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Untold stories: What happens when good reporters leave the news business

Controversy at Holy Cross High SchoolA week ago, Jenny LaCoste-Caputo wrote a front-page story about Holy Cross High School, and how it withheld diplomas from students who owed thousands of dollars in tuition.

This week, Jenny is on her way to a new job in a new city. She’s leaving behind the news business and all its uncertainty.

“It was getting scary,” Jenny said, referring to round-after-round of lay offs in the turbulent media industry. “We got two little kids.”

When a journalist leaves journalism, it’s easy for the bean counters to figure out how much money is saved in pay and benefits. But it’s difficult to calculate the lost impact of all the great stories that will probably go untold by a single talented reporter.

Related: Telling stories about the unthinkable: How three journalists shined a spotlight on child abuse

Jenny covered the education beat. She first learned of the problems at Holy Cross in May through a tip. She began talking to “as many people as possible” to vet the complaints about Holy Cross, and she went back and interviewed families to make sure they didn’t change their stories. The didn’t. “It’s not like we took things at face value,” Jenny said.

Here’s the top of the long article Jenny wrote after weeks of work:

For Sylvia Flores, a private school voucher seemed like a winning lottery ticket.

Flores lives in Edgewood Independent School District but desperately wanted a Catholic education for her son, Luis Flores.

It was a dream that was out of reach until she heard about a voucher program funded by San Antonio businessman James Leininger, who spent 10 years and $50 million of his fortune bankrolling a political idea that never caught hold in Texas.

When the voucher program ended after her son’s sophomore year at Holy Cross of San Antonio, Flores was left with a gut-wrenching reality: She couldn’t afford the school Luis loved. But she said that when she opted for public school, Holy Cross’ principal urged her to stay, offering tuition assistance and opportunities to work off the $5,100 in annual tuition.

Ultimately, staying cost Luis his diploma and left Flores with a bill of nearly $10,000 she didn’t expect.

Four families whose children were scheduled to graduate from Holy Cross this year told the San Antonio Express-News that the school’s administration encouraged them and others to remain at the school despite mounting bills, promising help with tuition. But in the second half of the students’ senior year, school officials told the families they would have to pay their tuition bill in full if they wanted their children to graduate. The bills ranged from $6,300 to nearly $14,000.

A teaser for the story was posted online and it generated more than 100 comments before the full article was even published. One thing Jenny learned is that several of the students were athletes, and Holy Cross didn’t raise concerns about their tuition until the sports seasons were over.

Related: Lost talent: Profiles of Pulitzer-prize winning journalists who left newspapers

“In almost every case, that was what happened,” Jenny said.

Jenny Caputo
Express-News Editor Bob Rivard mentioned the Holy Cross story in a newsroom meeting Thursday, where we all said farewell to Jenny and three other journalists who are moving on to other jobs or going back to school.

Reporter Elizabeth Allen also left the paper, and the conversation at the meeting turned to the memorable reporters like Elizabeth who came to the Express-News after covering news in the Rio Grande Valley. Maro Robbins, Jeanne Russell, Bonnie Pfister … they all wrote outstanding stories. And they’ve all left the news business. It’s sobering to think of all the great stories that are going untold in San Antonio. Not to sound like Donald Rumsfeld, but we don’t even know what we don’t know we’re missing.

Bob said as much during the meeting. While some news executives claim we can do less with more, Bob said he didn’t buy that.

“Make no mistake,” Bob told the departing journalists last week, “by losing you, we are diminished.”

In the age of Facebook and Twitter, you could argue that even though we’re losing some talented voices in the media, in the long run it’s OK because the Internet allows all of us to tell stories. But that argument doesn’t take into account the quality of the stories. Jenny’s article was rich with telling details, which she dug up during weeks of work. That kind of time is a luxury for most bloggers. And that kind of depth is a far cry from a rant on Facebook.

Jenny’s husband, Anton, had covered the environmental beat at the Express-News, and led our coverage of the controversy surrounding the proposed expansion of the nuclear power plant in Bay City, Texas. Anton got a job in Austin and left journalism — and Jenny’s doing the same, working for the Texas Association of School Administrators.

“I’m glad I’m going out on a high note with a story that made some impact,” Jenny said.

Imagine the other high notes if she had stayed.