Journalists in the Las Vegas Review-Journal newsroom in Nevada were grieving when reporter Lizzie Johnson arrived last November.
Their colleague — longtime Review-Journal reporter Jeff German — had been found stabbed to death outside his suburban home on September 3.
Johnson, who works for The Washington Post, had flown in from Washington to finish the last story German had been working on.
When Johnson’s editor asked her if she wanted to take on the investigation, she “immediately said yes.”
“It felt like such a big honor to even be asked to help do something that important,” she told VOA.
While Johnson took over that coverage, German’s colleagues were focused on covering the police investigation of Robert Telles, who is charged with murder with a deadly weapon.
The former Clark County public administrator had been the subject of German’s reporting into alleged mismanagement in Telles’ office.
Telles, who had lost a reelection bid in June, entered a not guilty plea at an October hearing.
The final story
At the time of his killing, German was working on a new story, about an alleged Ponzi scheme.
“It’s one of the last stories that he wanted to do, and didn’t get a chance to, and that shouldn't have to die with him,” Johnson said.
That story was finally released last month: a collaboration between Johnson and Review-Journal photographer Rachel Aston, published on both outlets’ websites.
The investigations described how an alleged $500 million Ponzi scheme targeting Mormon investors concluded with an armed standoff at a desert mansion.
For the Review-Journal’s executive editor, Glenn Cook, “It wasn’t just to honor Jeff’s legacy that we made sure his stories were finished. It was to ensure that his murder did not silence important stories.”
In 2022, at least 67 journalists and media workers were killed around the world, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a sharp increase from its figures in 2021.
But the killing of journalists in the United States is not common. The CPJ has documented 14 cases in the U.S. since the nonprofit started tracking deaths in 1992.
Even though the Ponzi scheme story was completed, German’s killing prevents him from telling more stories, Cook said.
“The community isn’t going to be able to get the kinds of stories that Jeff spent his career reporting,” he said.
German’s murder is also unique because of what it may mean for shield laws, both in Nevada and around the country, according to Cook. Shield laws protect journalists from being forced to disclose information like the identities of sources.
The Review-Journal says city police unlawfully seized German’s phone, which may include sensitive information including the identities of confidential sources.
In January, the news outlet asked a judge to impose sanctions on city police for not informing the newspaper that investigators searched German’s cellphone. The decision will now go to the Nevada Supreme Court after a judge rejected the request.
Police have said that access to German’s devices is necessary to understand the motivation for his killing.
The situation risks making confidential sources think twice about talking to the media, Cook said.
“Having a colleague brutally murdered is bad enough,” Cook said. “But the fact that Jeff German’s murder now threatens press rights and freedoms is outrageous and really has us, as a news organization, absolutely determined to make sure Jeff’s legacy is the upholding of the First Amendment and not a damaging court precedent that hurts journalism everywhere.”
When journalists are killed, the stories they were working on are left unpublished unless other journalists step in to complete them, says French journalist Laurent Richard.
To address that, he founded the nonprofit Forbidden Stories, which finishes the stories of journalists who have been killed or jailed.
“If nobody’s continuing the work of murdered journalists, that’s a big threat for democracy,” Richard told VOA from Paris. “Whether it’s in Las Vegas or Mexico City, you should continue the work of every single reporter being killed.”
If a story isn’t completed, then the killer gets what they wanted, Richard said. His organization is on a mission “to defeat impunity with collaborative journalism.”
“It’s even counterproductive to kill a journalist if you know that others will regroup and continue his work,” Richard said.
For The Post’s Johnson, investigating the story meant balancing typical reporting challenges with the reality that she was assigned to the piece only because another journalist had died.
“There would be days where if I let myself think about it too much, I would get overwhelmed,” Johnson said.
She tried to focus on tracking down sources and documents but said, “There were always these moments at the end of the day where I was wrapping up and I would think, ‘The only reason why I’m on this story is because someone died.’ That’s really heavy.”
Visiting the Las Vegas newsroom helped Johnson feel more connected to German.
“I felt like I was a lot closer to him and closer to his death after that,” she said. “I got to see his handwriting, and I got to see the desk that he sat in every day. I got to see how he organized things. So it just felt a lot more real after that.”
Johnson said she struggles to find the words to convey how important it felt to her to contribute to German’s legacy.
“We get into this work because we feel drawn to hold power accountable, to expose wrongdoing,” she said. “To think that a journalist would get killed in the course of doing that — that’s hard. And then to think that their work would die with them also doesn’t seem right.”
The Review-Journal newsroom was filled with “enormous pride” when the story was finally published last month, Cook said. But it was also bittersweet.
“There was also a solemnity to knowing that this was Jeff’s last story,” Cook said, “and you wish with every fiber of your being that the byline at the top was Jeff German.”