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Broke & broken: 10 years later

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Juliet A. Terry, now manager of government relations, North American Coal for Cliffs Natural Resources, worked on the project and offers her perspective on both putting the exhaustive details together and its effects 10 years later.

First and foremost, (former West Virginia Media Managing Editor) Len LaCara absolutely should be credited with creating the Broke & Broken series.

He saw a need for it, and almost had to bully me to do it, but it ended up being one of the most groundbreaking pieces of journalism I've ever been privileged to research and write, along with Beth Ryan, nee Gorczyca. Without Len's vision and then-Editor Dan Page's support, Broke & Broken never would have happened.

Beth and I worked with Dan and Len on getting to the root of West Virginia's workers' compensation problem, which meant sifting through the modern political rhetoric and tracing the system's history to its origins. When we realized the problems went all the way back to the early 1900s, when the system was first created, we knew we had our work cut out for us. Thus, a five-week series was born. In the end, we wrote a six- week series of stories because there was so much content to cover.

As a journalistic effort, it was immense because we had a short turnaround time for the series. Beth and I divvied up what had become an impressive list of story ideas and coordinated our coverage so each week of the series had a clear, cohesive focus. We also dovetailed our efforts with reporters on the TV stations of West Virginia Media so the printed stories were accompanied by on-air coverage — this essentially doubled the work that went into all the major articles and took the series' reach far beyond The State Journal's circulation. I must credit the parent company for supporting us in this effort and giving us the resources we needed to do the work. 

For example, back then we had a news helicopter, they let me use it to travel to Grant County with a television crew for interviews on one aspect of the workers' compensation system collapse. A print reporter having access to a helicopter is unheard of!

Quality research — both in terms of source material and interviews — was a critical underpinning of the whole effort. The list of people all over West Virginia and outside our borders who provided invaluable contributions to Broke & Broken is long, and I remain indebted to everyone who gave of their time and resources so our reporting was exhaustively thorough and covered all sides of the issue. 

Greg Burton was director of the state workers' compensation division at the time of the reforms and gave Beth and me total access to any information under his control. Without that access, Broke & Broken would not have been nearly as comprehensive.

I also must recognize and thank The State Journal copy desk, especially Graphic Designer Natalie Belville, because finding ways to illustrate and display these stories in a way that made the information understandable and visually engaging was incredibly difficult. I'm sure Beth would agree that the series would not have been nearly as well-received without their collective skill, expertise and probably most of all, patience.

By the end of the whole series, lawmakers had an exhaustive body of material on workers' compensation at their fingertips that never had been produced in such a way. I can't speak for the legislators, but as The State Journal's government and legal affairs reporter at the time, I have no doubt our coverage played some role in the massive overhaul of a system that truly was on the brink of utter failure. Our coverage leveled the playing field among lawmakers and allowed the entire body to be more informed on every aspect of West Virginia's workers' compensation system history.

Broke & Broken is a testament to the importance of teamwork, attention to detail and a commitment to excellence. Those values started with Dan Page and Len LaCara, and Beth and I did our best to live up to their high expectations. In the end, the series won national awards both for print and broadcast journalism, and while I may still wonder at how we managed to get it all done, I always will be proud of that work and the contribution it made to West Virginia.

Looking back, 10 years later, I am now in the private sector, proudly representing a company that employs about 1,000 people in West Virginia. This perspective makes me appreciate in a new way how effective our workers' compensation system has become in a relatively short amount of time. The Legislature, governor and other state leaders had to make countless difficult decisions in 2003 (and later, when they privatized the system), and ultimately everyone shared in the pain necessary to salvage workers' compensation for West Virginians. The success of that transformation has been nothing short of remarkable. We may face other challenges today, but West Virginia's Achilles Heel has been removed. What emerged from the evolution in workers' compensation is proof that a free press is a critical component to the democratic process, and that West Virginia wins when partisan divides are crossed and the greater good prevails.

Editor's note

The State Journal published a 6-week, award-winning series in May 2003, outlining the runaway crisis the state's workers compensation had become.