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Economic development funds: fertile ground for great storytelling

Dallas Morning News Texas Gov. Rick Perry Texas Emerging Technology Fund campaign contributions

A graphic by Dallas Morning News artist Troy Oxford shows officials who contributed to Gov. Rick Perry's campaign and whose companies received awards from the state's Emerging Technology Fund.

I’m often left alone to watch TV because, unlike my husband, I’m a huge fan of legal dramas. I love how asking the right question at the right time often yields a great nugget of information. In much the same way, the Dallas Morning News’ latest piece about a state economic development program hooked me.

James Drew and Steve McGonigle have reported on improprieties in who’s gotten money from the Texas Emerging Technology Fund. Now, they’re focusing on the person who headed it. The portrait of former Director Alan Kirchhoff  “that emerges from public records and interviews is of someone with a string of minor white-collar jobs and business failures whose resume contained omissions, distortions and the claim of two college degrees when, in fact, he earned only one,” they write.

The story shows how little work the governor’s office did in backgrounding Kirchhoff and how important it is for journalists to do their own background checks. James and Steve include links to the documents that provided the meat for their piece. Many came through Freedom of Information requests.

I’m always curious about how reporters take piles of information and transform them into cohesive and interesting pieces. Part of the fascination comes from teaching my students how to write. The other part is about making readers want to read your piece. There was nothing more humbling during my Bloomberg days than seeing that only seven people read a story I’d spent hours on.

Today’s Tip: Put yourself in the readers’ shoes, Steve says.

“I constantly ask myself what it is that I would find interesting if I weren’t the reporter,” he says. “People love to read stories about other people and their foibles. You can use that affinity to tell even a complicated story about some governmental program no one outside of government has ever heard of.”

To get there, don’t insult readers’ intelligence by over explaining or by being condescending, he says. Convey a sense of gravitas by letting the reader know you’ve done your homework. Also, package the story with graphic elements to illustrate different facets of the story and pull more people into reading.

“In short, I try to blend a human angle with thorough reporting,” he says. “I try not to write a term paper and to mix in as much color as I can.”

Steve says he creates a road map at the top to ensure readers get a good summary and he asks colleagues for feedback.

“Most of all, I try to remember at all times that I am telling a story,” he says. “And we all love a good story.”

And economic development agencies can provide fertile ground for good stories, as reporters in Sacramento, Buffalo, Boston, Kentucky, and elsewhere have found.

In Featured, Investigation, Real estate | Econ development.

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