How to win a Loeb Award
by Chris Roush
TALKING BIZ NEWS EXCLUSIVE
Spencer Soper of The Allentown Morning Call in Pennsylvania received a Gerald Loeb Award last week for his coverage of working conditions at an Amazon.com warehouse in the state.
He joined The Morning Call in 2005. Soper previously worked as a reporter for newspapers in California and New York.
Soper talked this weekend by e-mail with Talking Biz News about the series of stories. What follows is an edited transcript.
Why did you decide to write about the Amazon warehouse?
I wrote a story about openings at the Amazon warehouse in the summer, which resulted in a tip about some snafus in the hiring process with Amazon and its temporary staffing firm. That tip resulted in this story. That story prompted more tips about working conditions, and we hit it from there.
How did you find the employees that talked to you?
Various methods. After we heard from a couple of people about working conditions, we wanted to make sure we didn’t have one common denominator between all of our sources. I heard from a few people based on the above story, and called around others I knew which led to more sources. Some of it was banging on doors at night when phone calls alone didn’t work.
Did you use any strategies to get them to speak specifically about their experiences?
One strategy for all stories. Being upfront about what I was doing. A lot of people were reluctant to speak on the record. I just started a conversation with people and asked them about their experiences. Anyone who wasn’t comfortable going on record, even with anonymity, we left it open ended. I’d call them back after a few days to see what they thought. A lot of people fell off and we didn’t use them, but many more stayed with it, allowing me to check their pay stubs and go on the record. Some we allowed with anonymity since they still worked at the warehouse or because they expected to return.
When in the process did you realize you had a good story?
I don’t remember. I just remember wanting to know more and more and speak to as many people as possible. And the determination got stronger with each interview.
How much time did you spend reporting before you started writing?
I usually start writing as soon as I’m taking notes. Then flesh out the background and context later. This story came together pretty quickly. A couple of months from start to finish.
You used a lot of OSHA records and photos to tell the story. Explain their usefulness.
They helped to corroborate what workers were telling us and provided some specificity. We got a lot more from Amazon through its response to OSHA inquiries than we did from their response to our inquiries.
Your story had minimal reaction from ISS, the temporary agency, and Amazon. How hard did you try to get them to respond?
We didn’t waterboard them or beg them, but we let them know everything that was coming and gave them ample opportunity to respond. They didn’t dispute anything we discovered in our reporting. And Amazon’s response to OSHA, which we obtained through FOIA, corroborated a lot of the story for us. We were comfortable moving ahead with their limited statements.
You don’t see much coverage about warehouses in business news publications. Why do you think that’s the case?
That’s a good question for business publications. I think it is a subject where proximity is important. The Morning Call is in Allentown, which is a big shipping hub for the East Coast. You can’t schmooze an Amazon PR rep and get this story and you won’t hear about warehouse working conditions if you’re working sources on Wall Street. You have to build it from the ground up. I was in a good position to do the building.
Was there anything about the reporting and writing of this story that you had to learn while doing it?
I had to bone up on the temp industry. That’s a good subject for any business reporter to learn more about since they are likely to encounter it no matter which companies they cover.
After the story ran, what kind of follow-up stories did you write?
This was our first big investigation. and here was the first follow story. Hre was the second follow. I had heard some things about this in our first story, but not enough to nail it. After first story ran, I got enough to nail it down.
Here was third follow. We spent about as much time on this follow as we did on initial investigation since Amazon wouldn’t say much, initially, about the air conditioning system being installed and we had to obtain warehouse building permits using the Pennsylvania right to know law. Then we had to figure out how to make sense of warehouse construction drawings.
Did this story open the door to other stories?
The Morning Call has a solid reputation for watchdog reporting. Still, I think the Amazon series helped me gain worker trust to nail this story about a cardboard manufacturing company that outsourced its trucking department after learning a union drive was underway.
What is the last thing you bought on Amazon?
I don’t shop much, Chris. I get new things at the supermarket, hardware store and auto parts store. Otherwise, I buy used and hit thrift stores. You can learn more about that side of me here.