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Two Minute Tips

Q&A with investigative journalist Gary Cohn

May 6, 2010

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Gary Cohn is an investigative reporter based in Santa Monica, California. He is a 1998 Pulitzer Prize winner and the recipient of the 2009 Barlett & Steele Award for Investigative Business Journalism. Cohn was part of a Bloomberg news team that won the award for uncovering hidden fees in AARP ‘s insurance plans. He is currently a freelance investigative reporter and an adjunct journalism professor at University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Journalism.

Is it difficult to fit long-range or investigative pieces into your normal work load?

I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve worked for newspapers most of my career. It can be more difficult to do investigative reporting these days, but I think there is a lot of good investigative journalism that can be done by journalists covering their beat. Try to always have a longer story that you are working on alongside your normal beat reporting. For instance, if you’re on the police beat; stay a little longer to work on the piece you really want to be working on. This might mean hanging around the police station a little longer to do some extra interviews or putting in extra time developing sources.

How do I pitch the story to my editor?

When your work finally reaches a critical mass, go pitch it to your editor. Never use the word project; it scares editors. Try to have a general plan for getting the rest of the story finished—including how much time you’ll need.

What’s your favorite investigative story?

My favorite story is Shipbreakers, a series that Will Englund and I wrote for the Baltimore Sun. It really started with Will covering old shipwrecks as part of his daily beat. He noticed that old warships were being dismantled out on the Chesapeake Bay. Will wrote what was a pretty good cover story for the Baltimore Sun and an editor read the story and wanted to keep pursuing it. The story focused on the environmental dangers when these old warships were dismantled. (Englund and Cohn’s piece won the 1998 Pulitzer prize for investigative reporting.)

What advice would you give to young reporters starting out?

It’s most important to master the fundamentals of reporting and writing. All the big stories are made up of the fundamentals. Learn to follow a beat, use public documents, get people to talk on the record, and write a clear narrative. I’d also urge young reporters to trust their eyes and ears and to follow their instincts.

What about funding?

Don’t get discouraged by the financing at newspapers.  Still go after hard stories as much as possible.

What pitfalls should I avoid?

It’s okay for investigative journalists to draw certain conclusions after reporting on a subject for a particular length of time, but don’t go into the story trying to prove a point.

Where do you look for inspiration?

Finding a really good story has always been hard. It’s so important to get out of the office and talk to people. Get away from your computer. Read small papers and look at websites, and always go back to sources on your beat. There’s no easy way to find stories.

The most rewarding aspect of investigative journalism is finding out things that people don’t want me to know. I also find it rewarding to see the changes and reforms that often result from good stories.


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