Pioneer Press examination of public pension ‘spiking’ wins investigative journalism DFMie

Headline: Public pension 'spiking': Overtime hours soar for St. Paul fire supervisors
Journalist: MaryJo Webster, Mara Gottfried, Christopher Magan and C.J. Sinner
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Four reporters from the Pioneer Press win the DFMie for investigative journalism for their reporting on public pension “spiking” by St. Paul Fire Department supervisors.

MaryJo Webster

MaryJo Webster

MaryJo Webster, Mara Gottfried, Christopher Magan and C.J. Sinner share the award for the project, which Editor Mike Burbach described as a result of “serious data-crunching and good old shoe-leather.” The reporters examined how deputy and district fire chiefs amassed huge amounts of overtime their final years on the public payroll, inflating the salaries on which their pensions would be based. The eight top-paid city employees were all in the fire department making more than the fire chief, police chief and mayor.

Webster explained the sophisticated data analysis required in a blog post that accompanied the series:

Finding evidence of public employees who have artificially inflated their final years’ salary before retirement in order to get a better pension — a practice known as pension spiking — is difficult to do in Minnesota. But we found a way around the hurdles for our investigation of pension spiking in the St. Paul Fire Department.

DFMie judges explained why they chose the project as the winner:

The story about pension inflation that the Pioneer Press broke is a great example of how old school reporting can join with new school techniques to make something really great. Not only did the team on this story take a creative approach to pulling together the data they needed, they detailed the process in a fascinating blog entry. The data was nicely visualized, and the story focused on an issue with real-world impact and public service implications. Not only did this reporting impact St. Paul, but it also fit into a broader examination of public pensions in the area, which strengthened this individual reporting effort. The combination of transparency, data collection and analysis, and presentation make this pension project a great example of how digital media can really shine in the investigative sphere. 

Other finalists in the investigative category were:

Webster has been the computer-assisted reporting editor at the St. Paul Pioneer Press since 2005. Her primary role is to promote data journalism by developing stories — on her own and through teamwork with other reporters — and by providing training and access to data for others in the newsroom. She also developed and maintains the searchable data page, The Data Mine.

Webster also shared in the DFMie for data journalism and was also a finalist for special contribution and interactive journalism. She is the only winner of two annual DFMies and the only four-time finalist.

Prior to coming to St. Paul, Webster was the sports database editor at USA Today. She also worked at the Center for Public Integrity, Investigative Reporters and Editors and several small daily newspapers in Minnesota and Wisconsin. She lives in Arden Hills, Minn. with her husband and their 4-year-old twins.

Gottfried is a Pioneer Press reporter covering St. Paul crime and public safety, the beat she’s had for most of her career at the newspaper. She’s worked at the Pioneer Press since 2001, when she was hired as an intern. Gottfried has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Maryland.

Christopher Magan

Christopher Magan

C.J. Sinner

C.J. Sinner

Magan covers education for the Pioneer Press. He joined the paper in 2011 after eight years as a schools and government reporter for the Dayton Daily News. He lives with his wife Andrea and their two children, Grace, 12, and Robby, 7, in the Twin Cities suburb of Rosemount.

Sinner is the multimedia producer at the Pioneer Press, focusing on video and interactives and occasionally helping out Webster with data visualization projects. She has been in the position for a year.

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