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Our best investigations of 2020

The Investigator

December 31, 2020 | spotlightpa.org

Our best investigations of 2020, satellite election offices, higher education cuts, and wishing our readers a very happy new year. We'll see you in 2021.
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2020 challenged all of us in unexpected ways. 

For Spotlight PA's journalists, the coronavirus meant putting aside other investigations and turning their attention to what Pennsylvanians urgently needed to know about the pandemic and its consequences for our health, economy, housing, and much more. They worked long days, spent countless hours on the phone with sources and digging through documents, and produced accountability journalism that drove the conversation and had a meaningful impact in Harrisburg and around the state. (See below for a rundown of some of our most powerful stories this year.)

As one of Spotlight PA's deputy editors, I'm proud of the work our team did, as well as our collaborations with partners across the state. Throughout the year, we've teamed up with news outlets like LNP|LancasterOnline, PennLive/The Patriot-News, Pittsburgh City Paper, WHYY, The York Dispatch, and The Appeal to delve deeply into complex issues. Spotlight PA also welcomed dozens of new distribution partners in 2020, bringing hard-hitting accountability journalism to all corners of the commonwealth. 

We also became the largest statewide news organization in Pennsylvania in August through a merger with WITF's PA Post, and have since added even more journalists to our staff.

None of this would be possible with your support. As I reflect on this difficult year, I'm so grateful to our readers and especially our members who make this journalism possible. Thanks to you, we'll be here in 2021 — whatever the year may bring.

Sarah Anne Hughes, Spotlight PA


"If we get complacent and let case numbers begin to go back up, the danger to our communities, to our families, and to our health-care systems will return with swift and deadly consequences."

— Gov. Tom Wolf said he will lift a temporary ban on indoor dining and school sports Monday, though he stopped short of saying he wouldn’t impose restrictions again. 

» COVID-19 UPDATE: Keep up with our coronavirus tracker, and sign up for alerts for your county.

» Pa.’s ban on indoor dining, school sports won’t extend beyond Jan. 4

» Satellite offices gave voters more options to cast early ballots. Were they worth it?
Our best investigations of 2020

» Ongoing coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

As COVID-19 emerged as a major threat to public health and safety, Spotlight PA's entire staff sprang into action. Aneri Pattani and Rebecca Moss focused on nursing and personal care homes, where more than 8,000 residents have died, and found the state failed to implement an early plan to protect this vulnerable population.

Pattani's reporting also revealed that Pennsylvania had slashed its ranks of contact tracing nurses. The state later reopened the economy even though some regions lacked the infrastructure needed to prevent future outbreaks.  

Angela Couloumbis, Charlotte Keith, and Ed Mahon extensively examined the state's granting of coronavirus business waivers — allowing some to reopen, and forcing others to remain closed — in total secrecy.

Keith has spent the latter half of the year investigating the looming eviction crisis and speaking to families on the verge of losing their homes. Her reporting revealed that a state program meant to help these Pennsylvanians was fatally flawed from the start and, despite knowing about the issues, Republican leadership declined to make fixes. 

And to make complicated COVID-19 data accessible to the public, our newsroom developer, Daniel Simmons-Ritchie, and The Inquirer built a live coronavirus tracker.

» Examining politics and money

In late 2019, Couloumbis and reporters from The Caucus delivered a blockbuster series on hidden campaign spending. This year, they continued requesting public records and demanded answers about how lawmakers spend taxpayer money, while also turning their attention to influential dark money groups.

» At risk, in the dark along Mariner East

As part of a yearlong investigation, Moss traveled the length of the Mariner East system and interviewed dozens of people whose homes, schools, and communities of worship were feet from the pipelines to learn about what they knew and how they had been informed — or not informed — about how to handle a potential emergency.

Here are some of the year's other highlights:

» Highway ‘stop-and-frisk’: How Pennsylvania state troopers conduct illegal traffic searches

» Some local Pa. judges enjoy light workloads as taxpayers pay millions for salaries, pensions, health care

» Students of color say Pennsylvania's higher education system follows a tired formula to respond to racism instead of enacting the support they need

» Pa.'s failure to mandate quicker death reporting before the coronavirus fueled wild data fluctuations, mistrust
» ONLY 12 HOURS LEFT: We're so close to unlocking a $10,000 matching grant from the Lenfest Institute for Journalism. That's a lot of money for a small, reader-funded newsroom like ours. Become a member today and your contribution will be DOUBLED. Be the one to push us over the finish line.
SLOW START: This week, Pennsylvania began vaccinating nursing home residents and staff in addition to health-care workers, TribLIVE reports. But like in much of the country, there are concerns the state isn't meeting distribution expectations outlined in Operation Warp Speed, according to Pittsburgh City Paper. The state's own dashboard shows only 96,000 doses have been administered out of 365,525 received. 

COURT CONCERNS: Good-government groups are growing increasingly worried about potential gerrymandering in the state court system, WHYY reports. The GOP-controlled legislature wants to elect appellate judges by region, instead of in statewide contests, and is pushing a constitutional amendment to do so.

AFFLUENT OR AFFORDABLE? A Philadelphia developer didn't make good on his promise to build affordable housing when he bought public land at sweetheart prices, The Inquirer reports. The Philadelphia Housing Development Corp. downplayed one of the contracts in the report, saying it was among “multiple projects” for which “records and justifications were unclear.”

PANDEMIC AND PASSHE: The New York Times examined the impact of COVID-19 on higher education through the lens of the state-owned Indiana University of Pennsylvania. The school, an hour east of Pittsburgh, is struggling as the state's public higher education system faces difficult financial questions.

OBJECTION: A U.S. senator from Missouri plans to object when Congress moves to certify the electoral college vote next week, NPR reports. "I cannot vote to certify ... without raising the fact that some states, particularly Pennsylvania, failed to follow their own state election laws," Sen. Josh Hawley said in a statement. As Spotlight PA previously reported, some state Republican lawmakers, including leadership in the House, want Congress to reject the state's electors for Joe Biden.

Sarah Anne Hughes, Spotlight PA

Send your answers to riddler@spotlightpa.org. Love the riddler? Chip in and become a member of Spotlight PA so we can keep the good times rolling.

NOT LIKE THE OTHER (Case No. 73): Which one of these letters is the odd one out?
Feeling smart? Challenge a friend.

Last week's answer: Working overtime
Congrats to Lois P., who will receive Spotlight PA swag. Others who answered correctly: Deborah D., Michael H., Claudia M., Diana S., Bruce B., John H., Ed N., William D., John D., Lynda G., Judy A., Edward M., Bruce F., Geoffrey M., Rebecca D., Norman S., David I., Burnetta S., Lucy B., Linda C., Alice O., Kevin M., Barbara M., Kathy M., Jonathan N., Mary S., Michele M., Sandy O., Rick S., Lou R., Karen K., Annette M., Joel S., Irene T., James D., Joseph S., Lisa M., Karen and Ken S., Joan C., Hagan H., Roseanne D., William H., Philip C., Beth T., Eileen D., Annette I., Frederick T., Bobbi A., Lance L., Valerie H., Mary B., and Beverly M.
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