The road to journalism was one less-travelled for Teri Sforza, Orange County Register staff writer and creator of the OC Watchdog column, who initially studied rhetoric and philosophy in college. She started out at age 22 working for a small-town Louisiana paper, The Hammond Daily Star. It was here that Sforza first felt the push toward public affairs reporting after working on a story covering the state’s education.
“I came to understand how important property taxes were to supporting education – there essentially weren’t any in Louisiana, and you certainly got what you paid for. The lack of a decent school system ensured that the cycle of poverty continued, and it planted in me a raging conviction that the system needs dramatic and fundamental change,” Sforza said.
Whether sorting through boxes of old documents or reviewing budget information with local city authorities, it’s all about truth-telling for Sforza. Her heart behind the creation of Watchdog lies in her belief in the duty of citizens to hold public officials accountable.
“People behave better when they’re being watched. It benefits everyone,” Sforza said.
After writing for The Register for more than 15 years, the column was brought to life in 2008, and Sforza, who primarily covers nonprofits and local government, was the vision behind the movement. According to OCRegister.com, “Sforza birthed the OC Watchdog column aiming to keep a critical (but good-humored) eye on governments and nonprofits, large and small.”
The column began as an online blog in 2008, and was originally given a spot in the Saturday paper each week. Now, according to Sforza, the blog is essentially dead – something she misses greatly.
“The process of creating it was actually quite painful, because I was pissing people off on a daily
basis, and I wasn’t used to being automatically disliked,” Sforza said. “Whenever people got a call from me, they knew it wasn’t going to be jolly good, and people make assumptions about your politics that are absurd.”
Another member of the investigative Watchdog team, Keegan Kyle, who joined in November 2012, echoes the mission of Watchdog, stating, “I hope we help people understand and engage with the community around them, whether that’s a neighbor down the street or a broader institution like local law enforcement. … We try to research what’s happening in the community, narrow it down to what’s significant and help people stay informed.”
Former Register writer, now reader, Nicole Lyons, finds peace and solace in the Watchdog’s reporting.
“It’s something I look would look forward to reading. I’m thankful the paper has a team of people doing what they love, and doing it well for the benefit of myself and others. It’s a special thing to have those who are willing to get to the grit of our government and share in order to better our community,” Lyons said.
Watchdog reporting is nothing new to journalism. The Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard was the spearhead in the world of local watchdog reporting, encouraging local papers to “find their inner watchdogs.”
The foundation’s site allowed various local reporters to share their stories and their paths to watchdog reporting, beginning with Sforza and her creation of the column. When asked in the 2008 interview, “What’s your job like?” Sforza responded, “I am Paper Girl. I collect very simple and basic public documents from cities, special districts, schools, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and nonprofits – stuff like contracts, tax returns, audits, expense reports, financial disclosure forms, inspection reports – and I write a story about what I find five or six days a week.”
While the world of investigative reporting may seem like a dangerous scene from a dark parking garage, the reality of local reporting is a much different sight.
“I don’t consider what I do investigative reporting, exactly. That conveys romantic, adventurous images. … What I do is really just a lot of reading, collating and dissecting of perfectly public information drawn from public documents and data sets,” Sforza said.
She has come a long way from the 22-year-old who wandered through Louisiana, wondering what she could do to make a difference. Now, a published nonfiction author, documentary filmmaker and contributor to a Pulitzer-prize winning piece of journalism as well as on-location reporter during the 1994 Rwandan genocide, Sforza continues on with her thirst for learning and discovery.
“I love the characters I meet, and I love numbers,” Sforza said. “Numbers provide powerful testimony, and can be very difficult to argue with. How much are you spending to lock people up? How much are you spending to educate them? Budgets are just policy statements with numbers. I wish all reporters could look at their city budget sessions that way. … Someone said that journalism is a magic carpet ride that takes you to places other people don’t get to go, and frees you to ask questions other people don’t get to ask. That’s what I love.”