News organizations often look back, in this season, at the major stories of the past year.
The News is doing just that -- and over the next week, you'll see the results on our front page, as we remember Western New York's big local, sports, entertainment and business news.
But in this column, I want to reflect on something quite different -- the "enterprise scoops" of 2011.
What's an enterprise scoop? These are the stories we at The News dug up ourselves. We call them enterprise because -- unlike a natural disaster or an election -- they would not exist without the efforts of an enterprising reporter.
Often, enterprise reporting is synonymous with investigative reporting. Often, it brings reform or changes the conversation. But always, enterprise reporting is journalism that matters.
Here are my picks for the Top 20 enterprise scoops of 2012:
1. Mary Pasciak painstakingly documented how frequently former Buffalo School Superintendent James A. Williams was out of town while the schools were in extreme crisis. Pasciak also wrote strong pieces about how Williams hired high-priced administrators while the schools were in fiscal crisis and laying off teachers, and, separately, about how many of Williams' hires failed to meet the basic job requirements that the district had established. Under fire for months, Williams in August finally announced that he would resign.
2. A powerful series by a team of reporters on the killing effects of prescription drugs has prompted reform on the state level and raised awareness in schools. The team was led by Susan Schulman and included Henry Davis, Dan Herbeck and Lou Michel.
3. Patrick Lakamp's special report on criminal judges identified the local judges with the most reversals on appeal and the worst rates of reversal. The sweeping piece published the appellate records for judges in 22 New York counties, reviewing all 2,365 criminal appeals decided by the Appellate Division of State Supreme Court, giving readers one measure to grade an incumbent judge when they go to the polls.
4. Phil Fairbanks' investigation of Kensington Heights -- the empty and asbestos-plagued city housing project visible from the Kensington Expressway -- showed that it had turned into a dangerous eyesore. Fairbanks also detailed the political relationships that protected delinquent housing inspectors and contractors, even after criminal indictments. The federal Environmental Protection Agency is now forcing the city to finish the asbestos removal and tear down the six vacant towers.
5. In what may have been the unofficial kickoff of this year's county executive campaign, Matt Spina revealed how much lucrative legal work the Harris Beach law firm got from the Collins administration and the Erie County Industrial Development Agency. The story showed that the firm was also a major donor to Chris Collins' (ultimately unsuccessful) campaign.
6. In his many stories on the outrages in Erie County's jail and prison, Spina also reported that an inmate in the Erie County Correctional Facility broke up a fight between two corrections officers, injuring a tooth in the process. And, with Lakamp, Spina wrote about a man detained for 28 months in the Holding Center with no charges filed.
7. Herbeck and Aaron Besecker revealed that a city agency awarded a $2 million contract to an organization run by an ex-convict. After our reporters' inquiries, the city changed its mind.
8. Herbeck told the startling tale of a child-porn raid gone wrong, in which federal agents broke into the home of an innocent man, roughed him up, pointed weapons at him and seized his computer, having confused him with the actual perpetrator. The feds apologized -- but only after The News article made it embarrassing not to.
9. Robert McCarthy exposed how political bosses manipulate judicial ballots for their own purposes, putting candidates into judicial races after getting them to withdraw as candidates for governor, lieutenant governor, attorney
10. Schulman critically examined congressional candidate Jane Corwin's official biography, questioning the claim that this 47-year-old woman had spent 36 years as a successful businesswoman. (Corwin, the strong front-runner, ended up losing to Kathleen Hochul, then the Erie County clerk.)
11. Charlie Specht examined the pay structure in the Niagara Falls Fire Department, where battalion chiefs make so much money with overtime and other pay boosters that no one wants to be fire chief.
12. Besecker found the highest-paid public official in Erie County -- a Cheektowaga police lieutenant who, because of the way the pay structure is set up, got almost $300,000 the year he retired.
13. McCarthy revealed that Justice Patrick NeMoyer raised $142,000 for a Supreme Court seat in which he was unopposed, allowing him to distribute that money to pols and political parties.
14. James Heaney's story on new Sabres owner Terry Pegula revealed a "mediocre at best" environmental record as a gas driller in Pennsylvania. Heaney, who retired from The News last summer, also investigated the questionable bidding procedures for the revamping of downtown's Donovan office building.
15. Lakamp detailed the shocking case of an East Aurora police officer beating and pepper-spraying a resident who was a passenger in a traffic stop.
16. Sandra Tan produced enterprising stories in advance of the trial of Mo Hassan for beheading his wife. Tan's Jan. 16 story detailed Hassan's previously unknown affair and the not previously reported details of his abusive behavior.
17. Tan's outstanding coverage of the suicide of Jamey Rodemeyer included how the 14-year-old had struggled with bullying and had threatened suicide multiple times online.
18. Jonathan Epstein dug up a real estate trend that showed the surprising spike in housing values on the city's West Side, as the "Elmwood effect" migrated across Richmond Avenue. Epstein's outstanding, breaking-news coverage of HSBC pulling its branches out of Western New York, and of the Steven J. Baum law firm'sdemise, also included elements of enterprisereporting.
19. Tim Graham, who rejoined the staff this year, wrote several fascinating enterprise stories for the Spotlight section, perhaps the strongest of which took us inside the junk-packed home of mother-and-son hoarders in Niagara Falls, who died within months of each other, leaving a $2 million estate and questions about foul play.
20. Jerry Sullivan, early last year, reconstructed Super Bowl XXV, providing fascinating detail of what led to the Buffalo Bills 1991 loss.
We are deeply appreciative of those sources who tipped us off to these stories and helped us as we pursued them.
I hope that recalling these enterprise scoops, whose findings probably would not have come to light otherwise, will remind readers of the value of their newspaper. Despite significant staff reductions over the past several years, The News is continuing to emphasize this kind of labor-intensive and time-consuming reporting.
And we promise to keep at it in 2012.