Meet your IPC Audrey Dutton, investigative journalist at the Idaho Statesman

Audrey with 7-month-old daughter Ruth

Interviewed by Sydney Sallabanks

TWITTER PROFILE: “Investigative reporter for the Idaho Statesman. Data hoarder. Public records addict. Once filed a story while in labor.”

PRESS CLUB POSITION: President, Southwest Chapter; chapter representative to the state board

What got you interested in journalism in the first place?

I came to journalism later than a lot of people did. My first real gig was freelancing after college for an alt-weekly in Minneapolis. My day job at the time was in a sex-related mental health clinic, and some of the clients inspired me to write a cover story on the transgender community. This was 15 years ago, so gender identity was even more misunderstood than it is now. When I saw how much the piece meant to our clients, I was hooked. At the time, I was also dealing with some pretty severe depression, and I found that journalism gave me a feeling of purpose again.

If you were not a reporter, what career would you have and why?

Lawyer. I love minutiae and technical details.

Who or what inspires your journalism?

Some of my journalism idols are Katherine Boo, Joan Didion and A.J. Liebling. I can still remember where I was the first time I read Terry Southern’s “Twirling at Ole Miss,” which remains one of my all-time favorite pieces of creative non-fiction. My 11th grade English teacher, Mrs. Burkhart, in Twin Falls probably has had the single strongest influence on my writing. I often think about her lessons, such as when I consider using “like” in place of “such as.”

How did you end up gaining expertise in data journalism? Was it a natural outcome of the beats you covered, or did you take an interest in telling stories through data public for a particular reason?

I’ve always been a computer nerd. I built my first website in 1996 (RIP GeoCities) and started a blog a couple years later, although I called it a journal and I’m sure it was awful. So it made sense that I would eventually get into computer-y journalism stuff. I got introduced to data journalism at an IRE training in 2011 — one of the hands-on trainings they do with old lottery data. Using data to find stories seemed like wizardry, and it appealed to my desire for empirical evidence in addition to interviews. When I figured out data visualization and mapping, and overlaying and joining different data sets to see how things interact, it opened a door to a whole new world of story ideas. I’ve had some formal training through IRE and NICAR, but most of what I’ve learned is just from messing around.

Before you start mining a certain set of public records, do you already have a hunch about the story, or are you sometimes surprised where the documents lead?

It’s about 50 percent knowing what I’m trying to find, 50 percent fishing expeditions. For example, we got a data set of Idaho Department of Correction inmate convictions. We knew we wanted to see how many were violent offenders. But as I was working with the spreadsheets, I noticed a few seeds for future stories.

What is the draw for you to watchdog journalism?

I like that investigative reporting can affect your community in meaningful ways, and that you have to get creative in your reporting. White-collar crime is one of my favorites, because it often means drawing lines — sometimes literally — between property, financial and business records. Covering public finance and the federal government before moving back to Idaho gave me some unique tools that I love being able to use, too. On the other hand, watchdog journalism can be frustrating. It means chasing a lot of leads that go nowhere. For every 20 tips I get, I’ll do one story.

Describe covering how you navigated the health care system when you became a mom, and also how you covered it. Did you come away with a new appreciation for the complexities of the billing process? What was surprising, how did you approach it, what were the challenges, and anything you can tell us about the experience?

I was so excited to be a patient for nine months. I’ve learned enough from working in a clinic and covering health care that I can navigate the system pretty well, but having a baby kind of throws you in the deep end. We ran into a giant error with one of our bills almost immediately. It was a $2,000 error, and there was no easy way to undo it. That’s when I decided to do a column.

The medical care we got was outstanding. Even better than I’d hoped. We’re so fortunate in the Treasure Valley to have awesome doctors and nurses (and midwives!). The financial side, however, was just a big ol’ garbage fire. I spent 90 minutes on the phone with my health insurance company in October, trying to figure out which of two insurance companies was responsible for paying my hospital bill. Why they couldn’t figure it out themselves, I do not know. And that was five months after having the baby.

The way things are structured in our system, you’re almost guaranteed to have something go wrong due to human or computer error, even if you’re a super diligent patient.

Say you’ve just filed an enterprise story that you put a lot of blood, sweat and tears into and you believe it is an important piece of news. What do you want the reader to come away with?

I’d like the reader to feel something — outrage, compassion, amusement, curiosity, whatever. Or even a physical reaction. When I did a story on bed bug infestations and my own experience with them, people told me they started to feel itchy while reading it. I was so proud, because they’ll probably remember that story.

 What could be done to improve journalism?

I think we need to do a better job of educating people on the business realities of news. People don’t understand what we do, how much time it takes, why it’s irreplaceable and why it can’t be free. You don’t walk into a restaurant and demand a free meal. You don’t yell at the server for wanting to be paid for their work. And you definitely don’t send the owner a furious email, telling him he should be ashamed of himself for charging you. But people do that to newsrooms. I think it’s one of the biggest threats to our industry. Unless every newsroom becomes grant funded or publicly funded, we’re going to need people to pay for what they consume.

BACKGROUND: Audrey is originally from Twin Falls. She went to college in St. Paul, Minn., then earned a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University. She then moved Washington, D.C., where she covered government, local news, municipal finance and transportation policy. She also wrote for alt-weeklies and magazines on everything from unsolved murders in New York to bed bugs in D.C. to sick nuclear workers in Idaho Falls. Audrey returned to Idaho in 2011 to work for the Statesman. She also currently is a 2018 Reporting Fellow on Health Care Performance for the Association of Health Care Journalists; her project involves examining barriers to effective mental health treatment in rural Idaho. She and her husband, Josh, live in west downtown Boise with their 7-month-old daughter Ruth.

BABY RUTH’S FAVORITE THINGS RIGHT NOW: “Our cat Penelope, riding in the seat of the shopping cart/baby rollercoaster, and the book “Baby Faces,” which is exactly what it sounds like.”

Sydney Sallabanks is communications manager at the law firm of Perkins Coie LLP, and is an associate representative on the Idaho Press Club state board.