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Amanda McKnight '08, Award-winning Investigative Journalist

She’s spunky. She’s ‘mom.’ And last year her investigative reporting for the Shakopee Valley News uncovered embezzlement that eventually led to the arrest of the local superintendent.

By Monique Kleinhuizen '08, GS'16, new media strategist

July 24, 2018 | Noon

Amanda McKnight ’08, Award-winning Investigative Journalist

Shakopee Valley News Reporter Amanda McKnight ’08

Amanda (Lillie) McKnight ’08 has always had a thing for words. She still has the countless journals she filled in middle and high school as a self-described “angsty” adolescent.

So when she started at Bethel, it was a natural fit to major in journalism. Early on, a course with then journalist-in-residence Bill Norton, “The U.S. News and the Iraq War,” opened her eyes to the power journalists can have to represent tense and complex situations, even for readers a world away.

“That one has really stuck with me. The dedication that some journalists have; I kept wondering if I’d have that in myself if it were necessary,” she recalls. “Would I be willing to put myself in a war like that? It sounds really exciting when you’re 21.”

She didn’t go to war, but she did head to Washington, D.C., for an internship with “The Hotline” by The National Journal, which syndicated online morning news from the Hill. She got bit by the journalism bug—hard—and dove fully into writing when she returned to campus, reporting for the Clarion student newspaper and editing the Coeval literary magazine. She found writing to be cathartic, even as she covered the ins and outs of the tight-knit Bethel community.

“It feels special to be there at 3 a.m., the only person in the building, working on deadline,” McKnight says. “I felt that way then, and I still do now.” Her tireless curiosity and ability to drudge through knee-deep source material brought her to a number of small newspapers and then a full-time position as a Shakopee Valley News reporter with Southwest News Media.

In December 2016, a $4.5 million budget shortfall was mentioned in passing at a routine Shakopee School Board meeting, and when an email about it was leaked in March 2017, it didn’t sit right with McKnight. She and her team—Digital Coordinator Jo Herrera, Regional Editor Deena Winter, and then Bethel student interns Callie Schmidt ’19 and Alayna Hoy ’18—went on an eight-month investigation that resulted in dozens of stories. They weeded through credit card statements released through a Freedom of Information Act request, uncovering nearly $74,000 in fraudulent personal travel and purchases on Shakopee Schools Superintendent Rod Thompson’s district credit card. That led to a police investigation and Thompson’s resignation, arrest, and 21 criminal charges, including felony charges for embezzlement of public funds. His trial begins in November. 

McKnight and her team used Facebook Live to stream the board meeting when the fraudulent charges were brought forward, bringing thousands of views and giving the story a much larger audience than it would have had otherwise. “I was pregnant and exhausted; we were at Perkins at midnight finishing the stories,” McKnight recalls. “The TV stations were there, which you know is a big deal—when the stations come to the suburbs!”

Through it all, McKnight had to balance a duty to report the truth with a commitment to humanizing her subjects, even Thompson. She says sometimes that’s tough, but she calls upon the ethics she developed as a Bethel student.

"While I do like being kind of a bulldog reporter, I also really value relationship. Ethical journalists treat sources and subjects as human beings deserving of respect.”

— Amanda McKnight '08, investigative journalist

“Sometimes, depending on my relationship with the source, I say ‘I’m sorry I have to ask you about this. This is important to the taxpayers and I really need an answer, or I’m going to have to say you didn’t give me one,’” she says. “I cringe sometimes. While I do like being kind of a bulldog reporter, I also really value relationship. Ethical journalists treat sources and subjects as human beings deserving of respect.”

Winter, McKnight’s editor, was new to Southwest News Media when the Shakopee story broke and—though she had come from larger, daily papers—she says it’s proof that “you can find big stories anywhere.” She’s proud of the way her team revealed fraud and corruption, even when it meant long hours and asking tough questions.

That commitment is something that’s inspired Winter to consider Bethel applicants for other positions. In addition to McKnight, Southwest News Media now employs Reporter Christine (Ramstad) Schuster ’18 and two new Bethel student summer interns.

“Journalism is all about being bold in pursuing truth. Bethel is teaching them well about how to just go after stuff,” she says. And Winter has a good source for information on what students are learning in Bethel’s journalism program—she’s married to Scott Winter, assistant professor of journalism.

She adds that Bethel graduates also tend to have a different ethical approach to journalism—one that she thinks is, in part, driven by their faith. “Jesus would be supportive of getting the truth out there, I think,” she adds.

The Shakopee Valley News staff took home nine awards at the Minnesota Newspaper Association convention in January, including several for the Shakopee investigation:

  • First Place, Government and Public Affairs Reporting—Herrera, McKnight, and Winter
  • First Place, Investigative Reporting—McKnight
  • First Place, Best Use of Social Media—Herrera, Hoy, McKnight, Schmidt, and Winter
  • Third Place, “Freedom of Information” Award—Herrera, McKnight, Reporter Maggie Stanwood, and Winter
McKnight and her husband, Lincoln (“Link”), live in Chaska with their kids, Fiona and Montgomery.

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