Joseph Neff projects his passion as an investigative reporter as his voice breaks up relating one of the highlights of his impressive career at The News & Observer.
Neff, who announced last week that he is leaving the newspaper he joined 25 years ago, was talking about the day in March 2016 that Howard Dudley — wrongly convicted of sexually assaulting his 9-year-old daughter — was freed. Eleven years earlier, Neff wrote a series called “Caught in a Lie” that documented the problems with the case.
Neff was at a Bojangles’ in Kinston, where Dudley went for his first meal as a free man after 23 years in prison. Dudley’s family and his lawyers were having a joyous time, thanks first to Neff’s series, and then the hard work of the Duke Law Innocence Project.
“I’m sitting there writing a story, trying to file it, and he comes over and taps me on the shoulder. I stand up, and he puts his hand on my shoulder and says, ‘Mr. Neff, thank you for doing your job,’ ” Neff said, with his words coming slowly because he is getting emotional. “He said, ‘thank you for everything, thank you for everything you did,’ and I said, ‘I was just doing my job.’ ”
Neff was surprised to be choked up by the memory of that moment.
“I don’t know why I am,” Neff said.
Sometimes the horror of the story fueled his passion to report it.
“I’ve written two stories about guys who died of dehydration in prison,” Neff said. “And they just get me pissed off: The thought that we would let somebody die of thirst inside a prison.”
From corrupt politicians to unscrupulous prosecutors, his stories triggered many emotions over the years once Neff uncovered their questionable deeds. Most no doubt wished that The N&O didn’t have such a commitment to investigative reporting and that Neff wasn’t sniffing out damning facts.
He’s leaving the newspaper but not the area. The longtime Durham resident won’t have to move when he starts his new job Oct. 2. He’ll be a senior investigative reporter for The Marshall Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that covers the U.S. criminal justice system. Its editor-in-chief is Bill Keller, the former editor of The New York Times.
“Bill Keller is a smart guy but you don’t have to be a genius to see that Joe Neff is a heck of a reporter,” John Drescher, the executive editor of The N&O, said via email. “For 25 years at The N&O, Joe has been remarkably good. He’s exposed public corruption, showed how a Death Row inmate couldn’t have committed the crime, revealed how nonprofit hospitals contributed to the rising costs of health care and uncovered how a one-eyed, color-blind surgeon damaged his patients.”
Neff’s last day in The N&O’s newsroom is Sept. 5, and his official last day is Sept. 29. In between, he’ll be one of 12 participants in the East-West Center’s Senior Journalists Seminar he committed to long ago. It runs from Sept. 6–29, with Washington, Minneapolis, Manila/Cotabato City, Philippines, and Rabat, Morocco, as the study destinations.
“Part of it is for foreign journalists to understand how the United States works. Part of it is to travel the world and see how it’s done there,” Neff said.
He plans to write about the fellowship for The N&O, and he hopes to finish some other stories.
“I know I’ll wrap up at least one,” he said. “I’ve got several. I don’t know how many I’ll wrap up. But I really want to wrap them up. If not, I’ll get them in a place where someone else can pick it up from me.”
Neff first covered courts and criminal justice upon joining The N&O in 1992. But he was at Stanford in the 1998–99 school year as one of 12 Knight Journalism Fellows. He joined the N&O’s investigative team when he returned, and has produced brilliant work on it ever since.
Since Mandy Locke left the newspaper earlier this month, Neff’s departure will leave Dan Kane as the only remaining investigative reporter.
“We plan to fill Joe’s job but those will be huge shoes to fill,” Drescher said. “We will miss him greatly and our readers will, too.”
It was Drescher’s commitment to the newspaper being a watchdog, even when the tough choices kept coming, that impressed Neff.
“When the housing bubble burst and it really started hitting the fan, Drescher had to decide what to keep our focus on,” Neff said of the dilemma in 2008 and early 2009, “and the decision was ACC sports — we have to do that, we’re in the Triangle — it was covering the Capitol — we’re a Capitol paper — and it was on investigative reporting. Those were his top three priorities, and we actually increased the I team at that point by 50 percent, we went from 2 to 3 and I thought that was kind of an extraordinary decision to make. We’ve had this commitment.”
When the reporting by the vast majority of the national media — and much of the local media, including The Herald-Sun — painted the Duke lacrosse players as guilty, Neff got the story right. He said that it didn’t take all that long to realize that most reporters had it wrong.
“I was assigned to it about 10 days after it started and I had local sources and people I had dealt with on prior cases and I immediately reached out and I think that day I realized that this case is hugely flawed,” Neff said.
“So, from the get-go as a local reporter, because I was covering it as a local courthouse and cops story, I’m not flying in from out of town and trying to attach a bigger narrative to it,” he said. “And I’ve covered police and prosecutorial misconduct and so I knew from the first or second day after I was assigned to it that this was a real problem. I was there the day they did the perp walk and then I left on spring break with my family. And when I came back to town after that time, I was quickly assigned to it and just being sourced really helped.”
Neff’s reporting uncovered the problems with the case brought by Mike Nifong, the Durham district attorney at the time. The fact that, early on, he was in the minority in what he was reporting didn’t faze him.
“Yeah, but who cares about the tide,” Neff said. “I was following the facts. Just because everybody else is glomming onto some story?”
Neff made his mark many other times with impressive, impactful work. Here are nine other highlights:
- His reporting on mentally ill inmate Michael Anthony Kerr, who died of dehydration, led the state of North Carolina to pay $2.5 million to Kerr’s estate.
- His work, along with Jay Price, detailing the four deaths in Iraq of Blackwater contractors, earned a Society of Professional Journalists award for newspaper non-deadline reporting.
- He, along with Locke, won The Michael Kelly Award for exposing widespread misconduct at the State Bureau of Investigation with the series “Agents’ Secrets.”
- After his reporting led to the indictment and guilty plea of Dana Cope, the former director of the State Employees Association of North Carolina, he was awarded the MOLLY National Journalism Prize and a McClatchy President’s Award.
- His reporting helped lead to the release of Alan Gell, wrongly convicted of murder.
- In his series “A Surgeon’s Trail,” Neff uncovered the story of a partially blind neurosurgeon who was allowed to continue to practice medicine despite a history of malpractice lawsuits. He was soon no longer practicing in North Carolina.
- He was one of the four writers, including one with The Charlotte Observer, who reported for the “Prognosis: Profits” series, which uncovered numerous issues at nonprofit hospitals. It was a finalist for a Pulitzer Prize in 2013, won three awards in addition to a second-place honor and a McClatchy President’s Award.
- He was one of three writers who wrote the series “Counted Out,” which showed that many low-income kids smart enough to handle advanced work weren’t given the chance.
- This summer, he led the way as The N&O uncovered that thousands of dollars were missing from the Wake County Register of Deeds office.
None of the above is even what he called his proudest reporting.
“I did a series of stories in 2002 and 2003 that led to the state passing a law on open-file discovery, which meant no more playing keep away with evidence,” Neff said. “Prosecutors could not hide evidence from defendants and this has affected every felony case in North Carolina since Oct. 1, 2004. I’m very proud of that change because I think it made the justice system fairer. It affects every felony case, for example, not just cases where DNA is found but every case. So, yeah, I’m proud of that.”
As part of The Marshall Project staff, his reporting focus will be more national.
“It will focus broadly on criminal justice,” Neff said. “I won’t be doing hospital finance or military procurement or education.”
Even with the newspaper business struggling financially to be profitable in the changing media landscape, Neff said that leaving wasn’t easy. He said it came from a combination of him sending out feelers and The Marshall Project coming to him.
“This is not a decision I made lightly and I’ve had a lot of mixed emotions about it,” he said. “The News & Observer, since I’ve been here, has been a very honest newspaper with a mission that I’m really attracted to. I think it views its readers as citizens and not consumers. It’s really, really important to take our first amendment responsibilities very serious. And it’s always done that.
“I think even considering all the struggles that we’ve been facing, these have all been financial, related to advertising,” Neff said. “Despite that, John Drescher has kept his priority on holding people in power accountable and reporting for the citizens of the community, and that’s been a real struggle given the drop in revenue.”
Like many who are or have been in the newspaper business and love it, he’s saddened by the state of the industry and how it has changed since he joined The N&O in 1992. While at a friend’s house weekend before last, he was struck by a copy of the newspaper from 1998 compared to what it looks like now.
“I open it up and it was a shock to feel how wide the broadsheet is. How big the paper was. How thick the A section was just on a weekday,” he said. “And I started paging through and all these national stories and international stories and we had so many local bylines and it was heartbreaking to pick up. And it’s just another reminder of the struggle we face. To pick up actual paper from 1998 and it really tugged at me.”
Like everybody else, he wonders what the future holds for the industry because of its inability to replace the loss of revenue from classified advertising, display ads and inserts.
“No one has figured out how to replace that and that’s a national problem. I’m very concerned about that,” Neff said. “There was a sign in our advertising department — the first time I saw it was about 20 years ago and I kind of thought, ‘isn’t that silly?’ ‘Advertising makes a free press free,’ ” he said. “This is back in the days of the firewall between editorial and news, between both of them and advertising. It’s true and now it’s just dropping off a cliff, how do we support what we do? That’s a big concern for me.”
Now there’s another concern for the newspaper industry. It will soon be without one its best, most dogged reporters.