In April 2016, a few instances of nearby schools failing to report child abuse caught the attention of the investigations team at The Indianapolis Star. The journalists wondered how often it happened, and why.
As one of the reporters, Marisa Kwiatkowski, looked into it, a source tipped her off to a lawsuit accusing U.S.A. Gymnastics, which is based in Indianapolis, of the same behavior. Later that day, The Star put her on an airplane to Effingham County, Ga., fearful that the records would soon be sealed.
She returned with almost 1,000 pages of documents. She and two other reporters, Mark Alesia and Tim Evans, dug in.
The decision of the newspaper to spend on airfare to follow a lead, then throw themselves behind an investigative project that has now continued for nearly two years, led to the arrest and sentencing of Lawrence G. Nassar, the former doctor for the national gymnastics team who was accused of molesting Olympic athletes and more than 100 other girls under the guise of medical treatment. He was sentenced on Wednesday to 40 to 175 years in prison.
But until the televised sentencing hearing turned into a spectacle — as 160 women told deeply personal stories of sexual abuse — Dr. Nassar was hardly a household name.
“You hear people talking about it like it’s something new,” Mr. Evans said in an interview on Thursday. “You want to say: ‘Heck, we were writing about this two years ago and it didn’t get much traction.’”
The newspaper was shut out of most of the industry’s prominent awards in 2016, and the national news media paid the story moderate attention at best. But this week, The Star has gotten its retroactive due.
Jake Tapper, a CNN anchor, said Wednesday that the newspaper was “deserving of huge praise in bringing about this day of reckoning.”
Angela Povilaitis, Michigan’s assistant attorney general who prosecuted Dr. Nassar, gave The Star direct credit on Wednesday at his sentencing.
“What finally started this reckoning and ended this decades-long cycle of abuse was investigative reporting,” she said. Without The Star’s reporting, she said, “he would still be practicing medicine, treating athletes and abusing kids.”
At first, the reporters hardly knew of Dr. Nassar. The first story in their investigative series, published on Aug. 4, 2016, did not mention him, instead focusing on the failure of U.S.A. Gymnastics officials to notify the authorities after abuse allegations against coaches. Following leads, the reporters — Ms. Kwiatkowski, Mr. Evans and Mark Alesia, along with the photographer Robert Scheer — traveled to 12 states and gathered public records from 23 states. Lawyers helped to unseal additional records in Georgia.
After the story was published, their phone lines and email inboxes were immediately flooded with tips from former gymnasts.
“Among them were three people in three different states who gave us the name, Larry Nassar,” Steve Berta, the editor of the investigations team, said in an interview on Thursday.
One of those women was Rachael Denhollander, a former gymnast who, in an email to The Star on the day their first story was published, said Dr. Nassar had abused her when she was 15. She was willing to go on the record, a turning point the journalists said was essential.
Mr. Alesia and Mr. Scheer traveled to Louisville to meet her. The second major story in the series, which was published on Sept. 12 and focused entirely on Dr. Nassar, quoted Ms. Denhollander and reported accusations of another, anonymous, woman. (The other woman wasn’t ready to go on the record or speak with the authorities, but the reporters looked into her account.)
“The three stories were so remarkably similar: no chaperone, no gloves, digital penetration,” Mr. Alesia said in an interview on Thursday. “It was clear something was up that needed to be pursued and investigated.”
The reporters and their editor said their investigative work was not finished. In addition to Dr. Nassar’s sentencing, the scandal has led to the ouster of top officials at U.S.A. Gymnastics and Michigan State University, where Dr. Nassar was employed.
Suddenly besieged by interview requests from the national news media in recent days, they said they were hopeful that the attention would reflect well on the need for local journalism.
“At the end of the day, none of this would have happened if not for those women coming forward and sharing their stories with the public,” Ms. Kwiatkowski said.
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