Prize-Winning Reporters Detail Investigative Strategies
Interested in breaking the big story? For these top journalists, doing so takes time, specialized skills and persistence.

By Chris Adams

For some of the top investigative reporters in the country, the key to the best stories comes right at the beginning: knowing when to take on a story, and knowing when to pass.

That was the assessment of several award-winning investigative reporters and editors, who shared their wisdom with members of the Paul Miller Reporting Fellowship.

The journalists have between them collected all the top journalism awards, including multiple Pulitzers, Emmys and Murrows.

Tisha Thompson, a reporter for NBC Washington, talked about how to take investigative reporting thick with data and make it compelling for television viewers.

“Data is boring,” Thompson warned. “That’s why nobody goes to look at databases for fun.” She also talked about being stonewalled by the subjects of a story – and deciding when it was OK to do one of those cameras-rolling, chase-down-the-street interviews.

Jeff Leen, the investigations editor for The Washington Post who has participated in nine Pulitzer-winning packages – two as a reporter, seven as editor – described how he builds cohesive teams to execute compelling and powerful journalism (see the latest Pulitzer winner, from 2016).

The best teams, he said, are based on need – a reporter needs help and perhaps a different set of skills to complete a story. Once assembled, teams need chemistry. They need strong communication skills. And they need commitment to see a project to its end. Beyond that, editors need to know that some team members may be good writers, others good data people, others good source hounds. It’s the editor’s job to synthesize those various skills into a cohesive unit.

As for the reporters themselves, Leen ticked off the attributes necessary for success. That includes the ability to write – as well as the ability to write on deadline (a very different skill). It also includes time spent as a reporter on daily stories as well as in-depth ones. And it includes the ability to think big and pull it all together. “Synthesis,” Leen called it.

Deborah Nelson, a professor at the University of Maryland who spent years at the Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Seattle Times and other newspapers as a prize-winning investigative reporter and editor, said knowing when to go deep can be difficult. But it doesn’t have to be: She laid out a strategy to place story ideas into quadrants, from easy to hard, and from insignificant to important.

As a reporter, she would avoid the ideas in what she called the “Just Say No” quadrant. But she would continuously work stories in all the others. That way, there would always be something in the works – a helpful strategy to keep editors at bay. She offered further tips on story selection and on Freedom of Information Act strategies.

Marilyn Thompson, who spent a career as an investigative reporter and editor at the Post, The New York Times, Reuters, Politico and others, reminded fellows that many current real-time media strategies harken back to earlier times. She also previously worked on big-city tabloids, where leads were punchier, stories shorter and attitudes bolder. Those same sensibilities are necessary to grab readers who flit from site to site, app to app, in the new-media world.

Ron Nixon, a Washington correspondent and data specialist for The New York Times, led fellows through a tutorial on different database skills. While software platforms have come and gone, most database work can be handled with Excel, he said, and other tasks can be completed with free or low-cost programs, such as ArcGIS for mapping and SQLite for database work. For more-complicated programming tasks, Nixon recommended Python or Ruby, and for heavy statistical analysis the software known simply as R.

Finally, Neela Banerjee, a senior correspondent for InsideClimate News, talked about using internal corporate records for a wide-ranging historical analysis about what the global energy company Exxon knew about climate change as far back as the 1970s. “Exxon: The Road Not Taken” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and a winner of NPF’s Thomas L. Stokes Award for Best Energy Writing.

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