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NYT’s Henriques: Most important investigative question is ‘Who cares?’

Being efficient at doing investigative reporting is going to be even more important going forward and it’s extremely important now.

And while you’re at it, efficiency may come in the form of keeping investigative stories shorter.

“People are going to be reading the investigative features of the future on their iPhones.  If it’s gotta be long, make it readable.  If you can make it shorter, make it shorter,” The New York Times’ reporter Diana Henriques said as she kicked off Reynolds Business Journalism Week today.

“Today’s Business Journalists as Investigators” from Reynolds Center on Vimeo.

Henriques, who has been covering the Bernie Madoff scandal from the beginning and is working on a book about the case, spelled out ways reporters can be more efficient and effective as they tackle investigative projects.

But first, she wanted to set everyone straight about what investigative reporting is to business journalists.

What it’s not. Investigative reporting is not event-driven coverage. Although you can apply investigative techniques to daily journalism. It is not explanatory journalism, although it’s closer.  Explanatory journalism is the kind of journalism to which we all should aspire.

What it is. As she has tried to practice investigative reporting, Henriques said, it is distinguished by its mission: “Holding people with power accountable for the impact what they do has on the rest of us.”

“We’ve long been comfortable with this idea of investigative journalism in politics, holding politicians accountable,” Henriques said. “I contend that holding people with financial and economic power accountable for the impact what they do has on the rest of us is our mission.”

Henriques has covered business governance and regulatory issues at The New York Times since 1989. She was a member of teams covering the aftermath of the Enron scandals and the near-collapse of Long Term Capital Management, a hedge fund whose troubles rocked the financial markets in September 1998.

In 2004 and 2005, Henriques exposed deceptive practices used to sell unsuitable insurance, mutual funds and other financial products to young military personnel.

She used the military personnel story as an example of the importance of having “an investigative eye.”

“I encourage you to think about the opportunities for investigative reporting in a broader way,” Henriques told the 30 journalists attending a 4-day seminar in Phoenix. “How do you do that?  Developing an investigative mindset, an investigative eye.”

Diana Henriques, Reynolds Week 2011.

Diana Henriques coaches journalists on investigative reporting at the opening of Reynolds Week 2011.

She urged her audience to ask “why things are the way they are? Why things are happening the way they are?”

Cultivate and eye to identifying anomalies, she said. Anomalies in the system that look good, but you’re gonna ask why.  Start asking questions about the conventional wisdom.  Start examining the assumptions of common wisdom .. is a really good way to find some investigative stories.

On the speed of things today. “What we lose today is the time to study how the system is supposed to function. You don’t know whether a system is working properly or not if you don’t understand how the system is supposed to work,” she said.

But it is always worth the time it takes.

“To too many reporters figuring out how a system is supposed to work and discovering it’s supposed to work that way is a dry hole,  but I encourage you to do that…  without understanding, you can’t start measuring the gap between what is supposed to be happening and what is happening.”

The gap between what his happening and what is supposed to be happening is where you’ll find an investigative project.

Time and source management

Two highly underutilized skills are source cultivation and time management, Henriques said. “We don’t teach it and you can’t be an effective journalist if you don’t know how to do them.”

Diana Henriques on PBS
If you’re just starting out as a journalist, learning how to build that golden Rolodex is one of the most important thing you can learn.

How do you get to know the regulators? Go out and meet them.

How do you get to know the lawyers? Go meet them.

How to organize a story?

“We don’t drill down into the idea deeply enough so we wander all over creation,” she said. “The way to begin an investigative reporting project is to start with a working hypothesis.”

Henriques’ story about deceptive practices used to sell unsuitable insurance and investing products to young miliatry personnel came as a tip.

Working hypothesis: Military consumers were being touted to buy an archaic and unsuitable mutual fund by companies that were trading on their military connections. The hypothesis changes as reporting evolves.

Assess what you already know about that t0pic: “I knew what I already knew… made a list. Then I thought about what am I going to need to know. Start making lists. Where might I learn the things I need to know? Then compare the lists. That helps manage expectations at the editor side. How big is that gap and how long will it take you to fill it?”

Most important question. “The most forgotten question about an investigative project. Say I prove my thesis: Who cares? Does it matter? Would people care? It’s the essential question and the one we have to ask now.”

Every element of this plan has a role:

  1. The thesis is your lead, your headline.
  2. What I already know is your source list.
  3. What I need to know is your to do list.
  4. And the ‘So what?’ is your nut graph.

Last words: “Once you’ve done that exercise, go to it.”

Start your reporting, revise your thesis, expand your source and to-do lists and keep asking that final question, So what?

And don’t forget the reader. If you have 5,000 words, you’ve got 4,000 words of facts and 1,000 words to make it worth your reader’s time.

In Basics, Featured, Investigation, Reynolds Week.

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