Looking forward to the future of journalism

Express-News and WOAI team up for story about court-appointed lawyers

Veteran observers of San Antonio politics experienced a deja vu moment the other night when a familiar story graced their TV screens. WOAI Trouble Shooter Brian Collister told viewers that Bexar County judges are using a flawed process to appoint lawyers to indigent defendants. If this story rings a bell, it should — Collister broke a similar story in 2002 about then County-Court-at-Law Judge M’Liss Christian giving David Garcia, a lawyer and city councilman at the time, most of Garcia’s indigent defense work at the courthouse.

This was an interesting fact, considering how Christian and Garcia were rumored to be a romantic item.

In 2002, the Express-News and other San Antonio news organizations scrambled to keep up with Collister’s bombshell coverage of Christian and Garcia. But for this more recent court story, Collister did something weird — the hyper competitive TV reporter asked if the Express-News wanted to team up.

How the heck did that happen?

It turned out Collister was working on his courthouse story around the same time Express-News reporter Brian Chasnoff was also digging into the issue. Last month, Chasnoff wrote a story about Bexar County’s erratic method of appointing defense lawyers to low-income clients. The story was based on a state report by the Texas Task Force on Indigent Defense, which determined that Bexar County was violating the Texas Fair Defense Act.

It was an important story. If you’re poor and accused of a crime in Texas, you’re entitled to a court-appointed lawyer. That lawyer is supposed to be randomly appointed to your case from a rotating pool of eligible lawyers. But in Bexar County, judges were appointing hundreds of lawyers who weren’t even on the approved list, and a small number of lawyers had amassed the most work and income.

The state report obtained by Chasnoff did not identify the lawyers who got the most work. But Collister had already obtained a county database that named names. It identified the lawyers receiving court appointments; how much they were paid; and the judges that gave out the work. A handful of attorneys were making hundreds of thousands of dollars.

This is where things get interesting.

In the old days, Collister would have done his own story in an effort to compete with the Express-News. But times have changed in journalism. There are fewer warm bodies in newsrooms, and while there’s still heated competition between news organizations in Texas, there’s also a new willingness to pool resources, collaborate on stories, and reach wider audiences.

So Collister approached the Express-News and asked if it wanted to team up for a detailed story about court-appointed lawyers.

“The idea was, ‘You have a piece of the puzzle, I have a piece of the puzzle. Let’s work together and make a better story,'” Collister told me. “The days of there being cutthroat competition, to a point, are over.”

It was an odd sight watching Collister hanging out in the Express-News, hovering over Chasnoff’s desk and collaborating like it was the most natural thing in the world.

I asked Chasnoff what it was like working with Collister. Chasnoff said he was pleasantly surprised. He didn’t encounter the heavy handed reporter on TV who shoves fuzzy microphones in people’s faces during ambush interviews. Collister had good ideas, and his court data saved Chasnoff a lot of time. Before they teamed up, Chasnoff had requested similar data from the county, so partnering with Collister meant Chasnoff didn’t have to waste time waiting for the information. “He had the goods,” Chasnoff said.

Chasnoff wrote a long news story that ran in the Sunday paper and WOAI produced its own version of the story. They identified the top lawyers and how much they were paid and posted the data online:

The top earner, lawyer Hilda Valadez, earned more than $400,000 in the past three years, hundreds of thousands of dollars more than the average court-appointed attorney.

In at least one courtroom, the inequity appears rooted in cronyism. Attorney Edward Adams, who contributed the most in the past year to the failed re-election campaign of County Court Judge Monica Guerrero, also was appointed the most cases and earned by far the most money in Guerrero’s court in the past three years.

Both news organizations brought different strengths to the table. WOAI told the story with pictures and audio, while the newspaper story went into greater depth and detail. Collister said he was pleased by the long, nuanced newspaper article. In most TV stories, he has to leave a lot of good material on the cutting room floor — that’s the nature of the beast in TV news, which is always crunched for time. So it was nice to have the newspaper story include points that he didn’t have a chance to air.

“To see it all get out there is just really gratifying,” Collister said.

I like news scoops as much as the next guy. But I’m starting to warm up to the notion that there’s a benefit to teaming up, every once in awhile, with other news organizations to pool resources and reach a broader audience.

Even after the stories ran, the teamwork between Collister and Chasnoff continued. The stories generated interesting tips from readers and viewers. Chasnoff said he and Collister have been sharing tips, and they might work on follow-up stories together.

“His attitude is, we stay unified,” Chasnoff said, “and we push the story forward.”