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NYT’s Bogdanich, JS’s Fauber on how to get people to talk to you

Barlett & Steele Award winners John Fauber (left) and Walt Bogdanich spoke at the Investigative Reporters and Editors Conference.

ORLANDO — When Walt Bogdanich first applied for a job as a reporter at The New York Times, he was told: “We don’t see a place for you” at the paper.

But he refused to take no for an answer and continued to send clips to the Times until he was finally let into the fold — not as a reporter — but as an editor.

Now its business investigations editor, he went on to win three Pulitzer Prizes, two of them at the Times.

Also a winner of the 2007 Barlett & Steele Award for Investigative Business Journalism, Bogdanich and fellow 2010 winner, John Fauber of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, spoke to about 70 attendees of the Investigative Reporters & Editors (IRE) Conference on how to produce work worthy of the award. Named after the investigative reporting duo of Don Barlett and Jim Steele, the awards have been given by the Reynolds Center since 2007. | Tipsheet (PDF) by Bogdanich and Fauber: 11Tips  on Successful Business Investigations

How do you get people to talk to you?

Bogdanich, who won both Pulitzer and Barlett & Steele awards for stories on contaminated drugs exported from China,  said being determined and identifying a source’s sense of duty have helped him gain the information to move forward on tough projects.

“Everyone has a motive to speak to you,” he said. “You have to figure out what that motive is.”

Bogdanich explained that one of the secrets to his success is establishing contact with subjects early on in the project’s development.

“Be honest, but don’t be too specific,” he warned, noting that the story will likely change and evolve. When it does, journalists risk being accused of dishonesty if they disclose too much in those earlier conversations.

The benefit, Bogdanich has found, is that early contact can produce statements on the record, which later can be proven untrue as the investigation continues.

“You can hang them on their own words,” he said.

John Fauber has been investigating conflicts of interest in the medical industry since 2009.

Conversely, Fauber, senior medical reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, noted that most subjects are “put on notice” before he even contacts them and know quite well where the line of questioning will lead. Fauber won his Barlett & Steele Award for an occasional series of stories that he’s written over the last two years on conflicts on interest in the medical industry.

“I’d love to be able to talk to them,” he said, but it just doesn’t seem to happen.

Both journalists agree that confrontational interviewing is less effective, and perhaps less popular, than it once was.

“My view has evolved,” Bogdanich said. “When I started out [in IRE], we used to have sessions on the confrontational interview. I don’t see that as much nowadays.” He noted, however, that some in the broadcast industry believe it’s a necessity.

When interviewing sources, Bogdanich is opposed to going into interviews with pre-set, numbered questions.

“You need to go in there with a broad outline of what you’re looking for,” he said. “Follow your own curiosity.”

Where do story ideas come from?

When asked how they each came up with their award-winning investigative projects, Fauber and Bogdanich agreed that the concepts came from stories that their own papers had published.

“If you read your own newspaper,” Bogdanich said, “you’ll see all sorts of leads in the story that [the original reporter] just didn’t have time to pursue.”

Fauber was tipped off to the conflicts of interest in the medical industry thanks to a story two reporters covered in The Journal Sentinel. He said he was shocked by the amount of money that changed hands between doctors, medical schools and corporations.

Bogdanich said that the stories he’s drawn to often don’t excite his editors.

“The kinds of stories I pick are often in some dark corner,” Bogdanich said, noting that editors often haven’t heard of the topic and people aren’t talking about it. He said that journalists must believe in themselves and in their story.

Fauber said that awards are great, but his main goal is to find stories that resonate with the audience. He advised journalists to look at potential stories from the perspective of their readers.

“Some stories have a natural audience and will write themselves,” he said.

Focus on systemic failure

Another of Bogdanich’s tips is to “focus on the barrel, not the apple.”

“It’s never the fault of one person,” he said, adding that understanding why someone did something wrong is just as is important as the wrong itself. “How is the system of checks and balances breaking down?”

When tackling an investigative topic, Bogdanich suggested that journalists take a unique, uncharted approach to the usual issues.

“Tell people something they don’t know, as [Don] Barlett and [Jim] Steele say,” he recommended. “Challenge the conventional wisdom whenever possible.”

Entries for the 2011 Barlett & Steele Awards, which offer $8,000 in prizes, are being accepted through Aug. 1.

In Barlett & Steele Awards, Career tips, Investigation.

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