Twenty-Five Stories

13 Precision journalism and uncovering disparities in the courts

Tom Andrzejewski and Leslie Kay

Tom Andrzejewski and Leslie Kay each worked for The Plain Dealer for more than 20 years. Their eight-day series, “Justice in the Seventies: The System on Trial,” was one of journalism’s first – and to this day best – computer-assisted reporting projects. The husband-and-wife team worked on it for 19 months, analyzing more than 6 million pieces of data for more than 28,000 Cuyahoga County court cases in the early and mid-1970s. They found that sentences for the same kinds of crimes varied widely among judges, that the poor faced higher bonds and stiffer sentences and much more. The series won local, state and national awards, including the Silver Gavel Award of the American Bar Association.

They were interviewed by Dave Davis on April 24, 2018. The following Q&A was edited for space and clarity. See the Resources section in the Back Matter of this book to read the series.


Kay:     The main accomplishment of the court series was that our marriage survived working together for 19 months.

Davis:  Yeah, I imagine there were long hours and frustrations.

Andrzejewski: A lot of frustrations because of some of the flaws in the idea that we first had about the series. For instance, we did not know how deficient the data were that we were buying from the courts. And for many of the stories, we had to gather samples (manually). True random samples. For instance, we did a parole sample. We wanted to find out when a judge sentences somebody, how long that person actually spends in prison.

So that took some manual work. Because when we first started doing it and we ran some things, we went back to the court to double-check them and we discovered that there were dates missing, names missing, etc. So, patching up the (court’s) data was big.

Davis:  How did you come upon this idea to do this is as a computer project?

Kay:     I think it was your idea.

Andrzejewski: Yeah. I had started working on some neighborhood stories, including population and crime statistics. And I discovered that- Well, there was a wealth of information out there that could be diced and sliced. And you can make stories out of it. Numbers are facts just as statements from politicians or business people, whatever, are. And the idea of using numbers as the facts for our stories intrigued me.

Davis:  Well, I mean I think this is such a great example of precision journalism because, going through it, you really take apart every aspect of it. I think about what we would typically do and that would be that we would cover something, so we would be aware that there was a problem. And then we would come up with anecdotal evidence. And then try to find people who could talk about that. This really has a lot of authority in that it’s everything. It’s the whole world.

So this was published, Dec. 24, 1978- the first story. But I thought I read someplace in here that it said, Tom, that you had this idea going back to 1973 or earlier.

Andrzejewski: Well, yeah. I had covered criminal court. When I got off military leave and came back to The Plain Dealer, my first assignment was- I got on the criminal court beat.

Davis:  So this wasn’t just like a recent “Let’s do something on courts,” right?

Andrzejewski: Well, you know, I had some familiarity with criminal courts and-

Kay:     Well, we had both covered the courts.

Davis:  You probably knew there was something there.

Kay:     A lot of questions.

Davis:  So the series, from what I could tell, was an eight-day series where you were looking at basically every aspect of the county court system. What did you find? What were the big things, the big takeaways?

Andrzejewski: Well, No. 1 was an affirmation of many of the things that appeared to be true were based in fact. That the indigents didn’t get as fair a shake as (other) people.

Davis:  Yeah, you wrote pretty clearly that poor people were sort of screwed.

Andrzejewski: Yeah. And there were racial disparities. There weren’t that many women involved in the justice system from the end of offenders at that time. But it was growing. One of the things that did occur in comparison to prior years is the explosion of criminal cases that had besieged the county.

Davis:  Right. Well, one of the big takeaways that I got from it, too, which was that sentencing varied pretty greatly among judges for the same (kinds of) crimes.

Andrzejewski: Yes. Yes.

Davis:  Which is a very big deal.

Andrzejewski: Yeah, and everybody sort of- The defense lawyers and the prosecutors pretty much knew that. They knew which judges would give the toughest sentences. Although we did find, surprisingly, that one judge who was perceived as not a heavy sentencer ended up being one of the toughest sentencers.

So that was sort of revealing. We did find little nuggets like that as great exceptions to the conventional wisdoms.

Davis:  Yeah, I noticed- Well, the big things that stuck out to me were that the poor tended to get higher bonds and stiffer sentences. And that the sentences varied greatly among judges for pretty much the same (kinds of) crimes. And then there were a lot of plea bargains. I think you found that about half of (all dispositions were plea bargains).

Andrzejewski: And I thought that was important because nobody really had ever looked into plea bargaining at all. We knew it existed. And we knew that in some cases, if somebody came in with multiple cases, pleaded guilty to one, the others are dropped and stuff like that. That was occurring all the time. But nobody really knew the extent of it and what the result of it was.

Davis:  Yeah and then I happened to notice that it looked to me from like one of the graphics that people sentenced to prison went from 23 percent in (1971) to like 40 percent in 1975 and ’76.

Andrzejewski: Yes, yes.

Davis:  Leslie, was this the biggest project you worked on? I know you (previously) mentioned another one that was quite big.

Kay:     Well, timewise for sure. I don’t think we came even close to 19 months on anything else. The other one I mentioned was one that I worked on – well, there were a couple – but (one) had to do with a family that ran nursing homes. And it had other sort of affiliated business. And I worked on that with Walt Bogdanich and Stephanie Saul.

Actually, they finished it because I went on maternity leave in the midst of it. There were (other) projects that took a while. But nothing like this.

Davis:  You joined The Plain Dealer, I think, in 1968 as an assistant travel editor, which surprised me from what I’ve heard about you.

Kay:     Right. I started right out of college. I had some other offers but, you know, I had grown up in a Plain Dealer household. I looked at it like a foot-in-the-door kind of deal.

Davis:  So you’re from Cleveland?

Kay:     Yeah.

Davis:  OK. So when you say you grew up in a Plain Dealer household, did you have-

Kay:     No, we got the Plain Dealer. Actually, I had a couple aunts who worked up in advertising. But that didn’t have anything to do with it.

Davis:  Do you mind if I ask you what high school you went to?

Kay:     Mayfield. My mother was on the school board. My father was a councilman. And then I went to Penn State (University), majored in journalism. And got this offer at the Plain Dealer and it was assistant travel editor.

I wanted to break this town wide open and ferret out graft and corruption at city hall. But I figured it was a foot in the door, and so I suffered through being assistant travel editor for about a year and a half, I think.

Davis:  And Tom, you started, as a copy boy in 1963.

Andrzejewski: Right. Can I back up for one second?

There’s something I’m reminded of. When we first started this court project, we knew that the Plain Dealer had a computer. And in those days what is now in my pocket as a smartphone was a room this size with all sorts of stuff. Whirring big reels of tape and everything. As it turned out, I was pretty naïve about how this process was gonna go on. As a 30-something, here I was sitting in a room with The Plain Dealer marketing research director and a couple of other high-level Plain Dealer executives from the business side, ’cause it was their computer.

Davis:  Right, it was their computer and it’s expensive to-

Andrzejewski: And on our side (were) a couple of editors. And I remember we all sat down. I’d never been in a business meeting before; I was a reporter. And as a 30-something reporter I just sat down and started the meeting and started talking about why we needed this and how we can work this out and so on and so forth – not realizing we haven’t even gotten permission yet to do this. And of course, there was the arrogance of the most important thing in the Plain Dealer is, of course, the news hole.

Davis:  How did they respond?

Andrzejewski: They were very kind. And said, “Well, just hold on a second. We’ll have to get this meeting in order,” or something like that. But it was a little pat on the head. Don’t feel so bad, kid. That sort of thing.

Davis:  Now what year do you think that was? Do you remember?

Andrzejewski: Early ’77, maybe ’76.

And this thing then blossomed into this arrangement. Blossomed into other endeavors.

Davis:  I couldn’t help but notice that Donald Barlett was on the staff at the time. And I know he went on to do some of this in Philadelphia.

Andrzejewski: Yeah, he was gone already. (Barlett, who left Cleveland for the Philadelphia Inquirer, and his partner, James Steele, examined the criminal justice system in Philadelphia using survey techniques.)  We did this afterward. We knew that this other one existed and had won awards and everything. But they just did a narrow piece using just social science research methods to determine sentencing disparities and such.

Davis:  So I wanted to ask, you (previously) gave credit to the paper, to the editors, for support.

Kay:     He did. Think about it. They had us on the payroll for 19 months. I don’t think we wrote a single story the whole time until this came out.

Andrzejewski: I did. I had some weekend duty and stuff like that.

Kay:     Well, maybe I did too. But we certainly weren’t covering anything on a regular basis.

Davis:  How was it? Did you feel like they supported you? Obviously, they let you do this. They gave you access to the mainframe.

Kay:     Absolutely. But do you remember at the very end that they pushed us to publish before the end of the year?

Andrzejewski: They kept saying, “When are you going to be done? When are you going to be done?” I remember when we first started, we just laughed about, you know, “Oh we’ll be doing this when the snow flies.” Well, this was probably in June of ’77 or something.

Kay:     We had a head list that the staff came up with. A joke head list. Our 19-month investigation finds that the courthouse is on East 21st Street.

Davis:  Yeah, because actually for some amount of this time there would be a question about whether you were actually going to produce something from it. Because you start out on a 19-month thing, and then how far along are you before you know you’re gonna have something for sure? And then at some point, you reach the next level where you know it’s gonna be good for sure. But that’s not right away

Andrzejewski: Or with us, we started exploring parole, for example, and then discovered that we couldn’t really do it unless we did further research beyond what the data was that we purchased from the county.

Davis:  So how long had you been married when you started this? It couldn’t have been too long, right?

Andrzejewski: Just a few years.

Kay:     We were married in ’73, so five years. Five years of wedded bliss.

Davis:  Well, enough to know each other but past the honeymoon stage.

Kay:     Right.

Davis:  And then what was that like? Did you often work together?

Andrzejewski: No, no. We worked on a few things.

Davis:  I didn’t think so because from hearing stories separately about the two of you and the pieces you’ve done, except for this one.

So you’d been married a little while, about five years. I imagined there were a lot of late nights. Some stress. Was there ever a point where you felt like this wasn’t gonna happen? That it wasn’t gonna work out?

Andrzejewski: What, the marriage or the-? No.

Kay:     Both. All of the above.

Andrzejewski: Yeah, sure. I mean we had doubts. And when we ran into all these problems with the data, said, “Oh my God, what have we wrought?” And that was a few months into the project, I think.

Kay:     I mean I don’t remember details of how- We probably disagreed on some things and had to reach some sort of compromise.

Andrzejewski: There (are) ups and downs, like anything else.

Davis:  So one of the things I’m wondering about is, which was the better paper, in your opinion? The Press or the Plain Dealer?

Kay:     Oh, Plain Dealer. Absolutely.

Andrzejewski: Journalistically, the Plain Dealer. As far as the issue of the people’s paper, The Press had an edge. The Plain Dealer was always viewed, when I was growing up, as kind of a WASP-ish, upper-crust paper that really didn’t pay attention to anybody- you know, the little guy. Where the Press was constantly doing stories about the little guy getting screwed.

They had that final edition. And they had that first edition. Both of which were newsstand sales. So the final would always have a big headline.

Davis:  (The Press folded in June 1982.) So was it fun competing against them?

Kay:     Well, when I was covering courts, for instance, they had a reporter there, too. We shared an office. Over at (East) 21st Street. And so we were constantly competing. And remember Bus Bergen over at Lakeside Courthouse? You know there was a big press office at Lakeside Courthouse for both reporters. And yeah. You were always looking out for what the other guy had. Always.

Andrzejewski: Yeah, the competition- I was the day city editor in 1982, for most of the year.

It was constant. There was a competitive spirit there. And we were constantly trying to ensure that we had the story and they didn’t. And of course, they had some really good reporters who were out there. But we did too. And it used to be that if there were a big investigation- Like I remember something going on at the Western Reserve Historical Society. And somebody had a conflict of interest or something like that. Well, the Press ran a story, and the Plain Dealer immediately came back the next day with a bigger story. And it just kept going back and forth like that. And things would drag on for weeks sometimes.

City hall scandals. Some of them were minor and such. There was a real competitive spirit. So in 1982, the Press folds in the middle of the year. But all of a sudden, who were we competing against? And the thought was, well, there’s TV. There’s still substantial radio news departments at that time.

Kay:     Nothing online. No Twitter. No Facebook. Nothing. Just television. I mean I don’t think that there was anybody – in the city room, at least – who was happy about the Press folding.

Andrzejewski: No. Absolutely not.

Kay:     And I think we were generally sad about it.

Davis:  And why was that?

Kay:     Well, because we appreciated the competition and we knew that more- I mean these people (the Plain Dealer staff) were honest journalists. They recognized the value of having different voices. And the value of competition.

Andrzejewski: We were colleagues. Competitors and colleagues.

Kay:     We knew the people. We were members of The Newspaper Guild together.

Davis:  It seemed like it probably served the community better to have-

Kay:     Right.

Andrzejewski: Yeah, absolutely. Now, on the other hand, as I said earlier, some of the stories dragged on for weeks. That wouldn’t happen now – you know, especially on some lower-level city hall official going golfing in the afternoon. That would be one story, maybe. But back then it would just drag on and on and on and on. Both papers would just hit everybody hard. That ceased. I shouldn’t say “ceased.” It abated tremendously.

Davis:  So who were the most memorable people that you knew at the time, or that you respected or thought were interesting? What was the landscape like?

Kay:     Well, I was thinking about that. It wasn’t like “The Front Page” (a movie about tabloid newspaper reporters on the police beat), you know. We weren’t fast-talking people running around grabbing whatever tidbits. We’d moved beyond that phase of journalism. But I think of a certain editor. I still have memos from him. He took a special interest in me when I was covering courts. That was a thing of his. And one time he wrote me a memo, typed it out on copy paper, and it said basically that he had tried to reach me over at the courthouse and couldn’t reach me and asked the switchboard operators and the one he spoke to said she had no idea who I was. And that I should be (having coffee with the operators because they could be very helpful). Which was good advice that I had never thought of.

On the other hand, he once- I had covered something at court, I don’t remember what it was, I remember the judge. And I was trying to understand what had happened and I said to the judge, “Does this mean such and such?” and the judge said quote, “Yes,” unquote. So I wrote the judge said such and such, no quotes –  right? Well, (the editor) made it a direct quote. And I said, “No, you can’t. The judge didn’t say that. All he said was ‘Yes.’ You can’t make it a direct quote.” And he bellowed out for the whole city room to hear, “This judge is an asshole. We can have him say anything we want.”

Well, I went home in tears and called the editor from home and said, “Take my name off that.” He was not beyond playing games like that.

One time I had a complaint against another judge, and he had a big civil case pending before him, and he (the editor, wrote in a memo) that the way to get back at that judge is when he makes that ruling, don’t name him. Just say the court ruled. That was his advice. I was in my 20s and knew better than that.

Andrzejewski: There was a guy on the sports desk (Chuck Webster) who was also the Guild chair for the Plain Dealer unit. And there were a number of us who were in the city room and in through the back walks the general manager for the paper. Guy by the name of Leo Ring.

And he walked in and he saw all of us – you know, we’re like from here to there – and he’s with some people, and he said, “I’m showing these guys around here, and they can’t believe the great conditions that you have here to work in.” And Webster yells out, “What are they, coal miners?”

Davis:  Would you change anything? Are you glad you did it?

Kay:     I’ve always felt and still feel that journalism is a noble profession. And I think that out in the world people think that- I mean my experience is that there are a lot of people who think that the Plain Dealer has got a conspiracy against (them) or all you print is negative news. And honestly, I think that when I was there, there was a range of talent and some people were more hardworking than others. But I think everybody was really interested in putting out a professional publication and doing the right thing. Nobody had any of their own feelings spill over, in my memory, into their- You know, they were professionals.

And I still feel that way. I think it’s a noble profession. I still identify with it all these years later.

Davis:  In all the years, did you ever have a story killed or were you ever told you couldn’t do something?

Kay:     I was thinking of that. There’s one thing that’s a question mark in my mind that I think I might have been pulled off of (a story), but temporarily. But what about the (Jackie) Presser thing?

Andrzejewski: Yeah, there was a correction that the Plain Dealer- It ran on a Sunday on the front page about Presser being an informant for the (government) or not being an informant or something.

Kay:     It was either a retraction or an apology.

We did a demonstration. We did a picket line.

Andrzejewski: Yeah, informational.

Davis:  Yeah. You know what’s funny, ’cause over the years, things would happen. There would be fights in the newsroom. There’d be disagreements and stuff. But I never had anybody tell me, “You can’t go after this. You can’t do that.” I never had a story killed.

Andrzejewski: I have.

I had a couple of issues like that that occurred over the years. And one of them had to do with- I wrote a column about when the Galleria was built. The tax breaks that (developers Richard and David Jacobs) got for building it and so on. And the column was to run the same day that the grand opening VIP party was held. Well, that got killed.

Davis:  Did anybody ever say why?

Andrzejewski: I think they just said that it wasn’t suitable.

Kay:     And didn’t Roldo (Bartimole, publisher of Point of View) print it, though?

Andrzejewski: Roldo reprinted it, yeah. Well, Roldo got all the stories that were killed.

Davis:  And he ran them.

Andrzejewski: And some of them- There were a few, I think, that were highly influenced by outsiders. Particularly (under one) executive editor. He just played golf with all the bigwigs in town and he loved that. He loved to be the “go to” guy for them. And, you know, he just did their bidding. And so there were some (stories) that were killed. But I don’t think that discouraged anybody. I think the main point is, while there have been these incidents, it did not discourage anybody from going full go ahead. And the best example of that, I think, was with the Muny Light vote.

Bob Holden was working on a story about the election for selling Muny Light. And CEI demanded that he be taken off the (story). Well, The Plain Dealer (reassigned Holden). So they listened. But the editors then assigned Dave Abbott and Dan Biddle. And their stories are credited with having turned the vote around. So Muny Light was able to remain a public power (company). Anyway, and so that, I think, is a good example of the will that existed down on the second floor (in) the editorial department versus what might have been occurring in the front offices.

Davis:  Can you talk in general terms about what you think about journalism today? What is the takeaway of all this?

Andrzejewski: There’s some really good stuff being done at the Plain Dealer. There’s no question about that. The stuff on the rape kits was excellent. And there were others, taking on bail and stuff like that. The only thing that I would worry about, and this comes from somebody who wrote something that ran eight days and was written over 19 months, I think some of the stories are a little too anecdotal.

Kay:     It’s so sad what’s going on. I mean the loss of all these people. Not only on a personal level – what happens to them, although I’m glad that many of them have done well in the afterlife – but yeah, how many people are left there?

I mean I think there were 300 or something in the newsroom when we were there.

Andrzejewski: Yeah. And I remember when Bob McGruder, the late Bob McGruder, came to town and saw for the first time the new Plain Dealer building and was told that there were 350 people (in the newsroom). And he said that was bigger than his staff at the Detroit Free Press, which, of course, was a bigger paper. But that was the Alex Machaskee buildup. (Machaskee was publisher of the Plain Dealer at the time.)

Kay:     And, you know, because you started right when I left (in 1990), they were still growing at that time. They were still opening suburban bureaus.

They had hired Ted Diadiun, and I was on the metro desk. He was metro editor and I was assistant (metro editor). But he was gone all the time because he was out scouting properties for suburban bureaus.

They were just growing.

Davis:  And they had that big buildup because they wanted to zone.

Kay:     When I left I never in a million years thought this would happen. I just thought that we were doing so well.

Andrzejewski: You can only go so far, I think with the anecdotal stuff. At some point you gotta start tying it together, and I think that, on some of the longer stories, they’re not looking at doing that. And especially in this day and age when everybody’s on social media and reading stuff off of websites. Just three paragraphs, etc. I mean I would love to draw readers in and have them read 2,000 words or 3,000 words or whatever. But I don’t think you can do that, and I think what you need to do is you gotta draw them in. At least so they read the first 10, 12 paragraphs. And maybe pique their interest all of a sudden.

I think you just take it overboard sometimes. And I think it’s a good thing, too. I spent a whole career, except for these data projects, on columns talking about people walking the streets and boulevards in the city and stuff. And that’s fine, but it’s gotta have a point. It’s gotta be drawn together. And it’s gotta be more than just in the headline, I think.

Davis:  Did either of you work with Bob McGruder?

Andrzejewski: Yeah.

Kay:     Oh yeah.

Davis:  What was he like?

Kay:     He’s another memorable- He was excellent. He was very good.

Davis:  What was his job when-

Kay:     He ended up managing editor.

I think when I started he was covering (Cleveland) city hall. He was covering city hall a while and moved up. Ended up managing editor before he went to Detroit.

Davis:  Yeah, and he ended up having quite a career overall.

Andrzejewski: Yeah, but that was because he left. He was going nowhere at the Plain Dealer.

Kay:     He was managing editor. That’s somewhere.

Andrzejewski: I know, but the next step is executive editor, and he would have never been.

Davis:  Do you have a story about him or about working with him?

Andrzejewski: His most memorable lede was when Ralph Perk, surprisingly, won the mayoral election. And it was still a partisan election at that point. And everybody thought that Perk was gonna lose. And McGruder was covering city hall, so they assigned him to cover Perk that election. Maybe he was general assignment. In any event, he was covering Perk that election night and he (Perk) had a duck dinner at, I think it was St. John Nepomucene in his old neighborhood. And McGruder’s lede was something like, “Ralph Perk last night dined on duck and flipped the Democrats the bird.” And it went through. It made it all the way through.

Kay:     How about Steve Hatch as a memorable-

His most memorable quote was during some sort of Guild issue. You know, he was executive secretary of the Guild.

And we’re sitting around the Headliner (the bar frequented by journalists) and he’s on TV and they’re interviewing him about whatever this controversy was. And he said, “We will bend, but we won’t bend over.” And that made it. On television.

Davis:  So he was a reporter originally before being executive secretary of the union local?

Andrzejewski: Right, right. And one of the most interesting stories that he ever worked on was the Santa line slaying at Higbee’s, where two guys got in an argument and one stabbed the other to death.

And where it happened is an important part of the story – right? Journalism 101. Who, what, where – right? The editors decided to put the name Higbee’s in the runover.

Davis:  Oh.

Andrzejewski: And he wrote the story and put it in the lede as it should have (been). (But it wasn’t published that way.) But, of course, he was powerless. He was on rewrite.


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