Laura Shin


Crowd funding concept

13 ways to get your journalism project crowdfunded

While handwringing over financial support for journalism is nothing new, it’s been especially fraught recently. From the Nate Thayer/Atlantic dustup to the possibility that the Tribune papers may be sold to the Koch brothers, everyone in media seems worried about funding the Fourth Estate.

One hopeful sign for such worriers: Crowdfunding has become a way to support journalism projects from one-off articles to the wholesale launch of new publications.

Back in 2008, crowdfunding platform Spot.us launched to support reporting, and has helped publish stories on partner sites ranging from The New York Times to Cleveland Free Press. Since Kickstarter’s launch in April 2009, 816 journalism projects have sought funding on the site, with 36 percent of them succeeding.

It’s not just individual articles that have gotten support. Matter, Tomorrow, The Big Roundtable and Homicide Watch have all launched publications or paid for programs by appealing to the Internet.

But while raising money via crowdfunding can be a big part of a launch plan, it isn’t a sure bet. If you’re looking to try crowdfunding, keep these tips in mind.

1. Choose a topic that works.

Crowdfunding campaigns demand time and publicity. That makes them a poor fit for breaking news, or investigative pieces that require some stealth.

And since you’ll need many people to support your cause, projects with a larger geographic scope are more likely to attract funds.

“You could say one percent of the people that would be interested in a story will fund it,” Spot.us founder David Cohn told Poynter. “If the topic is about Stockton, Calif., let’s say the population is — I’m making this up — 300,000. You’d have to get in front of a lot of eyeballs, and they’d have to be Stockton eyeballs. If you do California, it’s easier to get in front of the same number of California eyeballs as Stockton eyeballs.”

Cohn also said stories about a topic with wide appeal do well: “The number of people interested in environmental issues is even greater than the population of California.”

2. Consider the audiences.

Aside from Kickstarter and Indiegogo, there are journalism-specific crowdfunding sites such as Spot.us, Emphas.is for photojournalists and Vourno.com for video journalism. Cohn advised considering which audience you want to reach: While Kickstarter has a big audience, it focuses on creative projects of all stripes, including music, film and fashion. Audiences reached via the journalism-specific sites may be smaller but a better fit for your project.

But that’s not a hard and fast rule. Andrea Seabrook, a former NPR reporter who crowdfunded DecodeDC, a blog and podcast covering news from Washington, D.C., said by phone that she chose Kickstarter for its credibility:

“My natural audience as a public radio reporter were a bit older and not familiar with Kickstarter, but even when they were like, ‘Wait, what’s that?’ their kids knew it, and it was something they could search for and recognize was credible right from the beginning. … You’ll always be associated with that [crowdfunding] organization, even if you never do a thing with them again — so you need to think about that in terms of your own brand and the credibility of your work.”

3. Read the fine print.

Investigate how each site handles money raised. Kickstarter is “all or nothing” — if you don’t reach your goal, you won’t receive any money. Indiegogo, on the other hand, allows you to accept however much you raise, or opt for all or nothing.

Kickstarter says the all-or-nothing method prevents project creators from having to deliver projects which don’t attract enough funding. The company also believes that its deadlines for crowdfunding projects encourage backers to rally and push a project past its goal line. But you should weigh these potential benefits against the ability to take whatever money you raise, even if you fall short of your goal.

4. Factor fees and other costs into your budget.

On top of the budget for your journalism project, you need to take into account fees. For instance, Kickstarter collects a 5 percent fee from a successfully funded project’s total, while Indiegogo collects 4 percent on projects that meet their goal and 9% on projects that fall short but choose to take whatever funding they receive. Payment processing fees take another 3 percent to 5 percent out of the money you collected.

“And then, if you’re a for-profit like I am, you have to consider taxes that you’ll pay on that income, and the amount of money that the rewards cost, and the postage.” Seabrook said. “Postage is really expensive for sending out rewards.”

5. Establish your credibility.

Anyone funding a project wants to be confident that their money will be put to good use and a project will actually come to fruition. Toward that end, backers will want to know where you’ve been published, just like an editor who’s weighing whether to give you an assignment.

“Don’t just have an idea — make a prototype of it,” Seabrook said. “We had three episodes up by the end of the campaign, and that helps a lot — it gives a sense of the integrity and the worthiness of their money.”

Similarly, Cohn said stories on Spot.us that already had a publisher on board got funded more quickly and often exceeded their goals. “It was a stamp of approval,” he said, “and there was maybe a little bit of excitement for the donors that would get to see the story published in the newspaper or magazine.”

6. Make a professional video.

Getting on camera may seem daunting, but both Cohn and Kickstarter find projects that include a video appeal are more likely to be funded. “Be yourself and put yourself out there,” Cohn said. “Keep it real in that respect. Also, know who you’re talking to. Kickstarter has a fun, creative community, and Emphas.is is more about serious journalism, so you want to talk to that community.”

Seabrook learned from something she didn’t do right: “My video is pretty terrible production-wise. … I showed it to a few friends in the industry before, and they counseled me not to put up my campaign. They said you shouldn’t put up something that is less quality than your own work.”

Because of the poor quality of her video, Kickstarter didn’t feature her project — a better video, Seabrook speculated, could have led to a featured spot on the site and brought in more funding.

“If you get featured it’s a huge bump, because they send it to everybody’s inboxes,” she said.

7.  Create rewards that narrow the distance between you and your audience.

People don’t want to hand over money and have no contact with a project until it hits newsstands months later. If they’re excited about a project, they want to stay involved during its creation, whether that means getting a peek behind the scenes or actually helping to bring the project to life in some tangible way.

Photojournalists and writers can create rewards from what’s left on the cutting-room floor — photos that don’t get used or scenes that get cut from a longform piece. Or consider offering backers a postcard from a reporting destination, exclusive access to a blog that details the weeks or months of work, dinner and drinks after a big reporting trip, or an acknowledgement in a forthcoming book.

You could also go the traditional swag route: Seabrook created DecodeDC T-shirts, mugs and tote bags, and ordered extras for the show.

8.  That said, make sure the rewards don’t take over your life.

Your main goal is to finish your journalism project, not to spend a significant amount of time fulfilling rewards. “My biggest error was promising personal postcards to a huge group of people — 800 postcards,” Seabrook said, adding that supporters are still asking her where their postcards are.

9. Have rewards at a variety of price points.

According to Kickstarter, some people don’t have the money to substantively support a project, but appreciate the chance to chip in something and spread the word. The site recommends including a reward level of $25 — the most common pledge.

10. Choose a campaign long enough to build momentum but short enough to feel urgent.

Kickstarter says 30-day campaigns are strong time frames for projects, while campaigns longer than 60 days tend to languish.The site no longer allows campaigns longer than 60 days.

11. Devise an outreach strategy.

Before your campaign goes live, talk it up with journalists and bloggers who might write about it. Reach out to “social influencers” who can reach interested Twitter, Facebook, YouTube or Tumblr communities so they can help you get the word out. And get friends and family to agree to back the project the moment it goes live. Securing a significant chunk of your funding early will give other backers confidence to sign on.

12. When you launch, get the word out any and every way you can.

“The amount of energy you can put into spreading the word will have a bigger impact than anything else,” Cohn said. He cited the statistic that non-profit news organizations only get donations from readers and listeners after having contact with them seven times.

“You have to be prepared to reach out a few times,” he said.

And be prepared to ask people one by one for support — it’s easy to ignore a mass email. Cohn said that reaching out to individuals sounds really hard but actually isn’t: write up your core pitch, then tailor the beginning and end for each person.

Seabrook said it’s important to give a campaign everything you have.

“If you don’t make it the first time, it’s a lot harder to go back” and ask for money again, she warned. She recommended contacting everyone you know, as well as organizations with which you have an affiliation, such as your alumni organization, and asking them to help get the word out on social media.

“Get people who have a lot of pull and clout on Facebook and Twitter and contact them personally and say, ‘I need a retweet or a repost,’ “ she suggested. “I said, ‘Please, I’d rather you repost and retweet than give me money.”

But, she cautioned, be creative, not annoying: “Be interesting, be funny, don’t say the same thing all the time — show people your wit and your value, especially as a journalist. Put up links people will want to see, and roll out bits and pieces of your project as you go along.”

13. Funding is just the beginning.

Offer your backers regular updates that offer insight into the creative process, or even access to the project itself. For instance, Seabrook has hosted Google hangouts and created a section of DecodeDC featuring interviews that haven’t aired yet and extras from previous episodes. That section is exclusive for high-level subscribers.

Most importantly, don’t underestimate the amount of work your campaign will take.

“It is a full-time job the entire time the campaign is running,” Seabrook said. “Imagine how much work it’s going to be and then double or triple it.” Read more

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How writers can collect and organize string for stories

As a journalist, taking good notes is crucial to keeping your facts straight. But most writers do this simply for the purposes of the story at hand and then move on once it’s published.

Few consider this fact: Fleeting thoughts and observations that seem interesting, if not directly relevant to your article, could someday lead to another story, whether that’s a quick blog post or a book.

Capturing these random thoughts in an organized fashion is challenging. That could be why few writers do what is sometimes called collecting “string” — or, random threads of thought that could someday be spun into a larger story. (When reporting this article, I approached many writers who said they do not collect string. Some even asked me how to define the term.)

Below, I describe three very different methods for organizing string and recommend some software that could help organize the information for you.

Jonathan Weiner’s Index Method: Very Organized

Jonathan Weiner, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Beak of the Finch” and a professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism, has created a method that’s especially useful for journalists writing longform stories or books.

Let’s say Weiner is interested in writing something about the history of zoology, but he isn’t really sure what he wants to write about yet. He’ll just start collecting observations related to this subject matter and create a Word document called “History of Zoology.” He’ll save that inside several nested folders, which he’ll organize like this:

Collecting String → Science → History of Zoology → History of Zoology document.

Then, at the top of the document, he’ll start typing up an index. So, for instance, if he starts keeping notes on zoologist Dian Fossey, he’ll type at the top of the document, “Fossey, Dian” in the index. Then, in the body of the document, he’ll type a header called Fossey, with the note underneath. But, anticipating that the document will soon be filled with instances of the word “Fossey,” he’ll actually title the header “xFossey” so that in the future, when he wants to go down to his notes on Dian Fossey, all he has to do is a search on the one instance of “xFossey.”

After a while, let’s say his index says, “Cuvier, Fossey, Irwin.” In the body of the document, you would then find three headers marked xCuvier, xFossey and xIrwin.

Weiner also collects documents such as papers in PDF and other formats on the same subjects. In order to keep these research materials organized in a parallel fashion to his personal documents, he creates a folder called “Readings” whose sub-folders mimic the ones in “Collecting String,” with the exception that there is an added folder at the end whose name corresponds with a header in the Collecting String document. So under Readings, you would find folders like this:

Readings → Science → History of Zoology → Fossey

Each time he adds a paper to this folder, he forces himself to read or skim them. “It’s really useful to force yourself to write a little abstract or at least some notes about what’s in that PDF under the appropriate heading,” he said in a phone interview, “Otherwise, you’re going to forget.

“Let’s say you have a paper about Dian Fossey’s childhood experiences and how that turned her into a scientist (I’m making this up), I might create a subheading called xFossey Childhood of Dian Fossey [with an appropriate Index entry up top] and then make a note saying, ‘Great paper by Jones 2000 on Fossey’s childhood and how that turned her into a scientist,’” Weiner said.

“And I’ll summarize what’s in the paper in my own words, off the top of my head. It’s surprising how useful that turns out to be. Whenever I look at my notes about Fossey, I know what I’ve got in that PDF, and since it’s in my own words, I may be able to use that when I go to write about Fossey. So I may be able to get some writing done without even feeling like I was writing.”

Weiner says that by adding the subheadings to the Index at the top, he gradually creates something that looks like an index at the back of a book. He says that when adding the subheadings, it’s best to make the labels as straightforward and literal as possible. “When they’re really easy to use,” he says, “it helps me to understand the subject better,” he says.

As your research grows, feel free to take material that’s growing more unwieldy and create a new sub-heading for it, plus, corresponding sub-folders in the “Readings” folder. So for instance, if he had collected a number of papers about Fossey’s childhood, he would create a new folder there called Fossey Childhood to contain all the papers on that subject.

After a while, the index might look like this:

Fossey, Dian

- childhood

- controversies

- death

The notes on her would look like this:

xFossey, Dian

[notes]

xchildhood of Dian Fossey

[notes]

xcontroversies about Dian Fossey

[notes]

xdeath of Dian Fossey

[notes]

And the folders under Readings would look like this:

Readings → Science → History of Zoology → Fossey → Childhood/Controversies/Death

Incidentally, the method that Weiner has developed for himself using Microsoft Word documents and the Spotlight function on his computer mimics that of some powerful research-organizing software programs such as DevonThink Pro, which journalist Steven Johnson wrote about here, and Scrivener, which will also organize your manuscript along with your research.

Ben Montgomery’s Loosely Organized Method: The Running List

While Weiner’s method is likely to work well for a book author/long-form journalist such as himself, those working on a shorter or deadline-driven piece may want to take easier and quicker approaches.

Montgomery, a reporter on the enterprise team at Poynter’s Tampa Bay Times, keeps a running list of what he calls “fragments of stories or fragments of thoughts.” He reviews the list, which is constantly changing, once a week before a weekly story meeting.
Here’s how he uses it: Montgomery spent two years working on a story about an investigation into the Florida School for Boys, which was one of Florida’s oldest reform schools and “a hell hole,” he said by phone. His reporting prompted him to look at historical events in Jackson County, where the school is located.

“I noticed just from reading that this one incident kept popping up: the lynching of Claude Neal,” said Montgomery, who found out that the lynching had been unsolved even though 5,000 people had witnessed it. “I was busy with this other project, but I thought, ‘Maybe there’s a story there.’”

Montgomery got a book about the period of lynchings in Florida, and from that, got another book reference. Meanwhile, he kept updating his document. “Even though I didn’t know if I was going to be able to pitch and sell this story, I was still getting the resources in case I wanted to make a hard pitch,” he says.

Eventually, he noticed that one of Neal’s attendants had posted something online that said, “We need to get our story out.” Montgomery sent out a quick email, and that led to a 6,000-word story about Neal.

The way he organizes his Word doc is literally just a running list; he doesn’t have a consistent way of noting the source, he said. Sometimes he will include a link, sometimes he just writes a thought, and sometimes he just writes a name.

Stanley Nelson’s Method: “Mostly in the Noggin’”

Nelson, an investigative reporter for the Concordia Sentinel in Louisiana and a 2011 Pulitzer finalist, has written more than 170 stories on Civil Rights-era cold cases.

His notes are not all in digital format, but “I have interviewed 300-400 people in the four to five years,” he said in a phone interview. “I have notes in handwritten notebooks, in the computer, typed notes, people I’ve recorded and talked with, so it’s a real problem for me to keep up with everything.”

While he doesn’t have one method of organization, Nelson says “the key is to take lots of notes and to write down just about everything a person can tell me that seems halfway relevant. Sometimes when you interview someone he or she will say something that is not central to the story you are working on. But later — if you take another look at your notes — you might realize that this quote is relevant to another angle or another story.”

Later on, he will go back over his notes, which are all dated. “I can go back and read notes and find something important in there, just by keeping good notes that don’t seem that big or important at the time.” Sometimes, a second (or third) look at notes will prompt him to call a source back.

Other times, Nelson finds that certain information just sticks in his head.

“For instance, I was talking with someone about something that happened almost 50 years ago. He had mentioned that he had tried to contact the FBI about what he knew and he said the Bureau turned him away,” Nelson said. “I took that quote and saved it for two to three years and talked to other people who, like him, had tried to contact the FBI and were turned away.”

Over the years, Nelson gathered more examples suggesting that the bureau was not interested in talking to individuals who volunteered information about cold cases. The notes, gathered over a three- or four-year period, developed into a story in 2012.

* * *
Whether you decide to go with a detailed organization scheme or a looser method, the emphasis here is that you should collect random thoughts and observations that seem interesting, whether or not you end up using them later. And you should have a method for reviewing them to make sure that the ideas you’ve collected don’t gather dust.

Though string is messy at heart, coming up with a method that works for you will help tame the beast. As Weiner says, “I know that if I were to look in my computer, I would see a lot more mess in there than this [interview] suggest. But, there’s much less than there used to be.”

How do you collect string for stories, if at all? Tells us in the comments section. Read more

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How journalists can work well with interpreters during interviews

As journalists, our language facility is key to every aspect of our jobs, from reporting to writing. But the second we have to interview subjects who speak a language we don’t understand, we can’t depend on our own skills of observation, interviewing and listening. We’re left to rely on an interpreter.

Working with an interpreter is an essential skill any time you’re reporting in a country with a primary language you don’t speak. It’s also increasingly important in the United States, where the number of foreign-born Americans has been rising since 1970 and is currently around 38 million.

Here are the challenges journalists face when working with interpreters — and tips for dealing with them.

The difficulties of working with an interpreter

1. Accuracy: The biggest and most obvious danger of working with an interpreter is that you’ll get facts wrong or misquote someone — a serious mistake when interviewing anyone, let alone a prominent figure.

2. Tone: An interpreter’s tin ear can lend a tinny feeling to your story. In a phone interview, Barry Bearak, a New York Times reporter who served as a foreign correspondent in South Asia and Southern Africa, recalls covering the aftermath of a hurricane in the Dominican Republic while working for The Miami Herald:

“I went to some village and just about everything had been washed away. I interviewed some man who had lost everything, and tears were coming out of his eyes and he was moving his hands to and fro, and the interpreter said something like, ‘I estimate the damage to my dwelling to be substantial.’” Bearak asked his photographer, who happened to speak Spanish, to interpret from that point on.

3. Bullshit detecting: When interviewing someone in your primary language, you pick up on hesitations or stammerings, hear when they start to say something and then backtrack or sense when they are putting things diplomatically, and these clues help you know when to probe further. Using an interpreter hinders your ability to read between the lines.

4. Color: Unless your interpreter is diligent about translating every single sentence, including offhand remarks or under-the-breath mutterings, your ability to add color to a scene will be impaired.

Considering cultural differences and barriers will likely already make it difficult to understand a story, it’s crucial to set ground rules with your interpreter and anticipate pitfalls. Here are some tips on how best to work with an interpreter.

How to find and train an interpreter

1. Start with recommendations. Unfortunately, depending on how remote of a location you are reporting in, landing a good translator can be a crapshoot. If you’re working for an organization that has bureaus around the world, it will likely already have reliable translators in the area, but if you’re freelance, you should ask other colleagues who have reported in the region.

2. Look for someone who speaks conversational English. “If your translator has only an academic background in English, their vocabulary will be substantially different from someone who has lived in America and watched a lot of American TV,” says Bearak.

3. Get a translator who will help you navigate cultural differences, or, if you’re in a politically unstable region, won’t put you in danger. War correspondent Anna Badkhen says she prizes translators who are not hot-headed: “I try to make sure that this isn’t a person who will put us in danger,” she said by phone. “I feel responsible for the lives of the people I work with.”

4. Make sure the interpreter understands the importance of accuracy. If your interpreter doesn’t have experience with journalism, explain that accuracy has to do both with both the big picture and nitpicky details. Emphasize how important it is to get the words exactly right and, if the topic is complex, to understand it completely.

“Make the point that if you’re going to put something in quotation marks, it has to be an exact translation, and not a paraphrase, of what they actually said,” says Bearak.

Rajiv Chandrasekaran, who was The Washington Post’s Baghdad bureau chief in 2003 and 2004 and covered the war in Afghanistan from 2009 to 2011, has the interpreter jot down his own notes, particularly about words he didn’t know how to translate, so he can look them up later.

5. Ask your translator to “get in character.” This means that when translating, she should say, “I looked for my mother,” not “He looked for his mother.” Request that your translator never paraphrase.

6. Ask your translator to translate everything he or she hears, no matter how offhand the remark. As Bearak wrote in a 2003 memo on working with a translator circulated internally at The Times: “Explain to them that a seemingly irrelevant remark like, ‘Praise Allah for this new window,’ helps you capture the flavor of a scene.”

Before the interview

1. Explain to the interpreter the purpose of the interview. If she knows what you are looking for, then she will be able to help you get it.

2. Review all your questions with your interpreter. Doing this will keep him from being surprised or confused during the interview, according this article by the Institute for Education in International Media. If you’ll be using any technical or obscure words, he can learn them beforehand. Plus, if you plan to ask any sensitive or tough questions, he can help you come up with a strategy for asking them.

3. Ask your interpreter whether she thinks any cultural issues might arise during the interview. Don’t just use her language skills; also use her cultural knowledge to see whether any age, gender, class or regional differences could hamper the interview.

4. Plan to record the interview when it’s important enough. Given time constraints in the field, this is not always possible, but for key interviews, you may want to record them and have your interpreter re-translate them to ensure accuracy.

During the interview

1. Begin by explaining what the story is about. Omar Fekeiki, a special correspondent and Iraqi translator for The Washington Post from 2003 to 2006, was almost kidnapped when interviewing people who didn’t understand the purpose of the story. He managed to escape, and after that, always explained “why we were writing the story and explained how we were going to voice their issues and problems,” he said in a phone interview. “I always think it is better to be honest with people and they can decide whether to talk to you or not.”

2. Describe the interpreting process and find out how much English your source speaks. Introduce both you and your interpreter, and explain that you’ll be asking questions, the interpreter will be relaying them, and that the same will happen for the source’s answers. Also ask the interviewee directly, “Do you speak English?” to see whether he or she can respond and how well. Depending on how good his or her English is, you may be able to conduct some parts of the conversation more directly.

3. Face the interviewee. “Address your questions directly to [the source] even though the interpreter is doing the translating,” Chandrasekaran says. “Put the interpreter to the side. You want to be making eye contact with that person as they’re talking, and nod your head, so they’re looking at you.”

4. Speak simply, slowly and clearly. This is so your interpreter can accurately relay your questions. Plus, your source, if he or she understands some English, may comprehend you directly.

5. Make sure everyone sticks to the process you outlined at the beginning. Make it clear that it’s important to you that the interpreter can keep up with both you and the source. Set a pace that ensures each person has the floor when he or she speaks and waits for his or her turn. Badkhen says that if the source isn’t giving the interpreter time to translate, she has her translator stop the source and say, “Excuse me, I need time to translate.”

6. Have an ear out for incorrect or incomplete translations. Watch out for these red flags:

  • “When you hear something surprising, repeat it just to be sure accuracy hasn’t meandered,” Bearak said in his 2003 memo.

  • If your source appears to be speaking longer than your interpreter’s translations, ask the interpreter to give you a full translation. Badkhen says if she still feels that the interpreter is summarizing, she will dissect the answer into parts and repeat them back to the person to make sure she hasn’t missed anything and to give him or her an opportunity to fill in gaps.

  • In cases where your source understands a bit of English but isn’t comfortable speaking it, he may attempt to correct the translation — a big red flag. If so, ask him directly whether his words are being accurately relayed.

After the interview

1. Go over the interview with your translator immediately. Bearak notes in his memo that they will often correct themselves. Plus, you can ask questions about any responses that confused you.

2. If the story involves a long chronology or otherwise complex material, go over the facts repeatedly with your translator. Bearak wrote in his memo: “If you’re not aggravating your translators (making them complain, ‘You’ve already asked that!’), you’re not being precise enough.”

3. Get your translator’s opinion on the source. Since your bullshit detector is turned off, tune into your interpreter’s. Bearak says, “I usually ask, ‘So what do you think of who we’ve just talked to?’ And they’re always pick things up that I didn’t pick up” — namely, whether the interviewee was being evasive or had an axe to grind.

4. When you write, tell the reader what language was spoken and that a translator was used. As Bearak said in his memo, “the reader deserves to know that the words have passed through the translation process.”

5. Have the translator read the story before you turn it in. At that point, he or she may have further corrections.

A last note

Bearak’s 2003 New York Times memo on translation was full of gems on the subject. He ends it with an anecdote that illustrates the importance of translation and the pitfalls of having words put through what could be a fallible filter.

“One of the best quotes I ever heard came from one of the worst translators I ever used,” he writes. “In late 1999, I had gone into the remote Panjshir Valley to find Tajiks who had been chased off their land by the Taliban. … Thousands had been murdered. Houses burned, crops destroyed. People had escaped on foot into the Panjshir in a terrifying journey. Going across a narrow bridge at night, a mother fell to her death over the edge, jostled by the crowd. I interviewed her son, who was only 12. He described how he had become separated from his mother on the bridge. ‘I listened for her voice for a long time, and then I went on,’ he said.

“I’ve always found that quote to be heart-breaking in its poetic simplicity. But did the simplicity come from the boy or a translator with a limited vocabulary?”

Correction: The original version of this story incorrectly stated that Omar Fekeiki worked at The Washington Post from 2003 to 2004. He worked there until 2006. Read more

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7 ways to make your work easy to fact check

Recent media incidents involving fabrication, plagiarism and untruthsJonah Lehrer, Fareed Zakaria and Niall Ferguson — have underscored the importance of keeping one’s facts straight and making them easy for others to check.

Each case demonstrated what good fact checking could have done:

  • Jonah Lehrer: Prevent fabrication
  • Fareed Zakaria: Help keep writers from inadvertently plagiarizing others
  • Niall Ferguson: Stop falsehoods from entering the public discourse, where once released, they often spread farther than their corrections

In all these cases, fact checking prevents damage to the publication’s credibility, and helps avert further erosion of the public trust in journalism. For writers, getting the facts right (plus, not stealing other people’s work) can only help a career.

Ta-Nehisi Coates, a senior editor at The Atlantic who wrote in defense of fact checkers after the Ferguson incident, says, “Fact checkers will save your life. They’re there to keep you from looking stupid.”[1] But he also notes that not everyone is lucky enough to work at a publication with a fact checking department, which means that, often, especially if you are writing under a tight deadline, you and your editor will be the de facto fact checkers.[2]

Here are several tips for making your stories easy for yourself and others to fact check, based on interviews with Peter Canby, senior editor and head of fact checking at The New Yorker, whose fact checking department is probably the most famed in the country, and Jonathan Weiner, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “The Beak of the Finch” and a professor at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. These tips were written to apply to freelancers or new newsroom journalists, but they apply universally.

1. When you get the assignment, ask your editor what he/she would like you to provide in terms of backup.[3]

This first step will save you time and the headache of rounding up missing information from sources after you’ve submitted the piece. Plus, the editor will likely be impressed you are asking. A publication like The New Yorker will tell you upfront what it wants, so if you aren’t dealing with that type of publication, take it upon yourself to find out what the expectation is.

2. Note the following information about your sources.

This is what The New Yorker fact checking department requests of its writers — and you should probably log these yourself even if you’re writing under a daily deadline:

  • The home and office numbers for every source you interview
  • The bibliographic information (author, title, date, link, publisher) for every document you use, including books and articles. For printed work, if you don’t have the originals, then make copies.[4]

3. If you’re researching on the Web …

Always note your source. If you’ve forgotten to do so, doing a Web search for the exact phrase you’ve copied can sometimes pull up the link again. If that doesn’t work, go through your browser history until you find the exact page.[5]

If you constantly forget, try, for a week, to change the way you normally do something mindlessly. For instance, try to open doors with your non-dominant hand.[6] According to Kelly McGonigal, a psychologist, Stanford lecturer and author of “The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do To Get More of It,” getting in the habit of thinking before doing something inconsequential will get you to stop and think before doing things that matter (i.e. logging sources).

4. If you’re reporting on site with a notepad …

Weiner, whose books have required him to report in conditions ranging from outdoors in the Galapagos Islands to labs at Princeton University, has adopted certain techniques to help him understand his notes no matter how he took them. He begins by clearly labeling his notes with the location, date, time, and who he’s with. “I also have little symbols that make it easy for myself to note when I’m writing down something verbatim and where I’m paraphrasing something so that when I go back, I know which is which,” he says.[7]

If he transcribes his notes, he draws a pencil line through each page that he’s transcribed so he knows he’s transcribed it. When he finishes transcribing a notebook, he puts a checkmark on the front and saves it. If you’re transcribing from a recording and you find a quote that you’re pretty sure you’ll use, note what time it appears in the tape.[8]

While on site, it also helps to take photos or video. That way, you can check any descriptions you put in your notes.[9] Plus, you’ll notice things you may not have noticed the first time around.

5. If you’re writing a piece with many sources …

As Canby noted in a talk he gave at Columbia Journalism School, which was published in “The Art of Making Magazines: On Being an Editor and Other Views from the Industry,” fact checking is not only about getting the facts within a story right. It’s also about getting the big picture of the story right.[10] So, talking with your editor and/or the fact checker about why you’ve chosen to interview certain sources and exclude others can help you make sure you consider all necessary viewpoints. For the same reason, saving sources that you read for background but didn’t necessarily cite can also help others understand why you chose the angle or frame for your story.[11]

6. Keep your notes organized.

I personally have found special writers’ software especially useful for making sure I remember the source of each piece of information. Scrivener allows you to keep your research and your manuscript in the same “project,” and to link lines in your manuscript to the research sources you’ve saved, including Web pages and the day you accessed them, photos, audio, etc. DevonThink Pro [12] is also software for saving information in different formats, and free software such as Evernote [13] can be useful for the same.

Even if you decide not to collate your materials into one type of software, develop a system for keeping your folders, files, bookmarks and other research materials clearly labeled and organized so that you can find information and so that if you turn over everything to someone else, he or she can too.

7. As you write, note where each fact comes from.

If you’re writing for the Web, you can link to sources that you think readers would like to see. To cite sources just for your editor, work out a system with him or her. Paul Krugman, who also wrote about the Niall Ferguson incident, revealed how he informs his editor of his sources: a list of each fact, plus its Web link. Even if you’re writing in an online content management system, you can annotate facts in the story (1), (2), etc., and create your own footnotes at the bottom of the article.[14]

If you’re writing in word processing software that allows you to footnote, then fully notate each source, including page numbers for any books you cite.[15]

Either way, be thorough. Even if you include a fact that’s common knowledge, it still helps the editor or fact checker if you provide a reputable source.

Developing these habits will not only make you a better reporter, they will also make you beloved by your editors and, if you’re lucky enough to work at a publication with fact checkers, by them too. Best of all, it will help ensure your stories are error-free.


[1] Interview with Coates

[2] Interviews with Coates and Canby, plus personal experience

[3] Based on personal experience as an editor, plus on The New Yorker’s procedure of setting expectations with the writer

[4] Email interview with Peter Canby

[5] Based on personal experience

[6] Page 67 of “The Willpower Instinct” by Kelly McGonigal

[7] Interview with Weiner

[8] Interview with Weiner

[9] Based on my experience reporting, plus crowd-sourced tip from several journalists

[10] Page 80 of the book

[11] Extrapolated this tip based on what Peter Canby says about how helpful it can be to read a wide variety of Lexis-Nexis articles on the topic before writing about it. (Page 80 of the book.)

[12] http://www.problogger.net/archives/2007/01/25/devonthink-pro-and-scrivener-tools-for-writers/

[13] http://www.livehacked.com/writing-2/using-scrivener-and-evernote-to-write-your-book/

[14] Based on personal experience

[15] Canby interview Read more

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