The award-winning reporter for Dispatch Broadcast Group’s Indianapolis NBC affiliate believes local TV can have a far greater impact on communities than network news. But, he emphasizes, stations have to make a commitment to investigative journalism “in good times and bad,” versus the more widespread practice of building I-Teams and the like only to dismantle them when money gets tight.
As a local TV investigative reporter, Bob Segall has exposed a federal tax loophole costing taxpayers billions, busted Indiana officials for exaggerating “economic success stories” and given bullied kids a voice, all while picking up a bunch of big awards along the way.
Yet, Segall, 43, who now works at Dispatch Broadcast Group’s NBC affiliate WTHR Indianapolis, credits a brief foray into public relations in the late 1990s — something he “kind of hated every minute of” — as a defining moment in his career, primarily because he learned how the other side works.
“They taught me the art of not answering questions,” Segall says. Being trained in “how to redirect questions” and “defending the company when journalists come calling” has paid off time and again, Segall says, giving him an edge in deciphering what official types are — or are not — saying when asked questions they don’t want to answer.
“It was an epiphany for me,” says Segall, who capitalized on his newfound know-how when he returned to broadcast journalism in 1998 as a reporter for WITI, Tribune’s Fox affiliate in Milwaukee.
Segall produced some of his most far-reaching stories while at WITI. His Peabody Award-winning The Bully Project, a yearlong series showing undercover footage of school violence, spurred a major community outreach campaign, with Green Bay Packers’ Brett Farve as a spokesman.
Segall brought his passion and flair for investigative reporting to WTHR in 2006 and has reported stories with impact.
The IRS, for example, implemented changes aimed at reducing fraud after WTHR aired Investigating the IRS, Segall’s 2012 investigation into a loophole that allowed undocumented workers to get fraudulent tax credits.
His 2013 series Where are the Jobs? exposed how state leaders inflated job statistics at a time when unemployment in Indiana was at a high. That investigation included Segall visiting hundreds of supposed “economic success stories” — i.e., projects funded through Indiana’s job creation program — where the state claimed there were tens of thousands of new jobs.
Instead, Segall found abandoned factories and empty cornfields. That series led to a new transparency law, as well as a new governor who pledged to be open about state-funded job-creation projects.
Both Investigating the IRS and Where are the Jobs? won Peabody Awards. Where are the Jobs? also won a duPont-Columbia Award, national Emmy award for investigative reporting as well as an Edward R. Murrow Award.
Segall says all his stories are the product of teams of reporters, photographers and bosses. They are also the product of management that believes in investigative reporting and in giving reporters the necessary time and resources for it.
The two Dispatch stations and others like WFAA Dallas and WVUE New Orleans support investigative journalism “in good times and bad,” he says, versus the more widespread practice building I-Teams and the like only to dismantle them when money gets tight.
That “cyclical nature” of investigative journalism is part of why local TV has a bad rep, he says. It diminishes the quality and consistency of content.
“Stations that are creating investigative units simply to create promotable stories that are going to sell during sweeps are wasting an opportunity,” he says. “If the journalism is done right, the ratings will come.”
Yet, Segall is a big believer in local TV, believing the medium can have a far greater impact on communities than networks do.
“Every year there are a couple of phenomenal investigative projects that trigger national change. But there are local investigations that create change every week and every month that are making impact on people’s lives daily,” he says.
Segall believes viewers “appreciate it when journalists are looking out for their families’ safety, trying to protect their pocketbooks, trying to highlight injustice and wrongdoing and those people who are looking to take advantage of them.”
But that does not happen without the scrutiny — or criticism — that often accompanies stories that expose the pitfalls and problems of communities, regardless of political leanings, ethnicity or money.
Segall says producing Investigating the IRS, which got 21 million hits online, crashing the WTHR website, was particularly challenging because it involved reporting on fraudulent tax claims made by undocumented workers, some of whom had “young families, work 14 hours a day and seven days a week trying to make a better lives.”
That story sparked criticism from Hispanics who felt it stereotyped them and interview requests from conservatives like Rush Limbaugh looking to discredit undocumented workers, he says.
“To us this really wasn’t a political issue, it was a government responsibility issue so we went out of our way to not jump into a political debate,” he says.
“Despite what some viewers think, we don’t have an agenda. We are trying to improve people’s lives.
“We learned to dance the fine line between journalism and advocacy — and it is a very fine line to walk journalistically — but I am a firm believer that news stories make a difference. They are really such powerful tools.”
As committed to his craft as he is, Segall didn’t set out to be investigative reporter when he first entered the business 21 years ago. He saw himself more as a feature reporting “wanting to tell the story of the underdogs,” which he developed a soft spot for as kid in Ohio rooting for losing Cleveland sports teams.
After turning down a full-time job at The Dallas Morning News (“My parents were not happy with me at all,” he says) because TV seemed “more fun,” Segall took an internship at WGEM Quincy, Ill., where his first story, on farming, was an “unmitigated disaster,” primarily due to un-synced audio and video.
At some points, viewers could hear voices, but had no picture on-screen. At others, they saw footage of, say, a farmer talking, but heard Segall’s narration instead of what the man being interviewed was saying.
Within weeks, though, the Mississippi River flooded, and Segall was taking the chopper back and forth between the Illinois and Missouri sides of the river, filing reports for CNN as well as WGEM.
He eventually moved onto jobs at WZZM Grand Rapids, Mich. and WJRT Flint, Mich., before moving to Chicago, where he worked briefly in that PR job before landing at WITI as a general assignment reporter.
One of his personal favorite stories of his time in Michigan is a 1997 story he did while at WJRT on the International Twins Day Festival in Twinsburg, Ohio, which he did with his identical twin brother, Rick, who is also a broadcaster (the pair attended Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism together) and was working for NBC at the time.
Segall won an Emmy — his first — for that story, a feature report covering the event with the insight non-twin reporters simply don’t have. (“We know all the silly questions that twins get asked, like, ‘When one of you hits your head, does the other one feel it?’ If you’re not a twin, you can’t truly understand,” Segall said at the time.)
That project, Segall says, was just part of his ongoing informal collaboration with Rick — they run stories by each other, and solicit ideas and input — who Bob says “is still one of the best reporters that I’ve had the opportunity to work with.” Today, Rick has his own production company, New Chapter Entertainment, in Chicago.
Segall says he was “on the fence” when WITI asked him to launch an investigative unit in 2000, but quickly came to love it once he “realized that instead of just telling someone’s story you can make a big difference.”
Segall says that investigative reporting is not for everyone. “The computer reporting skills can be learned. The digging for documents, putting in an open records request, those can be learned,” he says. But presenting it in a way that makes people care, however, is another issue.
“I still ultimately think the best investigative reporting starts with telling a good story.”
This is the first in a series of occasional profiles of people who make a difference in journalism. To suggest a candidate, contact Diana Marszalek at [email protected]. You can read other Air Check columns here.