinites without income during the pandemic, hospitals that are suing patients over medical bills and  how politics paralyzed Wisconsin’s pandemic response — with deadly results. We also explored from every angle Wisconsin’s preparation for a high-stakes presidential election that coincided with the pandemic and disinformation campaigns

Taking stock of work by my fellow alums across the country makes this much clear: IowaWatch’s impact during the pandemic extends far behind Iowa’s borders — and beyond the rigorously fact checked stories that IowaWatch is currently producing and distributing to newsrooms across the state.

Below is just a sample of that impact.

Thomas Nelson, who as a 2016 IowaWatch intern reported a series of stories about homelessness among Iowa military veterans, is now covering a wide range of COVID-19-related stories for Marshalltown’s Times-Republican newspaper. He has kept readers abreast of trends in diagnoses of the virus in Marshall County and the pandemic’s sweeping effects on local government finances, the economy and vulnerable meatpacking plant workers — among other topics.

“I wouldn’t be where I am without IowaWatch,” said Nelson, a 2016 graduate of Iowa State University. “I’d wager my IowaWatch experience got me my first job, and the lessons I’ve learned made me a better reporter and writer. [Former Executive Director] Lyle Muller’s lessons during my internship helped me know the right questions to ask officials during the pandemic.”

Stephen Gruber-Miller, an IowaWatch intern during summer 2013, spoke on KXIC radio in January 2015 about his Opportunity Gap stories. Gruber-Miller now works at the Des Moines Register, covering state politics.

Stephen Gruber-Miller covers state politics for the Des Moines Register and is watchdogging the state government’s response to COVID-19. He has also offered crucial fact checking to virus-related medical claims while reporting on how the pandemic has reshaped voting and politics in Iowa. As the pandemic continues, Gruber-Miller has also contributed to coverage of another public health crisis — police brutality against black Americans, writing dispatches from protests in Des Moines. A Grinnell College graduate, he reported for IowaWatch from 2013 to 2015.

MacKenzie Elmer, a University of Iowa graduate and one of IowaWatch’s first reporters in 2011 and 2012, has since reported for the Associated Press, Burlington Hawk Eye, Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, Des Moines Register and received a master’s degree from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego. In March, she began reporting on the environment and natural resources for the nonprofit Voice of San Diego, where she has found ways where her beat intersects with the pandemic, including effects on greenhouse gas emissions and access to beaches. Meanwhile, her coverage reminds readers of a slower-moving public health crisis in need of addressing: climate change. 

“The IowaWatch model shaped my early journalism career and now I find myself coming full circle, working again for a nonprofit, investigative outlet that provides the kind of support and freedom ad-based news cannot,” Elmer said. “This is the future of journalism.”

Rebekah Hoeger, who reported for IowaWatch in 2011 and 2012 as a University of Iowa Journalism student, has covered the pandemic  — including stories about mental health, first responders and hunger — as an anchor at KKTV 11 News in Colorado Springs, Colorado. 

Linh Ta

Linh Ta reported on depression on college campuses for IowaWatch in 2014 and served on the Board of Directors in 2019. The University of Northern Iowa graduate has covered a host of COVID-19 topics for the Iowa Capital Dispatch, writing stories on public health, education and the unemployment insurance system. 

Robert Maharry reported for IowaWatch in 2012-13. He is now regional news editor for Central Iowa-based Mid-America Publishing, where he has worked — doing a bit of everything  — since graduating from the University of Iowa in 2013. He is now shaping coverage of the broad effects of the virus in Grundy County. 

“I credit [Muller] with guiding me toward a more comprehensive understanding of investigative reporting, and that’s helped me greatly as I’ve worked on big stories about contentious Iowa issues such as wind energy, hog confinement operations, water quality and now the COVID-19 pandemic,” Maharry said. 

Jim Malewitz is an IowaWatch board member and investigations editor for Wisconsin Watch, the nonprofit news outlet run by the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.