If you were a crooked politician or a fraudulent financier plying your trade in a back room of Trenton or a county seat or city hall around the state last Friday morning, January 7, you might have felt a certain sense of calm — maybe even a sense of security, albeit a false one.

That’s because several hundred of the state’s top political and investigative reporters and editors, along with representatives from political watchdog and citizen action groups — the people who try to “keep ’em honest” in New Jersey — were jammed into St. James Roman Catholic Church in Pennington. On that snowy January morning the watchdogs were gathered together to pay tribute to one of their most respected colleagues, Dunstan McNichol, who had collapsed at home and died on January 4 at the age of 54.

I only met “Dusty” McNichol once, at an informal gathering for journalists on the Princeton campus. I also attended a symposium on the future of investigative journalism at which McNichol was a panelist. But I decided to attend the funeral when I read his obituary and realized the depth of his reporting work — on subjects such as the state’s auto inspection system, the School Construction Corporation, the workers’ compensation system, the state’s pensions (and how politicians padded theirs), and other subjects that lots of reporters prefer to run away from.

McNichol threw himself into these assignments. And his results were measured in more than Pulitzer Prizes (though he was on reporting teams that won two Pulitzers and was a finalist for another). McNichol, the obituary noted, “took aim at many of Trenton’s powerful” and broke stories “showing how former state Senator Wayne Bryant, now in prison, held no-show jobs that padded his pension and used his power to benefit himself and his friends. He deciphered complicated subjects, showing how state government blunders cost taxpayers millions.

“A reporter renowned for his skills in digging out stories out of the most mundane state documents,” McNichol “was acknowledged as the foremost expert on state budgetary matters and finances by his peers. His stories about abuses in the School Development Authority led to state investigations and sweeping reforms about how the authority conducts its business.”

So I headed out on the slick roads to Pennington — a guy from a small newspaper paying his respects to a big leaguer. I got there early and the line to greet his widow — Michelle Ruess, a former managing editor of the Princeton Packet, and teenage son, Jake — already stretched to the entrance.

I haven’t been part of the daily journalism scene for decades, but I recognized Michael Aron of New Jersey Network, Charles Stile of the Bergen Record, Rich Lee of the Hall Institute, one of those public policy think tanks, and Ingrid Reed, recently retired from Rutgers’ Eagleton Institute.

I touched base with Stile later on and he reported seeing Jim Willse, the retired Star-Ledger editor who recently served as a visiting professor at Princeton; Joe Donohue, a former Star-Ledger reporter and now deputy director of the New Jersey Law Enforcement Commission; Former Congressman Dick Zimmer; State Senator Barbara Buono of Metuchen; Orin Kramer, a national Democratic fundraiser and chairman of the New Jersey Investment Council, which oversees the pension portfolio; Eugene Kiely, McNichol’s Trenton bureau chief when he worked for the Record and now director of the Philadelphia office of FactCheck.org; and Winnie Comfort, the veteran communications director of the New Jersey Judiciary.

Governor Chris Christie wasn’t there, but he had issued a statement: “Dusty McNichol was an outstanding journalist and a part of the institutional memory of state government in New Jersey. His loss is a tragedy.”

Christie had that one right. At the symposium I attended back in 2009, McNichol was the poster journalist for the kind of reporters who were disappearing in the wake of the print media’s massive downsizing (U.S. 1, May 6, 2009).

Willse, then the Star-Ledger editor, recalled the last day of the year in 2008, when 150 of his journalists took buyouts and left the paper. “It was like a mass funeral,” Willse said. One of those departed reporters was McNichol. Looking in his direction, Willse told the attendees that McNichol was a reporter who “would read stuff that no one else would read,” helping the newspaper “find things that people don’t want the public to know. It’s hard. Sometimes you get a story, sometimes you don’t.” Of course, reporters axed by budget cuts don’t get the story.

Unless you were a reporter like McNichol. When I met him he was still defining his next act after the sudden end at the Star-Ledger. Print or no print, McNichol was resolved to keep digging into the financial affairs of the state government and its agencies. He talked about forming an online news gathering operation that would employ downsized reporters with investigative experience and chase mundane stories that otherwise would never get reported.

A year later (after McNichol had landed at Bloomberg News) U.S. 1 reported on a project encouraged by Ingrid Reed after her retirement from Eagleton. It was a news website called njspotlight.com that would employ seasoned journalists at a real salary “to shed as much light as possible” on the machinations of the state’s legislative process.

The site was launched, we reported, after Reed met with John Mooney, formerly of the Star-Ledger, John O’Brien of the New Jersey Press Association, and McNichol. Njspotlight.com noted that McNichol continued to support the effort, even as he was winning more awards with Bloomberg (the most recent citation was for an article titled “Goldman Sachs Still Paid for Swaps on Redeemed Bonds”).

In the line waiting to pay their respects to the family, some of the reporters noted the irony: While investigative journalists may be a dying breed, no one expects to lose a 54-year-old colleague from a sudden illness. But enough of that, it was soon time for the watchdogs — diminished by one — to get back to work, keeping ‘em honest.

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