By Anjanette Delgado
Editor's note: What is the “worth” of investigative journalism to readers? In this new piece by guest blogger Anjanette Delgado, a New York team reports on how they measured potential interest in an investigative series on cashless highway tolls. First of a two-part series.
A deep investigation into cashless tolling on a new bridge in New York began by floating this trial balloon: "Tappan Zee, Mario drivers hit with thousands in fees”
At lohud.com, we had been hearing about local drivers getting bills, sometimes for thousands of dollars in fees, to cover their $5 trips across the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge. The story included a callout asking more drivers to come forward.
We used the impact and effort matrix to determine whether a full investigation would worth the time and resources we’d be investing because we choose to apply our resources where we can do the most good. That first low-effort story, done in less than two hours, tested both audience interest and opportunity for impact.
A flood of responses followed, showing the opportunity to right a wrong for a significant number of people and make a real difference in our community. (A similar story borne of other complaints around the same time drew little response and ended up being a much smaller story for us. We just didn’t see proof that the issue represented a job our community wanted us to do.)
Now, nearly a year in, we include this impact statement with toll stories:
Reporters at lohud and The Journal News have spent months investigating cashless tolls to find out why drivers are getting fees and escalating fines for tolls for which many say they were never billed, who's running the system and where the system is breaking down.
The reporting so far has prompted changes, including: an amnesty program forgiving $1.4 million in individual bills; a bill introduced in Albany to help toll payers; a new web page for the amnesty program instead of using the faulty Tolls By Mail site; more distinct envelopes so drivers know they've received a bill; new toll signs on the Gov. Mario M. Cuomo Bridge; more responsiveness from Thruway officials, two of whom attended a lohud forum on cashless tolling and personally helped drivers with their individual cases. legislation drafting a tollpayer’s bill of rights; and an apology from the lieutenant governor.
“So many of the people we talk to felt helpless and that’s where we come in,” said Frank Scandale, the project’s editor and head of investigations at lohud.com. “We have been able to get to the bottom of some things, get help for our readers, and put some of these bureaucrats on the defensive.”
This investigation is largely running on two parallel tracks:
1). A deep dig into how the system works, who’s managing it, where the breakdown is happening and how this technology is being used for surveillance. Frank Esposito is investigating this, and he’s using a network mapping technique to connect seemingly unrelated individuals into networks with clearly defined goals.
2). Crowdsourcing and horror stories. These are the drivers getting pulled over and left beside a road in the Bronx at night after their car is impounded for a suspended registration for unpaid tolls. These are the drivers taking taxis to work now because their cars have been repossessed after fees got out of hand. These are also the drivers helping us fact-check some of the statements coming from the players in the first track. Chris Eberhart has been working on this track.
We also quickly assembled a panel event offering help to drivers struggling with steep bills (two lawyers, a state senator and a representative from AAA). We invited the state Thruway Authority, which is responsible for the toll system, to take part.
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. Look for the second part in this series next Tuesday.
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