Pulitzer Prize winner Corey G. Johnson on the need for more Black investigative reporting

Zuri Berry: This is the Black Journalists on Journalism podcast, a ZMC Podcasts production.

Donnell Suggs: And we are back with a fresh episode of Black Journalists on Journalism.

Zuri Berry, my partner in crime. We're here with our special guest, Corey Johnson of ProPublica. Corey, how are you, brother?

Corey Johnson: I'm doing great, man. How about yourself?

Donnell Suggs: Fantastic. Great to have you here.

Corey Johnson: Great to be here. It's an honor.

Zuri Berry: Uh, honor is ours, obviously. such a well regarded reporter, investigative reporter.

Uh, Corey, it is... I, I think the first time that we are actually talking, and, and I have been following your career for some time from a distance, I have seen different stories and different, you know, locations you've been in, whether it's been in SAC, whether it's been at the Marshall project, certainly at the Tampa Bay times and now at ProPublica.

So it's a really cool experience for me, I think, to, to hear from you and get to know you a little bit. And, yeah, I'm excited about this conversation.

Corey Johnson: I'm excited to have it. And, um, thank you for, for following my career. I have moved around quite a bit. Uh, and it's been, it's been fun to do so. Oftentimes too, you move around so you can get that money up.

It's the best way. Yeah. I'm finally making some decent money. After a nearly 20 year career of not making no money. Uh, so, um, I'm glad to be here.

Donnell Suggs: I'm especially glad to have Corey on because he's got some Atlanta roots. Yes, sir. And we'd love to get into your, obviously the beginning of your career, but I'd like to talk about the start.

Early on, uh, obviously before college after college with the Atlanta voice, but you get and get into how you got started wanting to be a journalist in the first place.

Corey Johnson: Yeah. So it's interesting. Um, I born and raised in Atlanta. I went to a college at a Florida A& M FAMU, the Rattlers and doing my time there.

I just, I bounced around a bunch of different majors because I couldn't quite figure out what I wanted to do. Um, I did engineering for a while. Uh, was sucked at calculus and, uh, eventually said, okay, this math stuff is ain't for me. Let me jump over here to the psychology. Uh, and I love psychology, loved African American studies, graduated with that, went back home and didn't really, couldn't really get no job with that without having, um, To go back to school and in the meantime, I met a, met a nice young lady.

We moved in together. We had a child. Uh, we broke up and then I'm doing what a lot of folks are doing with a child. No job. I was back at my mama's house, uh, in basically in the, in the guest room, trying to figure out my life, trying to figure out what I was going to do. I think I substitute taught. For a while, and that was crisscrossing, uh, 285, 85, 75 in traffic.

Is that APS schools? Uh, no, these were DeKalb County. DeKalb County. Schools, uh, and did that for a while. Them kids was crazy. And I, I, I was about fence away from choking one of them out. And I said, Oh, I got to get up, get up out of here. And so around this time period, 9 11 happened. And. I was reading, uh, I was reading some books on Martin Luther King and the FBI, and it was just, I, if you could see those books, I was scribbling all in the margins, and I was underlining and putting, for me, I thought that the book, like, left out all this stuff, like, oh, I felt like You're probably right, right?

Well, and so I called, I googled the, the writer of the book who happened to be at that time, a professor at Emory in Atlanta, and I just called him up cold and said, Hey, look, my name's Corey Johnson. And I want to, I want to know all the stuff you left out because I don't see nothing about the Atlanta police department and what they were doing.

And so, yeah. Instead of him kind of brushing me off, he was amused and he said, you know what, no one has asked me about this and well over 20. So he gave me a name. He said, here's a name someone gave me. I never had a chance to write it down. So I took the name. I started looking up whatever I could look up.

Turns out the man had died. But the last clip that I found showed that he had been a police chief in Smyrna. I'm giving you all this for a reason now. Oh, no, no. Keep going. This is an origin story. So... Like that. So I called Smyrna. And I said, Hi, my name is Corey Johnson and I'm a student and, and, and, and I want to, uh, get in contact with the, uh, Everett, his name was Everett Little.

I want to get in contact with, with Mr. Little's widow. And they were like, sir, we don't give out that information. I said, well, in case you just change your mind, uh, my number is, you know, I told my number, my name, they hung up on me. They just smooth hung up on me. So I didn't think nothing of it, but about two weeks later.

Somebody called me, deep voice, and I could tell they was, they was, uh, a brother. And he said, uh, I understand you're looking for Everett Little's widow. Here's the number. He left the number and hung up. So now I got her number. So I call her. And I, and I say, Hey, my name is Corey Johnson. I'm a student.

uh, and I want to, you know, interview you, uh, talk to you about your husband. And she was just the perfect Southern lady. She says, Oh, sir, I really appreciate your call and your interest.

I'm busy right now. Can you call me back in a week? Okay. So I called her back the following week. Oh, sir. I'm so sorry. Um, I'm super, super busy. Can you call me back like next week? That went on for six months. six months, every week I call every week she was too busy, but I could call back towards the end of the six months she goes, sir, I can't talk to you right now.

I fell off of a ladder and hurt my back and I missed so much pain. I can't even, uh, and I said, At the time I was into herbal teas, don't ask me why, I'm, I'm weird, but I was into herbal teas strong. And so I, I said, well, ma'am, you need to go down to GNC and you need to go, there's this tea that's called bladder rack or something.

You go get it, get you a silver ball and buy the ball and get the tea. And then you put the herbs in the thing and you boil it and drink, you drink that. I guarantee you're going to feel better. And she's like, okay. All right. I thank you. Hung up. So I didn't call back the next week. I waited two weeks.

Called it two weeks. And it's just going to show you when you're in pain, you'll just do stuff. Right? So when I called her, she was like, Oh my God, sir, that T you told me to go get. I got it. And it was amazing. My back feels so much better. She said, you know, I'm so sorry. I gave you the run around for all that time.

You know, my husband kept a copy of everything he did at work down in the basement. So. Why don't you call my son and and he will arrange for you to come on out here and you can look at and whatever you want to look at. So I call, she lived in Forsyth County. Now if you know anything, if you know anything about Atlanta, Metro Atlanta, you know Fulton County, they, Forsyte, Forsyte County, I'm sorry.

The Klan, Jose, when I was a kid, Jose Williams, one of the Martin Luther King's lieutenants, took a march up there just to try to show that they weren't afraid of Forsyte County. And them folks threw rocks and bottles and whatnot. And Oprah had to come down. And do a program, a show, putting the white people and the black people in the same restaurant, just trying to hammer out rapes.

So, Forsyth County was about it, about it. And so when she was like, I'm in Forsyth County, I was like, oh, oh, I've got the buck in a bit. I was like, oh, but I went.

So, uh, before I go to Forsyth County, you got to remember that I ain't got no money. So, and I couldn't ask my family for no money because they thought I was crazy. So I went to friends. I actually went and found my sixth grade teacher and knocked on her door about it.

And told her I was getting ready to get the, you know, these documents. Ain't nobody ever seen them before. Can she get it? So people just gave me so I raised maybe about a good 100 for copies. And then I drove out to Forsyth County. And we was there. We took me down into the basement. He had seven red boxes.

So turns out I started going through the box. This man had set up at the Atlanta Police Department's first intelligence unit. In 1960, and he was the contact for the FBI, so he would, he had a big thick file on the Atlanta University students because he would surveil all those students who were protesting for, they will go down to riches and try to, you know, integrate riches.

He was there watching that stuff. He actually, Had a thick Martin Luther King file that he had mostly burned, but there was one report left where he actually arrested Martin Luther King to go to integrate Macy's downtown in Atlanta. He arrested him. It was the first time Martin Luther King had ever been arrested in Atlanta.

This guy did it. And so these files, he had pictures. These things have never seen the light of day. So I'm copying all that. The other thing he set up the Atlanta Police Department's first Internal affairs unit. So he had thick files, he had pictures of cops in the bed with naked prostitutes, the whole shebang.

Wow. Right now I only got a hundred dollars, so I kind of had to skip over the prostitute stuff to try to focus on the . Focus on the story. Right. . So I get, I get these papers and then I, I go down to, to Emory and I go find the professor. The King book and I plopped this stuff down on his desk and he's looking at it and he's like, oh my God, do you understand what you have?

I mean, this is amazing. This so that he immediately reaches over, grabs the phone and call somebody at the New York Times. Now, I'm not a journalist. I don't know anything about journalism right now, but I had enough sense to know. That, that New York Times call could be bad. So I was like, Oh, hang up, hang up.

So he's like, let me call you back. He said, what's your problem? And I said, no, you can't call them. They're going to come in and steal my story. They're going to steal my shit. That's exactly what I said. They're going to come in and steal my shit. And so he said, okay, but we got to do something. This is just too incredible to just not do.

So at the time. He was having regular drinking sessions with the managing editor of the Atlanta Journal Constitution. So, he calls the Atlanta, uh, Atlanta Journal Constitution managing editor, and they invite me to lunch. So, I'm, I go to lunch, I got my little papers. And so it's, it's the professor, it's the managing editor of the AJC, and he brings his investigative chief, the person over the investigations team.

So they're all there and I'm there and I'm spitting and I'm, you know, excited and moving around and look at that. And this is what he did. And so then the investigative chief says, you know, this is investigative reporting. And I was like, huh? What's that? Is that, is there a job in that? Cause I'm broke. I need a job.

Right. And she said, you should come to I. R. E. Uh, which is the moniker for the investigative reporters and editors. And it turned out that year I. R. E. was having its conference in Atlanta. And so here again. So now. I go and hustle up some, some money to, to, to get the little fee and I go, and as I'm there, my eyes just bug out.

I'm just like, Oh my God, people in there who have gotten governors to resign and gotten, gotten criminal investigations. And, and I'm like, Oh yeah, I want to get me a governor to resign. I want it. So I was like, this is it. This is it. Like now I know. what I want to do. So now I'm turning around to anybody. I want to be a journalist.

I approached the Atlanta voice and I was like, Hey, I want to be, I want to be a journalist, uh, Stan Washington. And he was like, well, why don't you sit with Hal Lamar? He's one of our best. And so then Hal Lamar was like, Hey, come with me, young man. So for a whole month, Once a week, I used to ride with Hal Lamarr on all of his assignments and watch him, and he would just break off some of the games, some of the journalism game to me.

Meanwhile, I'm begging the AJC, like, let me, let me come in. I just want to do anything, anything. Like, I'll, I'll sweep up. I'll, I'll make, but I want to be a journalist. And so then they did me kind of like Everett Little's widow. She was like, okay, that's nice. You know, why don't you? Call me back. They did allow me, the manager editor was so impressed with my research.

He did allow me to you come into their library and to see if I can find some stuff in the AJC's library that can help my research. So they let me come in like on a, like, uh, at one o'clock in the afternoon, man, I didn't leave there until, uh. One o'clock the next day. And it was still downtown, right? I'm out And so when all them folks came in, they still saw me in there.

They freaked out. And, but I was just so. I mean, that's kind of how I get now. I didn't know. I didn't know that. Uh, this I'm a journalist now. I didn't even know that what I was doing is considered journalism. I was just mad curious, but I'm still but at home at my mom's house. All they saw was a Negro that didn't have a job.

That got child support that's running around here, drinking up all the orange juice, talking all this stuff about, you know, the people and Martin Luther King. Some story he got, they ain't making no money. Yeah. Yeah. And so they were like, I was one more unswallowed corner. of the orange juice jug away from getting thrown out on the street.

They was kind of over and, but my blessing happened. The AJC called me out of the blue a few days around Christmas of 2004. And they said, look, we think we have something that could fit you, but, uh, we don't know if it's going to work. And I said, well, what is it? They said, there's a fellowship in Nashville, Tennessee at Vanderbilt.

That is designed for people like you. It's a fellowship that trains people who have never been journalists, how to be journalists. So the only thing is we discovered this program after the deadline. So we don't know if you're going to get in or not, but if you're interested, we'll write you a recommendation.

And I said, let's go for it. And for the grace of God, they wrote me the recommendation. The program director said, well, have the man send an essay. I sent an essay. They waived the deadline and they approved for me to get in the program. And so then I moved to Nashville in January of 2005. And this was like all day journalism, morning, noon, night journalism.

And then you, you, you, we had the Tennessean paper where we would go over there and try to put into practice some of the stuff that we was learning. And then we did that for about three, four months. And then we got placed in our first. Paper. Now, the a j C was supposed to bring me back to Atlanta, uh, to be at the A j C, but what they said, and, and the wisdom of this made a lot of sense.

Looking back, they said, well, the A J C is a big place and we're afraid that you said you only been a journalist for like 90, uh, uh, three months. Uh, why don't we place you at a smaller paper so you can. You can get your feet wet and the young lady that was my girlfriend at the time had just gotten accepted to UNC Chapel Hill.

So I said, can you get me close to that? And so they had a paper in Greenville, North Carolina, and that's where they said, now you got an interview, but you got that job. I said, okay, so I'll give you all this just so you can know the full journey of it all. So I go, I go to the interview. Somebody didn't tell the city editor that I had that job and the city editor wanted someone else for that job.

So he, and this was, you know, Greenville, North Carolina is an extremely conservative town. Oh yeah. And that was an extremely conservative paper. Uh, and so, you know, I'm coming in and I got my little fresh suit and I need to shine my shoes and I'm thinking I'm going to go in and sit with this one in their office and answer their questions and then go sit with this one in office, answer their question.

Uh, he said, come follow me. He walked me to his car and then drove me to a barren field, dropped me off. He said, you got two hours to, to get a story and bring it and bring it back. So now I'm like, Oh, shit. Do I even have a pen? So, so I walk up to barren field. The circus was in town. And so it was nothing but trailers of where the circus performers were, were sleeping.

And this wasn't just your reg, this was like the freak show circus. So this the people with the three arms and the woman with the four boobs and I mean, it's, it's, it's that kind of situation. And so here I am knocking on doors, sweating like all get out to try to get a story and get it back and get it written in two hours.

So you got to know I was You know, cause I'm, cause in my mind I'm going. I don't get this job. I don't pay my child support. I don't pay my child support. They gonna put me on the cable access channel with the deadbeat, uh, red letters and then the police gonna put me in jail and then I'm, you know, now I got to deal with the man.

And so my whole, I had, I saw all my whole life. It starts to go through your head, all of it.

Yeah, I am. If I don't get this job, right? Uh, and so I get some stuff. I get some, I get some good stuff from the folk. And then I run back to the newsroom. I, I try to write it up. It actually wasn't that bad. But the editor kind of made it seem like, you know, you know, that, that it was. Garbage and there's a whole lot of work and so then he takes me out to the airport and he says, look kid, let me just explain to you, you'll never be a journalist.

You're not cut out for it. He said, but you seem like a nice. So if you like, I'll go down to the library and see if I can convince the library and to give you a job working in, you know, the library. So I'm like, so when I could go back, they like, well, how did it go? And when I told him, They, they knew that somebody had tried to, you know, so they were not happy.

They made some phone calls. The next thing, you know, the man was calling me, apologizing and begging, you know, if you take the job, it would be so, and I took it, I ain't have no other alternatives, right. But. He was the thing, the fascinating thing, to land my plane. That job, and then the subsequent jobs, burned so many skills into me, that it absolutely made me into the reporter that I am today.

And while he might have thought that putting me out on the curb or whatever, Uh, was for my bad, it actually developed the superpower that I have now. So now I kill these folks when they trying to, when the government is trying to keep these secrets from me, the police department playing the games, or whoever is playing the games.

I tell them, I said, now, you know, do you really want me to start knocking on doors? Cause I will, I'll do it. I'll do it. And see this thing I'm asking for, this is all I'm really want. But if I start knocking on them doors, not only am I gonna get this thing that you're keeping from me, I'm getting ready to get all the other stuff that I don't even know to ask for, because God bless you if you done done one or two of these people wrong.

people. people. And I said, now, is that how y'all wanna go? I'm fine. And sure enough, like, the door knocking is something that I preach to students and preach to young journalists. Uh, and it was because of Greenville and everything that I was thrown at me that I developed those skills and developed those muscles.

So I feel like, I mean, I can go anywhere in the country and get a story. Uh, and I know how to do the work and obviously know how to do the investigative work, but that was because of all the various times that people threw curveballs at me. I mean, in Greenville, they straight up told me nobody's going to want you to be an investigative reporter.

So you should just give that up, like. That's not going to happen and all you're going to do is you're going to be resentful because you're not going to be able to do what you want to do. And, you know, years later, some of those people are calling me, they're liking, you know, every, every time I win another investigative journalism award, they're liking, you know, every time I'm invited to give the keynote speaking at somebody's graduation, they, they like it.

And so it just goes show you, and I'm not saying that for braggadocious points, but it's just to say, you don't. Let people be the author on your life and your career. You know, those people didn't put me on this earth. So they, they had no right or no truck to direct what my future was. And so, you know, they can say whatever they wanted to do, but I was very focused on.

What? Why I got into journalism and what I wanted to get out of journalism

Zuri Berry: and let me just reflect on just a couple of things you just said here, because you I think displayed what some of us sort of want and desire out of reporters in terms of obsessiveness. Meaning to say, I need to get this story.

And I think that's a key trait that is, key to success for quite a number of people. resilience also. I think you showed that through and through. And, you know, honestly, it's just sometimes it's just that little bit of resilience sometimes gets you further In terms of getting a story or getting through any kind of adversity that, may be going on in that moment that what you went through was hell that that was uncalled for.

I mean, that is awful. and just to clarify, when you were in Greenville, you were a police reporter. So please. So that is a wonderful place to start in terms of, all of the sort of rich kind of storytelling you can do, but also the necessary work sometimes to also do. Thank you. the beginnings of investigative reporting.

Yes. Yes. Um, so I think that's important to note that there's all those things that are sort of wrapped up in there.

And the last thing that you said, which is, I think is incredibly important about door knocking. Oh my goodness. I feel like this is something that is being lost.

Corey Johnson: It is being lost.

Zuri Berry: And, and, and some folks would argue that they are disgusted by the practice.

Uh, particularly when it comes to events that are, you know, there's some kind of, uh, shooting or, or, or a thing of something that where you have to show up at somebody's house and ask them about it, ask a family member about it or something of that nature. And I, I feel like, you know, it's sort of misconstrued.

It's like, no, it's actually a talent and it's a skill to be able to go up to a stranger's house and say, look, something happened, something occurred. I'd love for you to weigh in on this or to talk to me about your family member or to talk to me about what occurred and that I don't know why there's such a, aversion to that.

Um, maybe you have a thought.

Corey Johnson: I have a theory. I have a theory because this has actually been popping up. A lot of just came back from my re conference where, uh, I was talking about door knocking and was talking to the young people in the audience about using calling first and not texting first and how, and I think what has happened.

Is that the pandemic and the digital revolution like clash at the same time. And so you've got young people who have worked from home for one and working from home, they've done email and text messages and they think that's the way to report and what I was a big believer in is that you don't abandon these tools.

But the tools have a way of dividing you and, and not allowing you to fully maximize your gift. Like your gift is your humanity. When you pick up the phone and someone can hear your voice. You're articulating more things than just the words that you're saying. People are picking up on your warmth.

They're picking up on, uh, you know, whether you sound earnest, whether you sound trustworthy when they can see you, when you meet people in person. And, and they can see you and see how you dress, see your face, they, they can, they're making assessments all the time. And most sources, a lot of people don't understand human beings and sources and why they talk to us.

You know, people have a fundamental need to share information. That's one. So when they don't, it's because, largely because of fear. Most people, when I knock on that door or any journalist knocks on that door and starts running down their proposal, most sources are thinking about two things. They're thinking, how does this help me?

How does this hurt me? Right. And so as a journalist, you have to hit that threshold of being able to make people know that I'm not here to hurt you. I'm here to understand and get the piece of information you know, in order to help whatever the thing is that I'm looking into. And, and you can't impart all of that in just a text message.

Right. So many people fall out with each other over text messages because they're looking at those words and they're misunderstanding. What you mean by that? Yeah, so people, I mean, I'm telling you, people didn't fell out with each other over text. And then if they just picked up the phone.

Zuri Berry: I, I, let me tell you, I'll tell you a story about the person who said, you know, it's.

It's weird. You don't, you don't add emojis to your messages. And I'm like, why would I add emojis to my messages?

But they thought I was being, you know, brusque. I was, I was being, I was being short with them and not, you know, injecting that levity into a written communication. And I'm just like, wait a second.

I'm just trying to be clear. So you right, you missed something in all of those, in all of those reasons.

Corey Johnson: So what, so convenience, the convenience of the tool has seduced a lot of journalists away from the human connection part of the business. And the human connect, like I, I, I can't stress enough, data is important.

Being able to scrape websites and all this stuff is, is important, but journalism comes down to the relationships with people. It's a people business. It always has, it always will be. You need that, that person to get you that data. You need that, you just, you can't get away from it. So that means that as all journalists have to be working on their people skills, and we got a lot of antisocial mother...

Freakers in journalism, a lot of people who don't really like people who actually want to want to hide behind the computer and hide behind the text and the phone, whatever. So that's a whole nother.

Zuri Berry: That might be an understatement. I think, I think you absolutely right. There's a lot of people that are in this business that don't want to talk to other people and it doesn't make sense to me.

Donnell Suggs: Well, I think the hardest part of what we do is talking to people we don't know. It's easy to talk to you brothers. I know y'all it's hard to talk to that random person. And on top of that, what I'm talking to you about, isn't even good, especially when I need you to talk back to me. I need, I need you to tell me something. That's hard.

Corey Johnson: What, what has happened also that we're also running up against is. The gap, the news literacy gap, is probably the widest it's ever been in this country. Uh, it's always, it's never really been great in Black communities, but there have been decades where it was better. Now you've got, your average, uh, Black person, when you think of news, you think of TV.

Right. They don't even think of the print side or even the radio side, even they, they think of TV. Uh, and so, you know, a lot of times I'm having to convince people truly that I'm not the police. Like on the, on the, on the lead story that, uh, you know, exposed all those hundreds of folks who were getting poisoned.

I was a little, so I'm thinking, okay, I, I, I see that the majority of this plant. Is black, Latino and immigrants. So I'm thinking, okay, you know, I'm black, they're black. I'm going to at least get a good intro conversation, maybe, you know, over some wings or whatever else we're going. Man, I was knocking on those doors and folks were going, man, if you don't get your FBI ass off around here and I'm going FBI, no, sir, my name is Corey Johnson.

I'm with the Tampa Bay times. And they will say Same difference. Get the fuck out of here. Right. Right. And which also spoke to a legacy here locally where the paper was not really seen as the friend of the Black community at all. And that it had neglected. The black community and only time they covered the black community was on crime or, you know, some famous black person is in town or, you know, it's a civil rights month or black history month, right?

Short of that. Short of that. Most folks saw the newspaper as the enemy. So I that was a huge hurdle that I had to overcome Is that

Zuri Berry: You still feel like that's the case right now?

Corey Johnson: What that they perceive it they perceive we use papers that way Yeah. Oh, yeah,

Zuri Berry: it's it is, you know, I feel similar because because my family members are I'll tell you, I've been in this business 20 years and they don't know it and they don't trust it.

Yeah. You know what I mean? Like, like it's just difficult to talk about it in that sense and so we usually avoid it when we're in together, but it's, it's, it's weird that it's still that, that deep of a problem. And I feel like the only people that do read particularly black press and um, newspapers in general are those that are of a different generation, obviously, um, gen X and up and things of that nature.

Yeah. so that's, you know, concerning.

Before, before we go too far. there's, uh, quite a bit that you just mentioned about the, lead story, which was at the Tampa Bay times. And I just wanted to mention that that was the one that won the Pulitzer prize, right?

Corey Johnson: Yeah. Yes, sir. Pulitzer prize for investigative reporting.

Donnell Suggs: How about that? The nerve of you.

Zuri Berry: So I, you know, we didn't say, we didn't say that off the top. We didn't leave that you, you had won a Pulitzer prize, but you're our first Pulitzer prize winner on this, uh, on this podcast. So I appreciate you coming.

Corey Johnson: Thank you for having me. It's the honor. Um, it was, uh, it has been an amazing.

Experience. I think I'm the either the sixth or the seventh black reporter to ever win an investigative in the history of the contest. because usually black folks don't get a chance to play in the investigative space. And I understand all the variables now that go into that, you know, investigative reporting is very time expensive and it's requires a high level of trust between the editor.

And the reporter between the newsroom and the reporter, and too often the least trusted person in the newsroom is the black reporter. So who tends to get those plumb positions and they are plumb positions because the investigative reporter will get the time and the resources that other people don't get is usually the white male.

usually the white male, the older white male. He has the awards. He has to trust. It might be a young person that management might be trying to groom or make or make successful. Those tend to be the ones who get those opportunities. Just as an aside to that, just to give you a point. I got a really good friend who's an investigative reporter, black man.

He was actually one of my partners in the fellowship at Vanderbilt. He was doing wonderful investigative watchdog work for his paper. Uh, and then investigative job came up. He was the only one in the newsroom that was doing that kind of work. So he goes over and he tells the, um, uh, the executive editor he wants to apply.

Executive editor says, I don't see you. role. I just, I just don't see it. And she then gives the investigative job to a white guy who had never done it before and who frankly didn't want it. So instead of giving it to the person who was doing the work and he's on a one consistently for his, They gave it to a white boy who the white boy was kind of like, okay, well, I guess, you know,

Donnell Suggs: But there's a key into what you said.

She didn't see him in that. It's all sight. She just didn't see, why would he be in this role? Why would this black man be in this role? Nah, I don't see it. Not about understanding it. I just don't see it. So it shouldn't make it happen. Cause I don't see it. And that's crazy.

Corey Johnson: And so you get that there's a legacy.

of that. That's why, you know, I kissed the ring all the time of the veteran Black journalist who came. Before me, because I know that, yeah, I did some incredible work and I've done some incredible work, but I don't have a monopoly on incredible work is just there, plenty of people have done incredible work.

They weren't recognized. They weren't steered. They weren't allowed. So they moved into other areas that they felt they could do. and keep their sanity, right? And so, uh, that's one of the reasons why myself, that, that reporter whose example I just mentioned, and Nicole Hannah Jones, a few others, created the Ida B.

Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, because we want to not only encourage more young journalists and journalists of color, but particularly black journalists to get into investigative reporting. We want to give them the skills and we also want to give them the support network, uh, so that they can get hired.

They can be mentored cause you know, it's rough out here. There's a reason why I listened to a podcast you all had. Previously with, uh, my good friend, Nicole Carr and this topic came up and it's in it and it needs to continue to keep coming up because when, when you're in this space, you bring not only a cultural competency, but an authenticity that absolutely, uh, can make the difference in the story.

So in the example I gave earlier about the black folks, not trusting me. Um, and so I knew to back off, but to not give up so I knew that those workers were getting sick and I knew they were going in and out of the hospital with all these illnesses and their girlfriends and their, you know, their sisters were being the one having to carry them to the, to the hospital.

So when certain folks would block me, I would call the sister and I would say, Hey, this is who I am. This is what, you know, your brother, you know, I got some information that could absolutely, and I would sit with them and I would show them. So one of the things that happened and I know I'm jumping around a bit, but one of the things that happened that broke that story wide, it's a private organization.

So you can't use the usual tools that investigative reporters use. You can't use Freedom of Information Act laws. You can't get any of this stuff. But I, one of my techniques that I use on any story, I go try to find out who governs this space. And then I go try to find out what the rules of the road are and in reading those rules of the occupational health, occupational safety and health administration, anybody that deals with dangerous, uh, toxic substances, OSHA is the moniker for this federal agency.

They required a day. Do regular testing, our medical testing, pollution testing, they require they hire a doctor to make sure that people aren't getting sick. And so they're tracking all this stuff, but they also give these folks the ability, the workers to get all of these records, including the company's pollution testing.

And so no one had ever tried that before. So I went out to a few friendly workers and said, Hey, can you get your records? I'll help you with putting together the language, but could you get your records? I mean, these are your records, not me, but if you, if this works and you get them, would you share with me?

So a few did. And then once we got those records back. We could see that the pollution levels were 200, 300 times higher than the federal limit, sometimes hundreds of times higher than what the respirators that they gave them could even protect against. We could see them getting hired. Well, right before they got hired, they did all this testing and they were fine.

Mm. We could see them within two weeks getting lead stacking up in their blood. And then we could see them getting sick. So I got a few to allow me to share their records, right? And so then I would go to the sisters and go, Hey, look, I think something is happening to your brother. Here's what's happening.

These levels here are far higher than what the law allows. And nobody has told these workers that this is what's happening to them. So he's walking around with his spacesuit and his respirator, and that respirator ain't doing a damn thing to protect him from that lead. So he's just swallowing up that lead, and he's getting...

So she then picks up the phone and said, If you don't, if you... The man, the man here trying to help you, why you doing that damn man like that, right? You asshole. Because I had enough sense to know that black woman, you know, if she, if she puts her mind and her mouth piece on it, then sometimes these hardcore burly, I'm not effing with you men, will soften up.

And so I got women and others To break the ice and then once I got in there and started showing them that paperwork, then all the bullshines stopped and everybody was like, Oh my God. So now then I got to keep them from choking somebody out, right? Because it's very hard when you, when, when, when you find out somebody has done you in and you got to go back in there and act like everything is okay, that's hard for a lot of folks.

And so, but I kept having to say, hey, look, if you go in there and you do that, not only am I not going to be able to get this out, uh, other people are not going to be able to get it out and none of y'all will get justice. Um, and so I was able to. You know, be my full Black self and, and pull on all my experiences of being a Black man in a Black community, to be able to break the back of this story and using all the various, whereas a lot of white reporters, you know, once the man is shouted at him and said, Oh, That's it, right?

Oh, you know, I'm, I'm afraid. I mean, the man talked like he could hurt me, you know, and so the cultural competency is a thing. And that's why, I mean, the other thing too, and I know I'm going on and on and on, but I just want to tell you to you all this point, talking about cultural competency. I, The idea for the lead story happened when I was in, I was in between the Marshall Project job and the Tampa job and, uh, my high school, McNair High School was on the news for, they were closing the school down for a day so they can test the water fountains for lead because the Flint story was big, you know, and all those images.

So. As part of my background, my mom's side all grew up in Flint, Michigan. And as a child in the eighties, one of my most powerful memories was going up to Flint to grandmama's house and drinking the water and the water smelling and tasting like dog shit. And so as a kid, you go, Oh, what's, you know, what's that?

You know, ain't nobody kidding about, about, about, Oh, just drink it up and shut up. You know, it's good for you. It's water. It's good for you. Right. So. That bad smelling water imprinted on my mind as a child. Like I used to hate to go up. I love going to see my cousins, but I hated getting that water. And in fact, the first person that I ever met that had bottled water was my aunt.

She had a water cooler in her home and bottle. And we're talking 82, 83. Right. So at this point, People are cracking on my aunt and joining her. Oh, you think you somebody you buying water? What kind of fool buy water? She thinks she also it was all of that, but she. New. She worked at GM General Motors at General Motors plant and they were dealing with that water early on and that water was, they would use it to cool down the equipment.

It was rusting out all the equipment and causing the equipment to break down. So GM, I'm going on, but it's just to say, so I see go fast forward back to Atlanta and I'm seeing lead and, and, and, and I don't know anything about lead, but I'm seeing those images. And so I'm going, man, could I have drank some of that back when I was a child?

So now I'm looking up lead and I'm finding out all the things that lead can do. You know, just a little bit of lead. Like all you need is three coffee grinds on your finger. And you, that is enough to permanently brain damage a child, right? Lead is, it don't play, and particularly when it gets into your system, the body thinks it's calcium.

So, as soon as it gets into the blood, sends it everywhere that it would send calcium, including the brain. So, lead likes to attack the frontal lobe. Which deals with IQ and impulse control. So I started thinking about all the folk I knew. Hmm, who did, who were good folks, but they would go from zero to a hundred on you in a in a minute.

And I just started to, you know, I know some of this may sound conspiratorial to the, your listening audience, but I just started to wonder how many people have gotten impacted by lead that, you know, are walking around here a little off. And that's because they grew up in houses that had the lead paint or they drunk the lead water.

And I said, that's a, that's like, if you wanted to secretly put the whammo on some black folks, all you gotta do is put them in one of these lead houses and sit back. Right. And so I started to wonder, like, maybe I should look into lead. And so when I moved to Tampa, on the first day, I said, Hey, I want to look and see if y'all got a lead problem.

And they said, fine, go ahead. Right, so first set of stories, I went over to the school district and asked them, I found all these low performing schools that were Black, uh, and I said, Give me all your plumbing profiles for these schools. So, I didn't know at the time, but that question made them poop in their pants.

And so for two months, they blew me off, blew me off. And then they finally said, we ain't got no, we ain't got no records. But what they didn't tell me was that question made them secretly hire a firm. to go test. And when they tested everywhere, they tested, they found high lead in those water fountains.

They found high lead in the sinks in the cafeteria where they prepare the food. And so in America, when government Or business finds a problem that they're in control of these days, they just quit investigating. So they made the decision to not do any more testing and to not tell anybody that they had done some tests.

So they tested like the 12 schools I asked for. They had hundreds of school. They, you know, I'm exaggerating, maybe 80 schools, but they had a lot more schools. They should have tested. They didn't do anything. So here I am bouncing around on another story and somebody from the community said, Hey, ain't you?

The reporter man's like, yeah, didn't you ask the school district about something or nothing about lead or something? And I was like, yeah, now I'm wondering how they know. And I'm like, yeah. And they say, bro, you need to go back over there. And I said, well, what's going on? He said, I think they did something.

You need to go back over there. And so you ain't, you ain't got to spell it all out for me. I didn't, I've, I've been shamboozled by some of the best of them. So I went right on back over there and said, Hey, uh, I filed a legal records request for your results. And you said you didn't have none. So, but I understand you got some and then it was like, ah, so then they turned over all the papers.

So I can see these fountains are in classrooms. First grade, second grade, third grade, and every day the teachers are lining these kids up to drink out these fountains. And so then I'm going, so now I go knock on the teacher's door, on a Saturday, and I go, hey, I'm Corey John with Paper, is this your room?

They're like, yes it is. And I said, did you know that that water fountain got hot lead in it? And, and so then they, and so they was getting mad, so now they calling the school district. So, Matt, that story hit like a bomb. We also had the technical people put together a database that put all these results in the database so that families could just type their school in and their results could come up.

Because the school district told us they had no plan to test the rest of the schools. They had no plan to, to, to make these reports public. So I decided to make them public on my own. Their community saw it. They were mad as, as you know, what, and rightfully so. And then now the school district had to hire and test all the schools.

They had to remove all the water fountains that were high and lit all the sinks. Right. And a health department person who grew up. Saw those stories, reached out to me and said, we need to meet. And so we go to this meeting, they give me a 177, six page report. And it was a report that most people ain't going to read is looking at diseases all throughout the state, but it had two pages on lead poisoning.

In Florida, and it turned out that Tampa Hillsborough County led the entire state in the number of adults and kids who were getting lead point with thousands of folks were getting lead poison. And then it had like a sentence that said there's a battery recycler that's playing a key role. Didn't name him.

It just said that. And so now I'm going, who is this battery recycler? Why are these folks getting poisoned? And then I'm going to regular people going, have you ever met anybody who's lead poisoned? What does that look like? And so everybody can go, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh, uh. And, and so this was the germination of how I got onto that lead plant, was as a black man, I'm thinking about that water that I drunk in the eighties.

And now that I know that this lead is a bad thing, I wonder how many other people that got messed up with the lead. And then that just curiosity ultimately leads me into this big story where hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people, there were people who were dying. There had been at least 15 people within the last few years that had heart attacks or strokes.

The doctor that was hired by the company was covering it all up. Uh, and so when that story finally dropped, the impact on it was immediate and substantial. It's still going. So, this is the first story I've ever done that I got calls from people from Wall Street who, they had loaned that plant money. And so now they see that plant looking bad and they see the videos that we put up and whatnot.

And so now people say, um, um, so how many more stories you planning on doing on

Zuri Berry: Wall Street analysts doing their job.

Corey Johnson: Yeah. And I said, Oh, we, we're going to be reporting on this for at least two more years, three more years. You know, I'm, I'm on this 24 sets, scaring the, the, the mess out of them. Um, but what ended up happening.

Standard Poor's and Moody's, the two major credit raters, downgraded that plant. Well, Moody's downgraded the plant's credit rating, which now costs, it ups their costs. Now they got to pay millions more out in the marketplace to force them to make changes. The OSHA came like within a week and did an investigation, a four month long investigation and then confirmed everything we found, hit them with a 300 some thousand dollar fine, which was the most they've ever done in Florida.

You know, clearly, you know, they could do more, but it was the most that they've ever done in Florida. The county regulators went in there and did an investigation, and they hit him with a near million dollar fine. Uh, uh, what's my guy named? Benjamin Crump, the famous civil rights attorney, came down, signed up a hundred workers, and then five other different law firms came.

And signed up workers and those lawsuits are working their way through right now. Um, then on, you know, you, uh, the CEO resigned, the vice president of the plant resigned. These are all people, mind you, who were saying that the story was fake news when it first dropped. Right. Yeah. Uh, all these people. So it's just to say, just to show you that from a curiosity to Doing the work, it could have, like, tremendous real life results in people's lives.

And that's the thing that I really want more of us to have that feeling. Because I promise you, when you dig into one of these stories and you write it up, and then you see things happening in society just off of you writing some stuff down and hitting sin, You don't want to go back to covering the Strawberry Patch, or the Jay Z, the Jay Z concert, or you know, the Hulk's got, got a new draftee, can you, not, no diss to any of that, that's all worthy.

Donnell Suggs: Different feeling though.

Corey Johnson: But it's a whole different feeling when you can see. You know, you actually like changing lives as a result of some words you put together on a paper, right?

Zuri Berry: And I would just add a story, a lifetime in the making. I mean, if you're talking about, you know, drawing all the way back to your experience there in Flint, Michigan.

And drinking that water yourself, I mean, you're, you know, you said it cultural competency that's direct life experience. Then that's also let's, you know, be real about it, you know, tack on a little, your obsessiveness when you get a story, when you get a bug in your ear, when you get something that you're like, I want to, I want to look into this.

And all of a sudden it becomes a thing for you.

And you've just described two different stories, the MLK stuff and now lead, in which that happened to you. And listen, I, we can go through your, you know, article history because there's a few of them that are out there where it's just like, you must've got the bug in you on some of these other things too.

Tell me, tell me something. And I know I'm asking a lot of questions with Don now, by all means, jump in when you can. But um, how do you cultivate that?

Corey Johnson: So,

Zuri Berry: You gotta bottle this up, man. We gotta

Corey Johnson: sell it.

Teach it. It absolutely can be taught. It also, it helps when you're the kind of person that questions. A thing, right? And children, like, so children come in the world questioning everything. If you ever fooled with a small child, they got a why and a how come, and they'll, they'll ask you a million doggone questions, right?

That's a natural curiosity. At some point, people beat that out of you or discourage you. And so you, you don't. But people who tend to see, I'm not, you might not think I'm not one of those nosy, just for nosy sake, people. I mind my own business. I turn these skills off when I'm around family and friends, because otherwise you go crazy, you know, uh, but when I'm focused on something that I think has real importance, you know, I have a entitlement.

And, and I preach that entitlement issues are bad in relationships, but they're absolutely necessary for this kind of reporting because people will always try to tell you, you're, you're not entitled to this. You can't get this. You can't get that.

And so you have to learn how to stand on your square and fight for what you believe in.

And so I, I take that into the journalism space where. You know, these stories, man, if I had a dollar for every time a government agency told me they didn't have the record, what are you talking about? That that record doesn't even exist. Oh, you're just making stuff up. And I go, Oh, really? That record don't even exist.

Well, how come I just downloaded it from your website five minutes ago if it don't even exist? And, and, and so if I had a dollar every time I had to bust them for that, then I wouldn't be here. My toes would be up on a beach in Tulum right now because I'd be rich. It just. People lie to you as a journalist all the time, and it's getting worse, you know, since the former president and his crew made it to where it was kind of okay to, to give, to lie and nobody was going to do anything.

And so you can't be, you can be an investigative journalist, but a quality you absolutely have to have is skepticism. and courage. You can't be no punk wanting to be no investigative reporter because everybody is it will have you coming and going spinning around and then your boss is them. I have you spinning around and around and around.

Donnell Suggs: So Cory, you can't teach that not being a punk. You gotta have that in you though. Am I right or wrong?

Corey Johnson: Well, some of it can be taught, like a lot of, believe it or not, uh, journalists of color of all ilk have another level they can go to a resiliency, largely because of the lives that we lead and the kind of experiences we've had in life.

You know, if we need to go to next level, we can go to next level, but a lot of people gotta know that that's what it calls for it. Now, not that you can't be a butthole, but you gotta have the ability to to be a butthole to be insistent. About getting what you need to get, especially if the law entitles you to it.

So I've been able to, and it freaks people out when I've been able to make agencies create an office for me in their building and then bring the records. And I've had my own offices where I just would go over there and sit while now that I'm sitting over there and I'm going through the records, I didn't made them have to give me.

Now, people know a reporter is here, so now when I'm going into my office, somebody is leaving me a folder full of stuff they wanted me to see, you know, with a note saying, call me, right? Now, I can overhear them talking about my investigation in a room and saying, man, if this is gonna come out, this is gonna be...

So, being... What I'm saying is a lot of people don't even think about... Making an agency. You know, set post them up inside for you to do your work, but that's something you absolutely could do. Like, so it's just to say, yes, these things can be taught, but you also just have to be a person that says, why not?

Right. Why not?

Like the lead story was built upon, we ended up getting 100, 000 records that had never been seen before. A lot of them were medical records, confidential records that you're not entitled to see under no law. Right. But if we didn't get those records, how we've been able to, to then expose the fact that they were poisoning these people without their knowledge.

Right. And so, uh, your average person go, well, I'm scared to get those records. They're confidential. But the investigative reporter knows the hell if I don't get the CIA reporters, right. Torture documents about this Romanian prison. I won't be able to report that the CIA are torturing folks. If I don't get these medical records, I won't be able to tell people that they're poisoning folks.

Like, we get to see what things truly look like. And that gives us a level of access that your average person don't have. And you can't be afraid of that. Like, there are people that I'll never reveal. In any interview, in any story, those folks are going to their grave because I made a promise. That if you give me, if you trust me enough with your story, I will keep you confidential and I'll stand on that to where I go to jail if I have to, to keep your identity secret, right?

That's the, that's the relationship that the investigative reporter has to have and that's the grit you got to have about what you're doing. I absolutely, as you probably can tell from my voice. I absolutely see myself as the auditor for the people. I'm the, when I, and I, I tell public information people this all the time when they, you know, start trying to run that game.

I say, look, sir, you can tell me what to do if I worked for you, but since you ain't paying my salary. You know, I got to do what I got to do for my readers. And the last I checked, that constitution, it don't say FLAC, but it does say press. And so I'm the people's auditor. My job is to audit you and tell the people what the hell I see.

And so you're going to give me that record. Because you gotta give me that record. In fact, my tax dollars paid for the record, it paid for the computer, it paid for your desk, it paid for your seat. And so, if anything, you need to be, no, you need to turn that record over. You need to be giving me a refund check for all this honorary stuff you talking on my phone.

Right. You gotta have that. Right. Otherwise, these people, uh, you know, have you falling for the banana in the tailpipe.

Zuri Berry: Yeah, I mean, at the end of the day, I mean, some of these folks, they think that if they put up enough, you know, fight, that you'll give up. And I think that's their, their game plan, their goal most of the time.

I think that you always have to have the threat of the lawsuit in your back pocket. Some of these, uh, you know, government officials, uh, want to hide behind, that they don't want to give up some documents, some records that are absolutely available. Or should be available to the public. And so that always has to be in your back pocket.

And it's like, look, the law's on my side. You want to go to court and, you know, do it, let's do it. but I think it's exceptional to hear about your story of convincing to get, you know, people to get medical records for you. which you have to have, you know, some. Uh, courage, let's put it that way, to ask people for, it takes some out of the box thinking to say, let me, let me sign a different way to go about this.

And as you, pointed out, once you start getting a few, the dam starts to break as you start sharing that information with others. And, and also now you have a fuller picture and you're able to tell a story.

I know we're over an hour. Or so, and there are a couple more things that we want to talk about.

One of those is this dire need for more, Black investigative reporters. And the Ida B. Wells Society, fantastic outfit that you, have co founded with a great number of journalists. and there's a I think it's unclear where Ida B. Wells Society is right now because of this situation at UNC. If you could provide us some clarity on that and also talk to us a little bit about what's next for developing the next crop of Black investigative journalists.

Corey Johnson: So Ida B. Wells Society's, its new home is Morehouse. and, uh, you may have saw in the, in the, in the press here recently, Um, we the organization had a ton of money. The organization has been blessed with a lot of people who want to see. Uh, this organization succeed. They want to see more, uh, journalists of color and black journalists in the space.

And so the donations, the grants, uh, Nicole Hannah Jones also is, uh, among other things, a very talented. recruiter of love and, and, and resources. A lot of people love her and rightfully so. And so the organization had a, has a ton of money. That's our money. But when you're working in these university spaces.

Uh, which Ida B. Wells had a university home, the university was like our fiscal sponsor. And so the money was in the university accounts, but it was our money. University can't touch it, but it's in their accounts. And so when, when the organization made the decision to leave UNC to go to Morehouse, uh, UNC was supposed to release that money.

And then when it got time to release the money, now UNC don't know what email they don't know, a phone call they don't. And so that, that put the organization in a bind from the standpoint of being able to have the money for certain programs to kick off. In the summertime, when school gets back in. But, but that's a, that's a temporary inconvenience.

Nicole and some of the others did some stories exposing UNC about that. And so is that Morehouse? We also, uh, that will, and that will be announced in a few weeks or so, maybe sooner have a new incoming executive director, um, that we're all excited about. And so big things are coming. For the organization at Morehouse, um, and we'll start getting our programming back on track.

Uh, the, the thing, the thing about it is that sometimes it's a chicken and egg question. Uh, a lot of editors or hires will say, uh, I want to hire somebody for investigative reporting, but I don't know who they are. I've never, you know, seen their work and there are a lot of, you know, black and brown reporters who aren't getting the opportunity, therefore they are not developing the skills so that they can step into those roles.

So one of the things that we wanted to do, uh, as a society is to cut, cut the excuses out by building skills, but also building a network so that when folk make those calls and, and a lot of us get the calls all the time or the emails asking for candidates that we have a network, a database of tracking folks who have gone to the trainings, who stuff that we've seen that we can absolutely recommend.

Uh, and put them in the pipeline to get hired, but it's a, it's also a matter of just growing this kid. So we have a really good internship fellowship program. We have been getting fellows matched up with, uh, to work on the investigative teams and news organizations. So we have fellows on the New York times investigative unit.

the Miami Herald investigative unit and so on and so on where they can actually shadow investigative reporters and learn from them on real life jobs, all the things that go into doing an investigative and some of those, some of those fellows are just now getting jobs and doing some great. Things. So it's going to take time.

This problem, which we're fighting a decades long, decades long neglect problem, but we're beginning to see where bits and pieces here. There are folks who are, you know, breaking forth. And going to have bright futures.

Zuri Berry: there's a Atlanta connection here that we've only briefly touched on. And that's, you know, Corey, chatting it up with the Atlanta voice at one point in time in your career as you were getting started.

Uh, but you're also from Atlanta, right? And this is something that Donnell wanted to talk with you about.

Donnell Suggs: Just your origins being from Atlanta and then ultimately learning a little bit anyway, if your time with the Atlanta voice and how Lamar, who's one of our legends. Yes. Just one more time for the show.

Briefly talk about that opportunity you that ride with him. And let me also just say something about Atlanta that I've, that I began as the more I've traveled, I didn't really realize the, the benefit of growing up in Atlanta until I went to other places, you know, a lot of people don't believe this when I say this, but when I, so I, I I'm a seventies baby, I was literally born.

The week that Nixon resigned, uh, the presidency is when I came into the world. So I'm, my mom is fond to say that Nixon was going out and I was coming in. I'm a Watergate baby. Um, my father graduated from Morris Brown College and my mom and dad met when he, he was a, he's a war veteran. He had, he was in the Vietnam war.

Uh, then it came to Morris Brown. And growing up in Atlanta, especially at that time in the late seventies, this is where Maynard Jackson was when in the mayor office and the rise of a lot of black professionals coming from that civil rights era. And so when I grew up, I didn't see why it took maybe I didn't start seeing white people in reality until sixth grade.

You know, other than that, I saw white people on TV, but in my real life, the grocery, the church. All the functions of running a city and running a solution were done by people that look like me. And so there was never that self esteem issue of feeling less than or whatever. No, if anything, it was like, Man, you got to step your game up because these folk down the street, they got a satellite dish, like a real satellite dish.

They making some real money and all we got is the cable box. So I got to get out here. Right. And so I'm saying the, I never saw black people from a deficit point of view. And so that. Is an invaluable thing, you know, uh, walking into these career spaces and whatnot, because I never thought that I couldn't be a journalist.

So when the guy was saying, you know, you ain't well, like the hell you talking about? Like. Of course, I'm going to be a journalist. Hell, if you're a journalist, I'm going to be a journalist. How about that? Right. It just never, you know, whereas, you know, I hear a lot of the kids talking imposter syndrome and all this stuff about confidence.

And, and so Atlanta did that. Um, Atlanta put that in me. And so the other thing I love about Atlanta, especially this Atlanta that I'm referring to is you could walk up. And they land a voice and say, I want to be a journalist. And they say, okay. Uh, sit with Hal Lamar, right? Hal, and then Hal sees me over there and say, come on over here, Denzel.

So now I'm going out to the car and we riding. I think we went to Justin's. There was an event that he had to cover at Justin's that was Puff Daddy's restaurant. Yeah, on P Street. And so we go to Justin's and, and he, and he, you know, and I'm, and I'm eating good with him. And he's introducing me to folk, right?

That same time I walked up on Hosea Williams. And said, Hey, I want to, I want to learn. I want to talk to you about the King assassination. I understand you was there. He said, okay, come on, young man. So I was alternating between going to the Atlanta voice on one day, then going to Hosea on the next day. And I would ride Hosea around to all of the things he needed to do on a day.

And I was just marveling at that man's. energy. Jose Williams, for folks who might be listening, don't know who was a lieutenant. He was one of Martin Luther King's trusted lieutenants who was based in Atlanta and then formed an organization called Jose Feed the Hungry, where every year he would feed the homeless and feed hungry folks.

He was a character, you know, he He had a bit of a drinking problem at, at times. So he would be drunk sometimes and crash. That's the investigative reporter getting a little extra, see, but, but the man was a rider for, for black people and for civil rights. It was nothing he wouldn't do to help folks. And I, I mean, I saw him, he would have a, he would, it was the most amazing thing I've ever seen.

He would have a planned out schedule. And then somebody would walk in and, you know, and, and he, and, and need to talk to him because of some crisis. He stopped what we were doing to hear them out. And then I hear them out and never felt like he was rushing them and then go handle his business and he was always on time.

He never, I was like, I don't know how are we going to make it through the traffic and we will always get there on time. He never met a stranger. Everybody loved him. He all like there was just there was a customer service where my, my, my, my point on that is that generation of black servants saw themselves as servants.

And there was a customer service that they gave the folk. Regardless of who you were, regardless of if you came in musty or you came in with a suit, they gave you good customer service and they weren't afraid of you, they weren't afraid to cry with you, but they also could pick up a phone and make some stuff happen for you.

And I saw that with Jose, I saw, I was so thankful. Uh, that he gave me. I mean, I got tapes of him allowing me to videotape him to talk about the last days of Martin Luther King's life and all the stuff that was going on. And at not, and at no point did he go, well, are you, uh, with the Atlanta Journal? Or, I mean, what's the, you know, I only talked to, you know, he talked to me, you know, and, and like for hours.

Right. And so I, Saw that. And so in my life and in my career, I feel like I have to emulate that. So I, on, on the job, when I was getting started, people would tell you, I would talk to all kinds of people, the homeless, the drug dealers. Like, the ladies of the night, drug dealers and ladies of the night, they know a lot about the police.

They got the school. Yeah, right. And so they, they can tell you who the bad, the garbage folks. There are some stories where the garbage people were the reason why I cracked the story because the man, the janitor, the janitor in the office is going through everybody's stuff. Right. So when people leave and go, the janitor is in there, they, they're seeing everything and, and people disrespect those janitors.

Right. And so, because I saw I had those examples, I don't ever disrespect anybody on it on my beat. And as a result, that has contributed greatly to my success, right, to a degree we can call it that.

Zuri Berry: Yeah, Atlanta's instilled that in you.

And that, listen, there's all little bits of advice in there in terms of just how you Talk to people, how you deal with people.

you've also given good advice earlier in this conversation in terms of doorstepping and just this power of imparting all this information and trust. When you just show up and you're talking to people and they hear your voice, they see your face, they can interact with you. we like to ask our guests always for advice that they'd like to part with young journalists at this point in time. So you've already given us so much, but I'm wondering if you have anything else before we, we wrap this conversation up.

Corey Johnson: So one thing that young journalists, uh, and it's going to sound Hallmark y, um, but a lot of people don't really realize that most human beings in America have never encountered a journalist.

So they don't really know what we do, how we do it. And there are tons of people in this country who have never been seen, don't feel seen, they go through life, not being seen, not being heard. And so one of the, our gifts are one of our greatest powers, if we choose to use it. It's showing up and listening to people's story without judgment, just listening.

And people, when they feel heard, it does something to them. It does something for them. Even if you write a story that they disagree with it, the mere fact that you heard them out. Listen to them, consider them, talk to them, show them respect. It goes a long way. And so, I can't preach enough the need to put this, these tools in their proper place, whereas they've kind of dominated the space now.

And, and like at the conference that I just left, uh, journalists, young journalists, five young journalists, Came up to me and said, is it door knocking, uh, unethical? And I said, no, sir. That's, that's our job. It's not unethical. I said, surely there's, there's aspects to it. That if you did it in an unethical way, it could be bad.

I said, but most human beings are still wired to be civil and cordial at the door, right? People don't think that, like some of the most hardcore, anti Black, anti liberal, I've knocked on those doors and those folks were courteous and kind and heard me out and ultimately ended up becoming sources. In the story.

And so I just say people start talking about what can we do to save journalism. One of the things to do is journalism has to show up for folks and show up for folks in a way that not only do they feel heard, but they feel served. And right now. There are whole communities that have been excluded from the journalism process that don't know a journalist, ain't never seen one, and ain't going to see one no time soon unless young journalists and the ones who are still surviving change their ways and do something about that.

Um, I'm a, so that's, uh, that's my parting tip.

Zuri Berry: I'm a, I'm a boil that down to get from behind the keyboard. Get from behind the keyboard. Put the phone down. Yeah. Put the phone down and get out there.

Corey Johnson: Ain't no stories. Ain't no stories. Ain't no stories. Sitting behind the desk. Your stories are out here in these streets.

I feel like I've heard that one before. There ain't no stories behind the desk. I think we've heard that one a couple of times.

Zuri Berry: Yeah, I feel like we've heard it a few times, you know, I might've said it once or twice myself.

Donnell Suggs: I know, I said it last week to one reporter in particular.

Corey Johnson: Let me tell you where that came in.

Management, cause you know, managers want to, they want to work an eight to five or nine to six. They want to be done so they can go home to their wife. Right. And so they begin, and then they want to be able to watch you to be able to say, yeah, I think they're doing, you know, he's working because he's in his desk.

Okay. But the doggone story is out in the street. And so all the reporter is doing in between a few is playing around on the internet. That's all they're playing around. Like, so you see, I see journalists. And this is no shade to anybody, but I see journalists who are on Twitter and the gram all day getting into Twitter beefs and whatnot.

And I'm going, man, it's people out here who's suffering that need their story told. And we ain't telling it because you in here messing around on the damn Facebook. And Twitter, you take, you know, every picture, Oh, look at my new dance and my new shoes and all. And it's people out here who are getting drugged, ran through by government policies and are like, they not coming to us.

We got to go to them. And we are, as a, as a craft, we're, we're, we're failing, we're failing on, on, on those fronts. I mean, obviously I don't want to paint the entire craft with that brush. There are journalists who are doing fine work, but by and large, I think the reason why they're struggling with the subscriptions and the finances is largely because communities would be like, What I want to, what I want to pay for that stuff for.

I haven't seen him in my community, so why do I care? Yeah, absolutely. Why do I?

Zuri Berry: Right. Yeah. This is why the community news organization is so important. Right. Because we're often the ones that are in the streets, talking to people, showing up. The Atlanta Voice, good example.

Yeah, Cory, I, I, I feel like we've gotten a word on a great number of things here and hopefully we, we touched on everything.

I feel like I've learned so much about you. Um, you know, you've had a number of stats. Like I said, we. May have crossed paths in Sacramento. I think we were talking about that before we started recording. but yeah, it's, it's been wonderful to hear about your journey. The non traditional route to getting into journalism and to becoming an investigative reporter and

Donnell Suggs: didn't take no for an answer.

Zuri Berry: It didn't take no for an answer. Yes. Couple of those. So this has been wonderful. Wonderful to hear.

Donnell Suggs: Thanks Corey.

Corey Johnson: And man, the pleasure is all mine. Thank you all for having me. Thank you for this podcast because, uh, these are conversations that, you know, are held largely at the bar or at a conference or in, in somebody's personal group chat.

But these are conversations that I think are immensely important for the larger public to hear. And so thank you, both of you, for putting this together to, to serve in this way. Uh, it's a huge honor. Anything I could do to help, I definitely want to help.

Well, Corey, Corey, thank you so much. I appreciate it.

Zuri Berry: Thank you.

Creators and Guests

Donnell Suggs
Donnell Suggs
EIC at @theatlantavoice , Life reporter at @gtimes ,lunchroom monitor at my sonโ€™s school, BK native, @Mets , Nets & Jets. @wafflehouse 4 Life
Zuri Berry
Zuri Berry
I tweet about๐Ÿ“ journalism, ๐ŸŽ™ podcasts, and ๐Ÿ“ˆ business. I run @zmcpodcasts. MBA grad. Originally from SF. ๐ŸŒ‰ He/Him
Pulitzer Prize winner Corey G. Johnson on the need for more Black investigative reporting
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