In most newsrooms, investigative reporters are envied. They get seemingly endless amounts of time to devote to passion projects. They work only on stuff that gets entered for all the prizes, and they never get sucked into the dull daily churn.
They have it easy. That’s the common perception anyway.
But no one has a tougher job. This is hard, challenging work with deep valleys and high peaks. The pressure to deliver can be enormous. Months, even years, might pass between bylines. Imagine all the self-doubt that can creep in along the way.
Managing an investigation can be just as daunting.
Reporters drift or disappear into a sea of documents or lose themselves amid thousands of rows and columns of data. Stories that sounded amazing when first pitched fizzle the deeper you dig.
The pitfalls make the rewards that much sweeter, however, when an investigative reporter delivers the goods – whether it’s exposing ongoing disasters inside the Department of Veterans Affairs or showing how the nation’s worst charities squandered $1 billion over a decade.
Every story follows a process. Below are about three dozen tips and best practices I’ve assembled over the years as an investigative editor and project manager to help keep things reasonably safe and sane along the way.
I started building this tip sheet at the Orange County Register about 10 years ago when I was asked to speak at an Investigative Reporters and Editors conference. I played around with it some when I launched an investigative team in Milwaukee and have kept tweaking and refining it at my current job as the editorial director of The Center for Investigative Reporting.
With another IRE conference just around the corner (June 26-29 in San Francisco), this feels like a good time to share the latest iteration. It’s a document written for my newsroom, but it really can apply just about anywhere. It’s broken into three sections that loosely follow the arc of a big project.
This tip sheet has been inspired by some great investigative minds, including David Boardman, Jeff Leen, Manny Garcia, Steve Engelberg, Amanda Bennett, Bob Blau, Jim Neff, Chris Davis, Maud Beelman, Len Downie, Brant Houston, Robin Fields, Deb Nelson, George Stanley, Marty Kaiser, Eric Nalder, George Papajohn, Jeff Taylor, Duff Wilson, Don Barlett and James Steele, among others. I don’t think I’m ever going to be done with this, by the way. Feel free to send along any suggestions.
Stage I: Editing on the front end
Picking the right story. It all starts with story selection. We expect our reporters to keep a story list so that our editors can help set priorities and weigh the story prospects against one another. Some of the key things to think about in story selection: What is the harm? What is the scope? The greater the harm and scope, the better the story. You also need to think about more pragmatic questions: Is the story even doable? What will it take to pull it off? Is it worth the time and effort? Will the story make a difference? If you’re going to spend a prolonged period on a story, it ought to be a high-impact piece. No one can really predict the impact a story might have on an audience or community. But there are some key questions to ask before you get started – questions that can serve as a pretty good barometer.
Are we exposing a hidden problem?
Can the problem be quantified?
Can we humanize the problem?
Will we hold people accountable?
Are we exposing something with enough outrage or moral wrongdoing that people will care?
We’d place our bets on any story for which all of the above questions generate “yes” answers.
Avoid mission creep. It’s important to weigh your story selection against an organization’s mission to avoid mission creep. Our main mission at CIR is to expose wrongdoing, corruption and injustice that otherwise would go unreported. So if the stories on our lists accomplish none of that, we probably need to reassess. Rather than reporting stories that already are high on the radar of lawyers, regulators, etc., our favorite stories shed light on wrongs or injustices that most people in positions of authority don’t understand or don’t have a handle on – or are deliberately trying to suppress. At our best, we produce stories based on clear, meticulous case-building, pushing a hidden problem into the sunlight and holding those responsible to account. Our very best stories prompt new investigations rather than respond to ones already completed or underway.
Run and gun vs. big project. If the story is off the news, breaking, competitive or time-pegged, we typically lean toward a run-and-gun or rolling investigative approach. If the story is unique and hinges on a high level of enterprise and analysis that a competitor would be unlikely to duplicate, we probably would lean toward a major takeout or series. It’s important to factor in the complexity and scope. Sometimes, stories work as hybrids. You start it as a big takeout or multipart series, then switch to a rolling investigation with big follow-up pieces that push the investigation forward. There is no set formula.
Vet the reporting methodology. Are you looking at enough years of documents or data? Are there questions of logic or ethics that need to be weighed? What steps need to be taken to ensure the story has enough context? Now is the time to begin asking these questions – before the records requests go out. If reporters rush ahead without thinking things through, it could lead to additional expense and time to get it right. It’s especially important to hold thorough discussions early if the story might rely upon or require any unusual reporting techniques (i.e., stakeouts, use of laboratory testing, undercover or hidden camera work).
What is the fallback plan? If your grand-slam story doesn’t pan out, would you be left with a ringing double or a bunt single? Try to have some type of solid fallback plan for the story – one that’s better than the measly bunt. If you don’t have a strong plan B, you probably should pull the plug quickly when the story starts to go south.
Allow time for broad fact finding, then quickly focus. We like to give reporters some leeway – two weeks, maybe up to a month – to do enough preliminary reporting to understand the potential for a story. But then you have to focus and identify the central question you’re trying to answer. Put a fence around the story and stay on track. But be ever mindful that the best stories often take unexpected twists and turns. If these developments make for a better story, embrace them.
Mixing and matching. If a reporter has a great story and can pull it off as a solo project, God bless them. But if he or she needs help, consider bringing in complementary skill sets. Never take the story away, but use the resources in the newsroom to help elevate the reporting or storytelling. A typical mix might include a strong street reporter, a great writer and a data specialist, or reporters who bring a complementary set of expertise and sourcing. One cautionary note: Adding resources doesn’t always lead to efficiencies. The ramp-up time actually could slow you down. And there also may be too much overlap. So you’ll need to manage that.
Set regular checkpoints. How often you meet will depend on the story and its momentum. If it’s an off-the-news, breaking investigation, you obviously want to meet often, perhaps daily. Touch base every week or every other week on most projects – even if it’s just an impromptu “how’s the story going?” asked at your reporter’s desk. We typically like to require brief updated memos from the reporters that outline a couple of things – what are we finding and what are our next steps? Always end these checkpoint meetings with a clear game plan.
Collaborate early and often. Our integrated newsroom is set up to collaborate from inception. It’s critical that we rally around the story rather than think in silos. Take advantage of the diversity in skills and experience to build robust story packages. Tap into the visual, analytical minds. Bring everyone to the table around a story and let them own and deliver a piece of the project that works on multiple platforms. That’s a key to our success.
Stage II: Managing the process
Use chronology as an organizational device. For complex stories, we often ask reporters to write a chronology early. It can be the clearest way to identify the key moments, see how the story unfolds and pinpoint potential trends, patterns and connections. It also serves as a great early outline to help with the writing.
Ask to see critical documentation. This is especially important for stories that are more nuanced or gray. An extra set of eyes early can help make sure everyone is on the same page when interpreting key points. We’re not suggesting an editor review every page of the thousands that have been gathered up – just the most important pages that could set the tone or lay the foundation for the story.
If the reporters are reluctant to start writing, ask them to bust it out breaking news style. If a reporter doesn’t know when to stop reporting, it’s typically because he or she hasn’t started writing – regardless of the medium. The most efficient reporters write as they go and start to identify holes that need to be filled. But not all reporters can do this. Many don’t believe they can write until they’ve conducted every last interview or gathered up every last document. That might work sometimes and in some cases, but typically, that strategy leads to wasted time and a drawn-out process. We have two tips to help get the story finished. First, ask your reporters to imagine that the competition has the story and you have to bang out what you know now! If that doesn’t work, sit the reporter next to you and tell him or her to begin dictating a top. The reporter is writing it. You’re typing it. But it helps defrost the frozen reporter.
Write the nerd box early. Writing the “nerd box” or the “how we did it” sidebar often is one of the last things done. But it ought to be one of the first. It’s an excellent way to lay out your methodology in a clear manner. Don’t just ask your reporters to write it early. Make sure you zoom in on it early. It could help identify red flags in the approach while there is still time to straighten out things.
Encourage reporters to reopen their file folders and notebooks. It takes time for a full picture to emerge when reporting a story. So it often can be wise to ask reporters to circle back to their earlier records, notes and tapes to review again. With the added context, reporters often can see connections more clearly that weren’t in focus the first time they looked at a document or listened to a tape.
Open up a dialogue with targets. We are not big fans of the last-minute ambush. We would much rather see efforts to reach out to targets of the investigation early in the process – before all conclusions are drawn. This runs counter to the old-school approach of gathering up all your ammo before confronting key sources at the very end. In some cases, the old-school approach may be the right strategy. More often, however, you’ll get better stuff, more cooperation and a more balanced story if you reach out early to understand what’s really going on. It also may be a more efficient way to figure out what you actually have.
Constantly play devil’s advocate. Think about the liabilities of the story. Are there mitigating circumstances? Is the story too fuzzy or murky? Keep a good handle on this so that you don’t spend months on a project that ultimately lacks clarity. Often, the best way to do this is to encourage your reporters to express their reservations about the story from time to time and to have a good, honest discussion about it.
Black and white is always better than gray. Some great editors have said that the best stories are nuanced and gray. But is that really true? The best stories are clear and straightforward. They come with clear villains and sympathetic victims. Those are the stories that can be written with the greatest authority and typically resonate the most with an audience. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for nuanced storytelling. But let’s not kid ourselves: The best stories can be summed up in 50 words or fewer. They don’t take 10 minutes of meandering conversation to explain.
Tout your findings. In every medium in which we work, CIR should highlight its findings – letting readers, viewers or listeners know that what we are telling our audience is new and different. Our emphasis at CIR is telling stories that matter, that have impact. But if we’re rehashing old stories, how can we take credit if change comes? What are we bringing to the table? If you are pushing a story forward, don’t be shy about it.
Managing up. Keep the bosses in the loop. Nothing is worse than the last-minute surprise – when the top editor, after seeing a story for the first time, pulls the plug after months of work. This is avoidable. The project editor has to manage down, up and often sideways. Share tops, drafts, scripts and story memos with top editors. Get them to buy in. If you’re struggling to get the graphics and photo staffs on board, top editor buy-in can help move obstacles.
Guard against false-expectation syndrome. We’ve seen reporters go from excited to devastated when their findings or analysis don’t meet their early expectations. But think about it for a moment: If you initially thought there was a problem with half of the city-issued bond contracts but found out it was really closer to 20 percent, that’s still a great story to tell. Don’t lose perspective. Remember that a lot of investigative reporting is done in the margins.
Don’t be afraid to pull the plug. Nothing is more demoralizing to a reporter than wasting months on a project that never sees the light of day. It’s up to you to make sure this doesn’t happen. The natural inclination is to try to salvage a story that has taken time and cost a great deal to produce. No one likes to give up. But if the story isn’t there and you don’t have a good backup plan, it’s time to bail and redirect resources to better stories.
Finding the motivational sweet spot. Know your reporters and your staff. Some need to be reined in. Others need to be pushed hard. Some are more cautious and careful. Others are assassins. Some can do meticulous project work. Others are better at the run-and-gun. Some are patient. Some are not. Know your staff – as people and as performers. The best editors can nudge and tug when necessary to get the best work. In the end, the best investigative editors and project managers help reporters elevate their game – and that leads to better stories for your audience.
Stage III: The back end
Be scrupulously fair. If the investigative subjects read, hear or watch the story and are surprised by what you have found, then your reporters probably haven’t been fair enough. Make sure every tough question has been asked. At the very least, make sure the subject knows what the story generally will say. Make it a rule that anyone in the story portrayed in a negative light is given an opportunity to comment.
Show me , don’t tell me. Examine every quote in the story. If someone is making sweeping statements or allegations, make sure the reporters back those up with hard facts. Don’t let sources get away with assertions without proof.
Don’t overreach. Disclose caveats. Be upfront about any mitigating circumstances. It will only make your story stronger and more credible. Tell readers what you don’t know. This also boosts your credibility with readers.
Read the story out loud. Find time to sit side by side with reporters to read the story aloud. It helps catch awkward construction, redundancies and other kinks that might otherwise go unnoticed.
Edit the story with a different point of view. Jeff Leen, the fabulous investigative editor at The Washington Post, will edit a story with a different focus each time. He’ll read it first for substance. Then for fairness. Then he’ll edit for structure. He also edits it separately for clarity and for flow. It’s a great approach. While you’re editing the story, look for any remaining weaknesses. Look for quotes that overreach or drone on too long. Kill anecdotes or examples that lack clarity and stray off point.
Guard against late-stage fatigue. This is perhaps the most dangerous point in the process. The reporters are exhausted. Everyone is tired of the story. You all want to move on with your lives. If you’re not careful, this is the time that mistakes creep in. Don’t let your guard down. It’s time to pay closer attention to the details than ever.
Don’t hit the panic button. Newsrooms can be turned upside down in the midst of long projects when word gets out that regulators are about to take action on the story you’ve been working on for months. Don’t panic. Turn regulatory action or response to your advantage. In many ways, it’s the best validation of your reporting. And it oftentimes doesn’t require rushing to publish. Help your audience understand the steps you took that prompted any official action.
Fight for the story. Fight for your staff. Perhaps the most important job of the editor is to sell the story, fight for it and make sure it gets the attention it deserves inside the newsroom – as well as the best possible play. Protect your reporters from any bullshit coming from inside or outside the newsroom.
Make sure your reporters meticulously footnote all of their facts. Done right, this will raise the confidence level of everyone involved in the project – especially if there is a challenge after publication. Few things are more troubling than the reporter who can’t find key notes or documents when faced with a retraction demand.
Are we there yet? The editing process can last days or weeks. Or it can drag out for months. Publish when the story reaches its full potential – when you’ve built the case and nailed your premise.
Honor the truth. Take any challenges to the facts seriously – before and after publication. If an error is made, deal with it.