University of Wisconsin-River Falls
Falcon Online

Alumna Succeeds at USA Today

by Bryan Sanders '96

Mary Jo SylwesterFor Mary Jo Sylwester, ’94 journalism grad, being in the news is literally an every day affair. Her journey from UW-River Falls to the nation’s largest newspaper, USA Today, is a unique story of hard work, flexibility, and commitment—all accomplished by getting the facts straight along the way.

Following graduation from UW-RF, Mary Jo took her first job as a regional reporter with the New Ulm Journal. It was her job to cover everything newsworthy from Sleepy Eye to Walnut Grove, Minn. So, as you might guess, she knows all about that famous little house on the prairie.

It wasn’t long and Sylwester was back in Wisconsin working as a bureau reporter in Waushara County for a slightly larger Oshkosh-Northwestern paper. “I was basically in the middle of nowhere,” she recalls. It was your standard-fare news writing with two noteworthy exceptions. The first involved an investigative story that uncovered the city clerk and some of his cronies who were illegally using city-owned land for their own private hunting ground. The second story was a horrific train derailment in Weyauwega, which resulted in nearly a month-long evacuation of the town. Mary Jo remembers writing about the developments, including the National Guard’s exciting pet rescue, nearly every day of that month.

After four years and time spent as police beat reporter and assistant city editor, Mary Jo felt it was time to move on to a much bigger paper. Graduate school seemed the best route to that goal. So, she enrolled in a graduate research assistantship at the University of Missouri in Columbia. The assistantship involved work experience with the National Institute for Computer-Assisted Reporting (NICAR), which is an affiliate of Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE). NICAR is the number one training organization in the country for computer-assisted reporting. “It was like going to another country to learn a foreign language,” says Sylwester. Part of the job experience required her to help at conferences and seminars conducted by IRE and NICAR. This turned out to be the most advantageous part, as Mary Jo met some of the best investigative journalists and database editors in the country. More important, they found out about her.

Computer-assisted reporting (CAR) is a relatively new strain of journalism that really took off in the early 1990s when journalists started getting access to government data in electronic formats. About the same time, journalists also started getting Windows-based computers in their offices, making it possible for them to work with this data. Initially, CAR was mostly used for large-scale projects. Instead of having investigative reporters sift through reams of paper documents to look for trends, someone with CAR skills could analyze the government database and find the trends much faster and more thoroughly.

CAR has greatly assisted reporters working on political campaign finance stories. Previously, candidates filed paper reports with their respective local, state, or federal agencies, and journalists would wade through mounds of paper to figure out simple things like which candidate received the most money, which donor gave the most money, etc. Now all those reports are filed electronically and journalists can get access to many of them almost immediately. The catch is that the journalist must know how to use a database program, such as Microsoft Access, in order to “crunch” the numbers.

Because many journalists didn’t have these skills, most newspapers created a new position—usually called a “database editor” or a “CAR specialist”—to run the numbers and teach other people how to do it. Today, CAR is used for all kinds of stories, not just the big projects (although that remains its most valuable purpose). Oftentimes, readers won’t even know that the newspaper did its own analysis for something. One of the big advantages to using CAR is that journalists don’t have to rely on a “middle man” to interpret the data for them. “We find that either nobody is out there looking at the data in quite the way we want to, or there are people and organizations who are putting a ‘spin’ on whatever they find,” says Mary Jo.

While she was in Missouri, Sylwester spent about 18 months working with a reporter at the Kansas City Star to publish a package of stories about leaking underground storage tanks. The story, which she stumbled upon while talking to her neighbor about his job overseeing cleanups of leaking tanks, uncovered the fact that laws that had taken effect in the late 1990s to reduce the likelihood of leaks were not working for a variety of reasons. Through databases and paper records they found numerous cases of new or “upgraded” tanks that met regulation, but developed leaks later on.

Upon completion of graduate school, Mary Jo accepted a database editor and project manager position for “State Secrets” at the Center for Public Integrity, a Washington, DC-based non-profit organization that investigates ethics and corruption in government. The “State Secrets” project became a mammoth campaign finance investigation and involved obtaining and analyzing campaign finance reports for about 300 state political parties (such as the “Minnesota DFL” and the “Republican Party of Wisconsin”). “What we found, as expected, was that state political parties were being used as back-door funnels for large donors to get money into national campaigns, bypassing the federal campaign finance laws,” says Sylwester. “It was something that never could have been proven without building the database, which contained 700,000 records detailing contributions and expenditures by these political parties,” explains Mary Jo.

The project took about a year, and when it was finished, USA TODAY came knocking and asked her to interview for their position as database editor in the sports department. The paper, with the largest circulation in the country at just over 2 million papers sold each day, has four database editors, one for each section (news, money, life and sports). Although Mary Jo is in the sports department, she often teams up with the other database editors to form their own little support system. She has worked on several large stories for the sports section and many smaller pieces. Much of her time is also spent maintaining a collection of about 30 databases (player salaries for four leagues, game data for all four leagues, PGA golf statistics, college football and basketball rankings, high school football and basketball rankings, college basketball statistics and tournament results, NASCAR accidents and many more).

As for her River Falls experience, Mary Jo has often wondered whether “I wouldn't have been better off going to a bigger school where I might have had a better shot at getting a job. But in the years since, I've discovered that it's better, especially in journalism, to be the underdog. At UW-RF, I got to be the big fish in the little sea. I was the editor of the newspaper and had many other leadership opportunities that would have been nearly impossible to attain at a big school. And most important, I learned how to work hard because I didn't get internships or jobs handed to me on a silver platter. That has proven more valuable than anything.”

Mary Jo resides in Reston, Virginia. Outside of work she is a volunteer for the Friends of the Reston Library where she sorts donated books that are later sold to raise money for the library. Other volunteer work includes playing the piano for residents of an assisted living home, doing community and social activities with an alumnae chapter of Alpha Sigma Alpha, and occasionally guest teaching at local universities. She also continues to do training sessions as a volunteer for IRE and NICAR.

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