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How ’09 Barlett & Steele winners found sources

Gary Cohn, Darrell Preston

Gary Cohn, Darrell Preston

Gary Cohn and Darrell Preston wrote a piece for Bloomberg Markets magazine investigating the fees that AARP collects on members’ insurance policies. The article won the silver award and $2,000 in the Reynolds Center’s third annual Barlett & Steele Awards for Investigative Business Journalism this week.

The story leads with Arthur Laupus’ story:

“Laupus stumbled onto something that many members of the world’s largest seniors’ organization don’t know: The group, formerly called American Association of Retired Persons, collects hundreds of millions of dollars annually from insurers who pay for AARP’s endorsement of their policies.

The insurance companies build the cost of these so-called royalties and fees, which amounted to $497.6 million in 2007, into the premiums they charge AARP members, according to AARP’s consolidated financial statement for that year.”

Darrell says he got the tip about the AARP fees while reporting on another insurance industry story. He and Gary teamed up, did some comparison-shopping and then realized the hard part: finding people, Darrell says.

While at The Philadelphia Inquirer, Gary learned from Don Barlett and Jim Steele — for whom the award is named — that you need to bring the impact of investigative stories home with human examples.

“It’s important to have all of the good details,” Gary says. “Also, it’s really important to have real people in stories. That’s what takes a lot of extra time.”

Today’s Tip: Use LexisNexis, a searchable database that many media outlets pay to access, to find sources in the “Letters to the Editor” section of publications.

Darrell and Gary searched LexisNexis for letters from people complaining about AARP. Many of the authors were listed in online phone directories.

Darrell says they also talked with brokers who knew of clients who’d comparison-shopped for insurance. They found Laupus through a source and learned that he had kept voluminous records, Gary says.

“He was the perfect case study because of the interviews and the detailed paper trail.”

For a tip from The Miami Herald reporters who won the top gold award in the Barlett & Steele Awards for Investigative Business Journalism, please click here. For more information on Barlett and Steele, as well as advice from last year’s winners, please click here.

In Barlett & Steele Awards, Basics.

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