How FOIA, Persistence and Good Time Management Help Reporters Unearth Hidden Secrets

By Chris Adams

How do reporters find the time to do investigative reporting – particularly if they’re young, new on the beat and overwhelmed with daily deadlines?

A little bit at a time. Sometimes, a very little bit at a time.

In a series of sessions with Paul Miller fellows, four prize-winning investigative reporters shared their secrets for executing their stories. And – perhaps more important than that – they explained how to find the time to do so.

Deb-Nelson-storyDeborah Nelson (bioTwitter), a professor at the University of Maryland and Pulitzer Prize winner, talked about finding the time early in her career to go long on stories while she was still expected to churn out daily copy. Nelson does the same now, as a full-time professor who does investigative reporting on the side.

Her method: Test it, plot it, launch it. One of her early steps is to plot potential stories on a grid that displays whether a topic is easy or hard to do, and whether it is high or low in importance. Some stories are easy and of high importance; some are hard and of high importance; and some are easy but low importance. All are OK, and she suggests reporters have stories from all categories in the works at the same time.

She also gave advice on checking out tips. Once a tip comes in, Nelson comes up with the investigative question at hand. She lists the three or four essential facts that need to be true for the tip to pan out. And then she sets out testing them.

Kimbriell Kelly (bioTwitter), who was part of a team of reporters that won the Pulitzer for a groundbreaking Washington Post series on police shootings, led fellows through her strategy for filing federal Freedom of Information Act requests. In the previous year, Kelly sent 200 FOIAs and got 10,000 pages in records and databases.Kimbriell-Kelly-story

She counselled reporters to think strategically as they set out to request information through FOIAs. And she said reporters should read, know and cite the law as they send in a request.

“If you limit the scope of your request, you’re going to get good at it,” she said.

After that, follow up and track your request.

One of her key tips for generating story ideas: go to the website for Investigative Reporters and Editors, a nationwide organization, and dig through its contest entries and the applications that came with them. For those applications, reporters fill in several sections, including, “Advice to other journalists planning a similar project.”

Like Nelson, Kelly also has a story grid. Her questions: What’s broken? What’s the harm? What’s the scope? What’s the impact? And is it unique?

Ronnie-GreeneRonnie Greene (bio) of the Reuters Washington Bureau counselled reporters on how to handle a critical first reader: their editor.

After a long career as an investigative reporter and author (his Amazon book page), Greene began working with reporters to help them get their stories published. Often working with a collection of reporters in different locales who have been pulled off their beats to help execute a project, Greene talked about the importance of communication between editor and reporters. That way, investigations won’t drift and result in a reporter turning in something completely different than the editor had expected.

Given that the projects he oversees can take months – sometimes well over a year – to complete, project drift is a real risk.

“Have a weekly meeting,” he said. “It keeps the reporter and the editor on the same page. Meeting every week at the same time forces the discussion – and allows the editor to guide you where they think the story should go.”

Finally, Mark Greenblatt (Twitter), senior national investigative correspondent for the Scripps Washington Bureau and a Paul Miller alumnus, talked about how to amplify stories across multiple platforms.mark-greenblatt-story

He discussed a story about a loophole in the military justice system that allowed service members court martialed for sexual offenses to avoid being put on sex crime registries. The story first aired on a local station, and Greenblatt then did a story for the PBS NewsHour with a different approach and a different script. After that, he and his team created an online database of sex offenders, wrote online stories, and recorded a podcast that discussed the story’s methods. For a different story, they even did a town hall and streamed it online.

“By merging the different strengths of the platforms, you’re amplifying the impact of your reporting,” he said.

Greenblatt, who won a Peabody Award during his Paul Miller year (see his acceptance speech here), urged fellows to think big.

“Every single person in here can do these stories – no matter your title,” he said.

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