03/04/15 at 5:09 pm
Three students from the Stabile Class of 2014 were given the award for Best Student Work in 2014 by the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE). The award went to Joanna Zuckerman Bernstein, Julia Harte and Nicholas Nehamas for the series Payday Nation, on payday lending operations run by Native American tribes. The report was published last October by Al Jazeera America.
The award citation reads:
In “Payday Nation,” reporters at Columbia University’s Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism detailed the rise of a new moneymaking venture among Native American tribes: online payday lending. Reporters visited tribes in California and South Dakota. The stories used government data and interviews with reluctant sources to reveal a system of exploitation, both at the individual level for poor Native American consumers and for tribal leaders chasing false promises of economic prosperity.
The three students began researching this story in the fall of 2013, while they were enrolled in the Stabile program. The Stabile class that year was given the theme of businesses profiting from the poor and students were assigned to find stories within that broad rubric.
In the spring, the three students traveled to Indian reservations to check out lending operations. They found that little, if any, of the actual payday lending was done from the reservations. Instead, the tribes partnered with businessmen, who used tribal sovereignty to claim immunity from state usury laws. The tribes, in effect, provided convenient shelters for lenders who wanted to evade regulators.
Payday loans, as Nick Nehamas explained in the series, “are short-term loans with interest rates usually between 400 and 700 percent or higher. All a customers needs to obtain a loan is access to a computer and a personal bank account. The borrowers, who often have cash-flow problems and aren’t able to get loans from traditional banks, usually agree to let the lender deduct interest and other payments from their bank accounts automatically.”
Many payday lending practices are considered predatory and payday lending is banned in 24 states.
The students worked with the multimedia team at Al-Jazeera America, which included Columbia Journalism School alumni Michael Keller and Lam Thuy Vo. The collaborated on an interactive map showing the nationwide reach of tribal pending lenders, based on complaints filed against those lenders by consumers all over the United States. The students obtained these complaints through a freedom-of-information request.