GBH News’s The Color of Public Money, an investigation into racial disparities in Massachusetts state contracts, is among the first-ever recipients of the new Excellence in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Award from the Regional Edward R. Murrow Awards. The series, from GBH’s Center for Investigative Reporting spearheaded by GBH Investigations Editor and Interim Executive Editor Paul Singer, inspired a groundswell of support from Black business leaders and spurred change at the highest level of the Massachusetts government, including a decision by Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker to create a new state agency with authority to enforce more equitable state spending with minority-owned businesses.
The reporters found that minority-owned companies are largely shut out of billions of dollars in public projects in Massachusetts every year. Despite the efforts of authorities to boost minority representation in government contracts, GBH News found a 24% decrease in the value of contracts won by minority firms over the past two decades.
The Color of Public Money has evolved into a sustained multiplatform effort as journalists from different beats continue to find the problem of inequitable contract allotments to be widespread across industries.
The higher education team discovered that the Massachusetts Higher Education Consortium awarded only 14 out of 700 contracts to minority-owned businesses. The Worcester bureau found that despite promises from Worcester City officials that the construction of Polar Park, the Red Sox minor league stadium, would benefit companies owned by women and minorities, only 1 percent of the $100 million in construction contracts went to a certified minority-owned business. The construction manager admitted to filing inaccurate reports. In addition, The Steamship Authority was found to have hired no Black-owned businesses for years, and Boston’s diversity hiring mandate for construction projects was found to be largely unenforceable.
We sat down with Singer to learn more about his work and this important series.
How did you decide to launch the investigation behind The Color of Public Money?
Singer: When I arrived in Massachusetts in 2018, I didn't know anything about the state. The first thing I did was to look for the document where the state posts all of its announcements and regulatory updates. I discovered it was behind a paywall, and that made me mad. Public information should never be behind a subscription paywall. I hired some computer science students to begin looking more closely at state data, and we started to see irregularities. For example, we discovered that out of the 13,000 government-awarded contracts over 10 years, only about 200 were with minority-owned businesses. The project has snowballed since then.
Why was this information previously unknown?
PS: The problem was partially obscured by Massachusetts data collection and presentation. The state’s data on minority business participation includes things like donations to minority-run non-profits made by white-owned companies that won state contracts. There will be more findings, because there are a lot of interesting questions beneath this data that the state did not provide us.
What’s the role of investigative journalism?
PS: Daily news is what was said at the podium. Investigative news is: who paid for the podium, and how did it get there? That takes longer. GBH News has four full-time investigators whose mission is to look for injustice, malfeasance and wrongdoing and figure it out. That is a luxury a lot of newsrooms don't have.
Good investigative reporting drives change. However, it’s important to understand that reporters are the “nail,” but we are not the “hammer.“ All we can do is give readers and listeners information. Someone else needs to pick up the hammer to make change.
What unique contribution does public media make to local journalism, versus commercial media?
PS: In public media, we can step back. We have a relationship with our audience. They expect us to help them think about things, not just to tell them stuff. We aim to be the source you go to when you want to think deeper, spend more time and think more about what you need to know. That’s the premise of most of our work. It’s designed to be more thoughtful and invite you into more conversation.