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IRE accepts applicants for its financial investigative journalism fellowship

Investigative Reports and Editors is offering a fellowship for journalists with a demonstrated interest in financial investigative journalism.

The David Dietz Fellowship, an award honoring David Dietz a longtime IRE member and supporter, covers conference registration fees and provides $750 for travel and lodging expenses. The fellow will also receive a yearlong IRE membership and a year-long mentorship with a veteran investigative journalist.

The IRE conference will be held in San Antonio on June 20-23. Applicants must have less than 10 years experience as a professional journalist. Details to apply are on IRE’s website.

David Dietz, Bloomberg Markets reporter

David Dietz

Dietz is a former Bloomberg Markets reporter who passed away from cancer last June. A Columbia Journalism Review article highlighted one of Dietz most notable investigations, “Broken Promises,” which it dubbed a “staggering scandal.” Dietz, along with Bloomberg’s William Selway, Martin Z. Braun, examined $7 million in tax-exempt bond deals that generated millions in fees and investment gains. An exhaustive reporting effort revealed that taxpayers received no benefit. (Here’s more background on Dietz’s impressive journalism career.)

IRE also offers a myriad of other fellowship opportunities open to all experience levels. You can find more details and instruction on how to apply at IRE’s fellowship/scholarship page. 

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IRE launches scholarship fund in memory of Bloomberg Markets journalist David Dietz

David Dietz, Bloomberg Markets reporter

David Dietz

Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) has created a scholarship fund in memory of David Dietz, a Bloomberg Markets reporter and former president of the organization.

Dietz, 70, died of cancer in early June. The David Dietz Fund will provide up to $1,000 each year to a promising business journalist or student to attend the national IRE Conference. IRE announced in an email that Bloomberg has donated $10,000 to the fund. That and other donations mean the fund is more than half way to a permanently endowed program.

One of Dietz’s most noteworthy investigations was called, “Broken Promises.” The 2006 report revealed how Wall Street firms created $7 billion in tax-exempt public bond deals, then harvested them for millions in fees and investment gains. The bonds were supposed to be used for building low-income housing and schools, but Dietz and co-authors William Selway and Martin Braun reported that rarely happened.

Columbia Journalism Review said “Broken Promises” exposed  a “scandal of staggering proportions.”

Three months ago, Dietz published his last investigation, “Gaming the System” – about how some companies took federal tax credits that were supposed to be used for projects to reduce poverty. Instead, they used the tax credits to build luxury hotels.

To donate, visit the IRE website (specify Dietz scholarship), or call IRE’s Development Director Alan Lynes at 573-882-2042.

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From athletics to art — fresh business-story ideas from the IRE Conference

Logo for IRE Conference 2011 in OrlandoORLANDO — From college athletics to art museums to foreclosure and economic incentives, the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE) Conference provides a story-idea palooza. Here are some that you can try at home, complete with tip sheets from other reporters in some cases:

  • The subprime-loan crisis has disproportionately affected minorities. The Orlando Sentinel used Home Mortgage Disclosure Act data available from IRE to find that Hispanics had 43 percent of the worst loans made by lenders in Central Florida.
  • Foreclosures are more likely than short sales in lower-income areas. This time, the Sentinel used real estate records from RealtyTrac and compared the data on foreclosures and short sales against Census income by ZIP code. | Tip sheet (PDF): 10 mortgage-default and foreclosure stories to do at home by Kimberly Miller of the Palm Beach Post and Mary Shanklin of the Orlando Sentinel.
  • Have economic incentives provided by governments resulted in the jobs promised? Goodjobsfirst.org is an advocacy organization, but it has a number of resources on its site, including a Subsidy Tracker. Other experts include reporter Jim Heaney of The Buffalo News and Professor Heywood T. Sanders at the University of Texas at San Antonio. | Tip sheet (PDF): Reporting on economic development subsidies by Jim Heaney of The Buffalo News.
  • Homeowners are losing their homes because of small debts, such as unpaid water bills. More than two dozen states sell unpaid property-tax bills and other municipal debts to investors. These investors are allowed to charge interest on the debt of up to 18 percent, plus fees. Reporter Fred Schulte at The Center for Public Integrity knows more, as does the National Tax Lien Association. | Tip sheet (PDF): Looking into tax liens by Fred Schulte of the Center for Public Integrity.
  • Find looted art at your local museum. In the 1980s and 1990s, as many as 90 percent of the antiquities for sale to museums had been recently looted, Los Angeles Times reporters Jason Felch and Ralph Frammolino found in writing their new book on the illegal trade in ancient art called Chasing Aphrodite. A handful of dealers were often involved in these transactions. “Search your museum’s website, or ask the [museum] registrar’s office, for a list of pieces sold or donated by such people as Robert Hecht, Fritz Burki, Robin Symes, Chrisoph Leon and Freida Tchakos Nussberger,” they advise in a tip sheet. | Tip sheet (PDF): Digging culture -- the fine art of investigating the business of museums by James V. Grimaldi of the Washington Post. Tip sheet (PDF): Finding loot at your local museum by Felch and Frammolino.
  • Check on shaky local banks. Jake Bernstein, who won a 2011 Pulitzer at ProPublica with Jesse Eisinger for exploring the origins of the financial crisis, says look into local banks. He recalled a story he did on a Las Vegas bank that failed after extensive use of interest reserves on construction loans. Here, from his story, is how those work:

“When a bank makes an interest-reserve loan to a developer, it hands the builder both the principal and the interest on the loan….Eventually, if everything goes right, the builder will finish the project, sell or lease the property, and pay back the money. But as the past few years have made clear, things don’t always work out so smoothly in real estate.”

For more on banks’ finances, check out the FDIC website and the Investigative Reporting Workshop’s BankTracker.

  • Look into the big business that is college athletics. At public schools, file a Freedom of Information Act request to get a copy of the financial report that the athletic department makes annually to the NCAA. Data from that report underlies this USA Today database of revenues and expenses for big public colleges, advises Jodi Upton of USA Today. Also request contracts for communications, licensing and coaches. Reporter Jill Riepenhoff of The Columbus Dispatch suggests getting the school’s compliance department audit, the athletic department employees’ salaries and the lists of those who get free cars and free tickets to games. At private schools, request a copy of the schools’ last three Form 990s, submitted to the IRS. Often, a coach will be listed on the form as the highest-paid person on a school’s payroll.| Tip sheet: Investigating the finances of college athletics by Jill Riepenhoff of The Columbus Dispatch.
  • Examine default and graduation rates at for-profit colleges. According to a Bloomberg series called, “Education Inc.,” for-profit colleges “have mushroomed into a $30-billion-a-year industry at taxpayer expense by targeting vulnerable populations — disabled military and veterans, the homeless, immigrants and minorities — with misleading promises of low costs, online academic help, and lucrative jobs after graduation.” A starting point is your state attorney general’s office.
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Tips from Pulitzer winners? Cover insurance for career advancement

Jonathan Kaufman, education editor, Bloomberg News; Paige St. John, reporter, Sarasota Herald-Tribune

Paige St. John (right) of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune talks with Jonathan Kaufman of Bloomberg.

ORLANDO – The advice given to Dustin Hoffman’s character in “The Graduate” may have been “plastics,” but two Pulitzer Prize winners say “insurance.”

In separate sessions at the Investigative Reporters and Editors Conference, both Paige St. John of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and Walt Bogdanich of The New York Times indicated that insurance is a good area of coverage in which to make a name for yourself as a journalist.

St. John said not to be intimidated by what may seem like a technical subject. She had to get up to speed quickly when she began her investigation into Florida’s property-insurance system that led to her 2011 Pulitzer in investigative journalism.

Take a look at the database visualization that accompanied St. John’s story: Sinkhole claims made in Florida, 2005-2010 |  And a story from March 15, 2011: Momentum to pare sinkhole coverage, Insurance industry has declared itself victim of an epidemic of fales claims

Paige St. John of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune looked into the growth in unpaid insurance claims for sinkholes in Florida.

“Approach this industry with a lot of curiosity and skepticism,” she said.

Bogdanich, who has won three Pulitzers and was a finalist for the prize St. John won, said he gravitated to insurance when he was assigned to cover personal finance at The Wall Street Journal because he saw it as under-covered.

Here’s how St. John recommended getting up to speed quickly on insurance:

  • Read everything you can find on the subject. LexisNexis is your friend.
  • Find experts who can help you. Her guides included a retired actuary from the state regulatory agency.
  • Start with very broad questions: Where’s the money, and who’s making money? “The really nontechnical questions are the best ones to keep asking,” she said.

More tips came from her co-panelist, David Evans of Bloomberg, who exposed how fallen soldiers’ families were denied cash as life insurers profited:

  • Read the annual 10-K filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission of those insurance companies that are publicly traded. “The 10-Ks lay out for you what you need to know about how they make money,” he said. St. John also recommended Webcasts, archived on company websites, of company officials “boasting about what they do and how they do it” to analysts during earnings calls.

Here are more suggestions from St. John on how to cover insurance well:

  • Read the companies’ rate filings with the state and get help deciphering them from experts such as the National Consumer Federation and former Texas Insurance Commissioner Bob Hunter. In addition to the filings, she said, “You will find letters that tell what they are planning to do.”
  • The National Association of Insurance Commissioners (NAIC) collects annual financial filings to each state by insurers, including the Schedule Y, which outlines other companies the insurer owns. St. John said to call the NAIC directly at 816-783-8003 to request access to its “treasure chest” of data.
  • Ask more questions when you hear these words: crisis, losses and fraud. “Claims patterns are often exaggerated. Outrageous jury awards are rare and often overturned,” she said. “Losses are often padded with IBNR – insured but not reported” claims. And on fraud, what are the actual number of fraud cases reported to the state, not the suspected cases reported to the industry-financed National Insurance Crime Bureau?
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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.


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IRE’s Year in Investigations: 32 of the best stories from around the U.S.

Best in Investigative journalism IRE 2011Don’t tell us you’ve run out of story ideas or have no idea what you’d like to do when your editor pushes for investigations or enterprise stories.

These are just three of the more than 30 stories that IRE presents as the best in investigative journalism for 2011 – IRE’s Year in Investigations 2011 (PDF)

The Sarasota Herald-Tribune scored more than 100 insurance companies from an investigation into their financial documents. The series exposed companies that continued to sell policies when they had no way to pay claims.

An investigation by The Post and Courier (Charleston, S.C.) revealed that even though probate court was set up in part to protect the elderly, it sometimes turns on a financial faucet that helps drain the estates of people it’s supposed to guard.

A 10-month CNBC investigation revealed thousands of complaints and more than 75 lawsuits stemming from alleged inadvertent discharges from the Remington 700. At least two dozen deaths and more than one hundred injuries have been linked to a possible design flaw in Remington’s 700-series bolt-action rifle.

When you’ve got some time, take a look through the report from IRE. The stories from large and small organizations; from online, print, TV and radio; are truly inspiring.

More news from IRE:

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Checking up on your local hospitals’ quality of care

Charles Ornstein, ProPublica reporter; freelancer Judy Quittman

ProPublica senior reporter Charles Ornstein talks with freelancer Judy Quittman.

ORLANDO — Hospitals are among the largest businesses in some communities, but they often get a pass when it comes to how well they are serving their customers — the patients in your area who use them.

Government data that have become available within the last few years enable journalists to compare hospitals’ track records on patient survival and patient satisfaction, according to ProPublica senior reporter Charles Ornstein, who spoke at the Investigative Reporters and Editors Conference. He was a Pulitzer finalist for ProPublica in 2010 for a series with Tracy Weber called, When Caregivers Harm: California’s Unwatched Nurses.”

He won the Pulitzer for Public Service in 2005, again with Weber, for a Los Angeles Times series about the troubles at King/Drew hospital.

Patient survival

The Hospital Compare website, run by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, has information by hospital on patient-survival rates for heart failure, heart attack and pneumonia.

Ornstein directed reporters to Hospital Compare, run by the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. It includes information on whether patients died or had to be readmitted within 30 days of being treated at a hospital for heart failure, heart attack and pneumonia.

After the data are adjusted to take into account the severity of patients’ illnesses, hospitals are rated as expected, better than expected or lower than expected. Ornstein said that the vast majority of hospitals fall in the expected category, so any hospitals that are outliers are worth talking to.

Patient satisfaction

In surveys, patients rate their overall hospital experience and also say whether they would recommend the hospital to a friend.

Current patient-survival and -satisfaction data can be downloaded into Access database software. Archived data are also available.

If you’d prefer to work with the data in Excel, the Association of Health Care Journalists keeps updated files, as well as the historic data, available on its site: healthjournalism.org. Ornstein, who is the group’s president, said you must be a member ($60/year) to access it. The site also has primers on how to use the patient-satisfaction and survival data.

He recommended looking at changes in patient satisfaction over time for individual hospitals. There are 12 reporting periods worth of data since 2008.

Here are some other resources for working with this data:

  • NetDoc.com allows you to look at the data on a Google map by ZIP code, but the stats may be somewhat out of date, Ornstein warned.
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Investigative Reporters and Editors 2011: slideshow

IRE Conference in Orlando brings together Investigative Reporters and Editors.

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IRE lesson: How beer, pizza and a young woman led to a Pulitzer

Gary Cohn, adjunct professor, USC Annenberg School of Journalism

Gary Cohn

ORLANDO – Gary Cohn and his fellow reporter, Will Englund, at The Baltimore Sun had multiple obstacles to overcome as they tried to talk to workers at Baltimore-harbor businesses engaged in the dangerous practice of dismantling and disposing of large ships.

For starters, they didn’t know who the workers were or where they lived. Many were illegal immigrants, who wouldn’t want to be publicly identified. Many spoke only Spanish, and Cohn said he and Englund spoke Spanish only well enough “to order a beer, not to conduct an interview.”

So, he explained how he and Englund set about overcoming those difficulties. His audience was 84 attendees of a Reynolds Center workshop today on investigating private companies and nonprofits that preceded the Investigative Editors and Reporters Conference June 9-12.

With no names or addresses for the workers, he and Englund decided to hang out in their cars outside of the businesses and follow the workers home. They found them living in low-cost hotels and rooming houses.

When they showed up again at one of the worker’s doors, “he took one look at us and took off. He thought we were immigration police.

“We realized we had to come up plan to get the workers to talk to us. We had to get in the door.”

First, they hired a young, female law student who had worked with laborers on the Eastern Shore of Maryland. “We thought she would be able to translate and relate to these sorts of workers,” he said.

Melanie Payne, reporter, The News-Press, Fort Myers, Fla.

Melanie Payne, reporter for The News-Press in Fort Myers, Fla., finds a Form 990 online during the Reynolds Center workshop on investigating private companies and nonprofits.

Then, on the way to the workers’ homes, they stopped and picked up a couple of pizzas and six-packs of beer. This time,  “instead of looking like immigration police, we were two guys bringing beer, pizza and a young woman. That got us in the door.”

The two reporters immediately identified themselves, and some of the workers remained wary throughout the evening. But others approached the two and asked if they could meet with them privately later.

When they met with the men, they told them the companies were violating health and safety regulations, leading to unsafe working conditions, as well as pollution of the Chesapeake Bay.  Cohn said they were able to corroborate the workers’ stories in various ways, but they “only found out about the stories by getting out.

“I would urge you when do investigations of private companies to think broadly. Sometimes records can get you to people. In this case, people got us to records. We found out about all kinds of accidents and deaths in this industry. People did not remember details. But we put in the names of companies and ran them through courthouse databases wherever they operated,” and out came those details.

“Think of yourself not just as a business journalist who can go out and read these financial documents. You’re part private detective, part psychologist,” he said.

Keep asking yourself: “How am I going to get in the door? How am I going to get people to talk to me?”

Reynolds Center workshop at IRE

Mark Lawton (left) of the Pioneer Press newspapers in suburban Chicago, freelancer Kiara Ashanti (center) and Andrea Rock of Consumer Reports discuss a reporting challenge during the Reynolds Center workshop on investigating private companies and nonprofits.

In Cohn’s and Englund’s case, the fruits of asking those questions — and others — was the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting for “their compelling series on the international shipbreaking industry, that revealed the dangers posed to workers and the environment when discarded ships are dismantled.”

Cohn, now an adjunct journalism professor at the University of Southern California, spoke along with Chris Roush, Walter E. Hussman Sr. Distinguished Scholar in business journalism at the University of North Carolina. For their handouts and PowerPoints, as well as video recordings and materials from a similar workshop held on Feb. 23 in Raleigh, please see our self-guided training on investigating private companies and nonprofits.