Tracking the impact: At what point do the benefits of a journalism series eclipse the effort of its investigation?
A team of journalists learned the value of tracking the impact of their research on cashless tolls on New York thruways; their findings are shared in this second piece by guest blogger Anjanette Delgado. In the first blog, Delgado described a deep dive into the inner workings of the cashless toll system, where they gauged effort versus value to their readers. The team utilized crowdsourcing to collect “horror stories” of drivers charged with fees for trips they hadn’t made and even had their cars repossessed and organized a panel to help drivers facing steep bills.
By Anjanette Delgado
We typically record impact in our media tracker after we’ve completed an investigation or project, but this time we wanted to track it in real time to see what we could learn from correlation, and whether we could prove cause. (This could be useful in further investigative work.) Impact appears to be tied most to these things:
Don’t let up. Unlike a lot of our investigative work in which multiple stories publish on one day, here we’ve published relentlessly as we learn more and more about this incredibly secretive system.
Offer solutions to those looking for a win. We wrote an editorial identifying three things the state could do to improve the system. The state implemented all three right away and credited us for the suggestion.
Focus on the human drama. The horror stories are easily the most-read pieces in the investigation, most likely because they are compelling narrative dramas that make you feel something (outrage, sympathy). Those victims are part of a federal class-action lawsuit against the state Thruway Authority, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the Metropolitan Transportation Authority; Conduent; and debt collectors.
Make sure the people, agencies and companies you’re investigating know you’re doing it. Digging into Conduent, the private company that handles the “back office” billing for the Thruway Authority and controls nearly half of the U.S. electronic-tolling market, continued alongside the human stories. When we asked state officials questions, especially questions that proved we knew a lot about the system already, they responded in commentary, a letter to Conduent and a visit there. When we invited state officials to our panel event with drivers, they started an amnesty program that eventually cleared 281,000 violations, for a total of over $1.4 million. Conduent still has not gone on the record but has been reading our coverage. In June, two U.S. senators — Bill Nelson of Florida and Gary Peters of Michigan — called for a Federal Trade Commission probe of Conduent.
Identify the people who are most likely to champion the cause and have the power to make change. Early on in our reporting we identified two local politicians — state Sen. David Carlucci and Assemblyman Tom Abinanti — who had started making noise about the problem. We quoted them many times and checked in often to see what they’d learned about the system. They’re behind the Toll Payer Protection Act, which passed both houses in July and sits on Gov. Cuomo’s desk awaiting his signature. “As we were proving points, that this system is bad and has been bad for awhile … we definitely said this is fixable,” Esposito said. In July they called for New York to end its deal with Conduent.
When possible, connect people on both sides of the story in a safe space. The panel event brought together drivers drowning in bills with lawyers offering advice and with representatives from the Thruway Authority who could help. Those representatives, who originally said their billing company is “the best in the country,” traded phone numbers with drivers and offered one-on-one help.
While the community has seen some positive change in the billing system for cashless tolls, we’re not done investigating. We still don’t know:
The exact cause of the billing errors. Fully fleshed out networks and connections for the key players involved with cashless tolling. A complete accounting of the fines Conduent/Xerox paid for failing to meet performance standards. (The Thruway has charged Conduent $477,272 for failing to meet performance standards.) How much money changed hands through lobbyists and PAC's in relation to the bridge and cashless tolling. What role the federal government is playing in this, both legislative and executive. Whether it was a single part or a systemic problem that caused the errors. Cuomo’s office also won’t go on the record. And not every driver wronged by the system has found relief.
Still, New York state continues building out its cashless tolls system. In June the Thruway announced five plazas in the Lower Hudson Valley would go cashless by the end of the year, as the entire system switches by 2020.
Executives at Conduent — which operates in every state and specifically works in cashless tolling in New York, New Jersey, North and South Carolina, Florida, California and Texas — are earning millions.
And the cashless tolling technology, especially the equipment that reads and tracks license plates, is part of a much larger system of public surveillance for private profit that’s spreading rapidly on promises of convenience and increased safety.
“This is one of those investigations with long legs, capable of stretching across not only all of New York but likely most of the U.S.,” Scandale said. “It will impact every motorist (not only) financially but also cyber security-wise. Surveillance on you will grow as cameras proliferate and your whereabouts are logged on databases.”
Change, while beginning in New York and Florida, needs to spread to other states as well. "We may solve it here if Cuomo signs the legislation, but what about Texas?” Esposito said.
Anjanette Delgado is the senior news director for digital at the Detroit Free Press and freep.com, part of the USA Today Network. She worked at lohud.com during most of this investigation. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org, Twitter: @anjdelgado.
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