Donald W. Reynolds National Center For Business Journalism

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Barlett and Steele winners’ tips on investigative reporting

November 26, 2013

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Louise Story shares tips during the winners panel for Barlett & Steele Award 2013. Photo: Madeline Pado

After tireless months of mining through documents and compiling databases, the winners of the 2013 Barlett & Steele Awards picked up a few reporting and organization tricks along the way.

Tampa Bay Times reporter Kris Hundley and the Center for Investigative Reporting’s Kendall Taggart won gold for their joint series “America’s Worst Charities.” For a year, the reporters compiled their own database of over a decade’s worth of documents and discovered that those top 50  charities had wrongly spent over $1 billion.

The silver award went to The New York Times’ Louise Story for her investigation “The United States of Subsidies.” Her project looked at how much money local governments spend on incentives to keep businesses from moving elsewhere.  She found that over $80 billion are spent each year on about 1,800 programs.

The Wall Street Journal’s Susan Pulliam, Rob Barry, Michael Siconolfi and Jean Eaglesham took home the bronze award for “Inside Game: How Corporate Insiders Profit Ahead of the Public.” The reporting team spent half a year putting together a database examining the frequency of top executives trading in their stocks before bad news of the company was made public. They found that these individuals had made large profits by avoiding those big losses.

The winners sat down with Jim Steele at the awards ceremony in Phoenix, and  shared with audience members lessons and tips they learned along the way.

Taggart: “We created a spreadsheet of what we thought our findings were in the story pretty early on. And as we reported we would fill this in with evidence under each of the columns on the spreadsheet.”

HOW TO KEEP ORGANIZED:

Story: “I have all kinds of filing systems. I’m a big customer of The Container Store. I periodically write memos about where I am. I have all different to-do lists every week. Over time if you’re starting to get lost on where you’re headed, it’s really helpful to look back at those things. I just keep them dated.”

THE OBSTACLES OF LONG-TERM STORIES:

Hundley: Kris said that she and Kendall constantly had to fight their own doubt in the importance of their story, but knowing how the nature of their topic affected people motivated them to continue. “I think the thing that kept us going was the sense of outrage that anyone would consider this to be normal behavior and outrage that people, generous Americans are just policed everyday by these people.”

Taggart: Having a partner is really helpful to guide one another and keep each other sane. “Kris and I would go back and forth when one of us was stuck in a rabbit hole where there was likely no rabbit and pulled the other one out after a couple days.”

Barry: Frequently checking in with editors and reporting partners is important so you don’t misunderstand or lose track of the implications of what you’re writing. “When you’re on a story for a really long time, drafts have been written and re-written and you’ve seen them so many times, the words they begin to almost lose meaning and it can be a very dangerous time right before publication.”

HOW TO PREPARE FOR A STORY CHANGING DIRECTIONS: 

Steele:  “On one hand, you need to be very focused when going after a topic.  At the same time, you need to have flexibility. Because it may not be exactly as you thought.”

Taggart:  When starting a project, it’s important to at least know what your minimal story is. “If no internal sources come through, if no documents are leaked, what can you get from the public record and from sources you already have. And will that pan out or not?”

RELIABLE DOCUMENTS TO USE FOR REPORTING:

Steele: SEC and Court documents will always be helpful, but one more document should be considered too: “Statistical Abstract of the United States. Whether you’re dealing with housing, employment, jobs, forestry, food, you name, it. There’s table in that book.”

HOW TO BECOME AN INVESTIGATIVE REPORTER:

Taggart:  To convince editors you’re ready for longer-form reporting, approach all your work like an investigative reporter. “So not just writing short articles that regurgitate what some executive said at a press conference, but asking questions, questioning the wisdom of that area.”

She added, “Even if you’re on a beat and you don’t have a lot of time, always have a couple of public records request out.” She said it may not always product a story, but you should always make the effort to make that request.

Barry: “Develop a specialty of some sort, have knowledge of a topic.” Barry emphasized how having skills such as  data or multimedia reporting can help set yourself apart from others seeking the same job.

Steele: Doing research before an interview can be extremely helpful.  “Because then you can ask questions to the person you’re interviewing and you can find out whether they know what they’re talking about. Or whether they’re lying to you.”

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