NYTimes’ Barstow makes each byline count

by
David Barstow

David Barstow of The New York Times had two bylines in 2012.

But those two stories have shaken the world’s largest retailer and what investors and consumers think about it.

The first story, published on April 21, disclosed how Wal-Mart’s Mexican operations were using bribes to expand their business. Through nearly 8,000 words, Barstow’s expose presenting damning evidence, and the company’s stock price fell 5 percent.

The second story, published on Dec. 18, looked closer at the problem. Barstow wrote:

Rather, Wal-Mart de Mexico was an aggressive and creative corrupter, offering large payoffs to get what the law otherwise prohibited. It used bribes to subvert democratic governance — public votes, open debates, transparent procedures. It used bribes to circumvent regulatory safeguards that protect Mexican citizens from unsafe construction. It used bribes to outflank rivals.

Through confidential Wal-Mart documents, The Times identified 19 store sites across Mexico that were the target of Wal-Mart de Mexico’s bribes. The Times then matched information about specific bribes against permit records for each site. Clear patterns emerged. Over and over, for example, the dates of bribe payments coincided with dates when critical permits were issued. Again and again, the strictly forbidden became miraculously attainable.

Ryan Chittum of Columbia Journalism Review called the first story “one of the most damning exposés of corporate corruption I’ve seen in years. It’s an incredible piece of journalism.” And it is for these two stories that Barstow is named the Talking Biz News co-Business Journalist of the Year for 2012.

To be sure, Barstow’s work has not been while assigned to the business news desk. The stories have been while he is part of the investigative desk run by Matt Purdy. But the stories are classical business journalism, using internal company documents and extensive on-the-ground interviews to uncover a company’s corrupt practices. The fact that it’s one of the largest companies in the world makes the stories even better.

The first story led to the longest PR response to a journalist’s story that I have ever seen a company issue. And the first story has already awarded the Barlett & Steele Award for Investigative Business Journalism by the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism. I’d expect it to be a serious Pulitzer contender next year.

Barstow, who joined the paper on the metro desk in 1999, has been an investigative reporter for The Times since 2002. This is not the first time that his work has garnered national recognition.

In 2002 and 2003, Barstow reported extensively on workplace safety in America, leading a team of journalists that produced two series for The Times and an hour-long documentary for the PBS program “Frontline.” The two series, “Dangerous Business” and “When Workers Die,” won the Pulitzer Prize for public service in 2004. The two series and the documentary were also recognized with the duPont Silver Baton, an award long regarded as the Pulitzer Prize of television reporting.

In 2009, he won the Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting for “Message Machine,” two articles that exposed a covert Pentagon campaign to use retired military officers, working as analysts for television and radio networks, to reiterate administration “talking points” about the war on terror.

Before joining the paper, Barstow worked for The St. Petersburg Times in Florida beginning in 1990, reporting on a wide range of issues. While there, he was a finalist for three Pulitzer Prizes: in 1997, he was the lead writer for coverage of race riots and was a finalist for spot news reporting; in 1998, he helped lead coverage of financial wrongdoing at the National Baptist Convention and was a finalist for investigative reporting; and, that same year, he wrote a series of stories about tobacco litigation and was a finalist for explanatory journalism.

Before joining The St. Petersburg Times, Barstow was a reporter for The Rochester Times-Union in upstate New York.