Alec Klein, a Medill faculty member at Northwestern University, is an award-winning investigative business journalist and bestselling author.
He is a senior presenter at Reynolds Center workshops. For two decades, Klein worked as a newspaper reporter, most recently as an investigative business reporter at The Washington Post for the past eight years. He previously worked at The Wall Street Journal, The Baltimore Sun and The Virginian-Pilot.
We turned the tables and put five questions to him.
1. How do you find your best story ideas?
No magic bullet exists. In one case, an anonymous tip led me on a path to a yearlong investigation that revealed how AOL inflated its advertising revenue at a critical time before and after its merger with Time Warner, the largest takeover in U.S. history. In another investigation, an editor asked me to look into credit rating companies, which resulted in a series that showed how they dominate an important part of global finance with little oversight or accountability, how the rating system is subject to manipulation and conflicts of interest, and how the credit raters use strong-arm tactics to generate business. And in my last Washington Post investigation, a source over lunch suggested that I take a look at the little-known but widespread practice of reusing single-use medical devices in the United States. The stories documented patient injuries and device malfunctions and showed how the industry has eluded comprehensive oversight and is comprised of several entrepreneurs who have run afoul of federal authorities.
2. What interviewing techniques do you use to get sources to open up and trust you?
It comes down to this: Being honest and compassionate and patient. Sources, who are jeopardizing their livelihood — if not more — need to know that you will protect them, that you are fair and that you will do the right thing. And that level of trust takes time.
3. What has been your toughest story to date and how did you tackle it?
In my AOL investigation, the world’s largest media company hired a powerful law firm in an attempt to kill my Washington Post stories before publication. In another investigation, I have been followed. And then there have been the regular investigative reporting challenges: spinning your wheels for days without making any ostensible progress; plowing through thousands of complex documents; knocking on doors in the hopes of persuading someone who doesn’t want to talk to you to, well, talk to you. There’s only one way to tackle these challenges: Be persistent. But then again, that’s part of the fun of investigative reporting.
4. Is there one trait you’ve noticed that is common to the best investigative reporters?
It may seem counterintuitive, but in my experience, the best at the craft aren’t in-your-face investigative reporters; they’re nice. But these reporters also are pleasantly dogged — and I’m thinking of great investigative reporters like Gary Cohn of the Los Angeles Times and Dan Golden of The Wall Street Journal and great investigative editors, such as Larry Roberts of The Washington Post.
5. Many of those reading this are reporters doing daily coverage. How can they start to expand into investigative reporting as well?
Two ways: Make time — on weekends, after hours and on vacations. That’s what I did in my early days as a reporter on a beat looking for time to investigate a significant subject. Or develop a theme of coverage, a pointed question, or a specific target, and then spend the year writing about it, chipping away at it until what emerges is an investigation based on a handful of interconnected stories arising from the beat.