July 17, 2019

This article has been updated to reflect changes in the NewsU calendar. 

She worked in breaking news, covered a metro beat and tackled features. But it took seven years in journalism for her to take on her first investigation.

“I’d always figured that I wasn’t smart enough — or mean enough — to be an investigative reporter,” said Alexandra Zayas, the award-winning senior editor at ProPublica. “Then I met this great editor and these reporters who demystified the process for me. Once you understand the framework and it clicks, you see everything differently.”

Zayas, who recently edited the Pulitzer Prize-winning feature, “A Betrayal,” now aims to demystify the investigative process for other journalists. She is the instructor for three upcoming trainings on Poynter’s e-learning platform, News University:

“For those who want to secure a future in journalism, developing an aptitude for watchdog reporting is among the best investments they can make,” Zayas said. “There are exciting jobs opening all of the time in investigative, collaborative journalism – from the 10 recently announced at The Washington Post, to a new education investigative team at The Boston Globe, to Spotlight PA, to the incredible growth at ProPublica in recent years.”

I caught up with Zayas, a former Poynter National Advisory Board member, to learn more about these three trainings and how all journalists can apply the tenets of investigative reporting to their daily work.


You taught the online Fundamentals of Investigative Journalism seminar this spring and it sold out with around 40 participants. Now we’re gearing up for round two. (The second session also sold-out and Poynter is recruiting for the third session now.) Why do you think this session is so popular?

I think the reason that the seminar resonated is because the framework works for reporters or editors of any level. If you take it as a rookie reporter, you get something out of it. If you can take it as a seasoned reporter or editor who hasn’t done much watchdog work, you also get something out of it. Even if you’re an investigative reporter who’s done this for a long time, you can still get something out of it, because I do a whole hour on the craft of writing. I talk about marrying investigative with longform narrative, which has been something that a lot of people have been trying to do.


I can relate to the feeling that investigative reporting is intimidating. What would you tell someone interested in this seminar who wasn’t sure if he or she should do it?

I would say that anybody can be an investigative reporter if they have the curiosity and drive. Once you understand what a lot of these successful investigations have in common — from how they begin, to what reporting tools are available, to all of the options you have for writing, to strategy for getting impact — once it’s all broken down for you, it will be a lot easier to understand.


How is this investigative seminar different from others out there?

This is a roadmap. I have poured every single thing I know about investigative reporting into these four hours. I’ve drawn from the experts I have learned from, who are the greatest in the business. But I’ve also drawn from my own experience of both victories and failures.

It’s also involved. There’s a forum, with assignments and interaction. People have access to me and I talk through people’s projects with them. It’s a neat way to interact when you’re remote.


Can you break down what participants will learn?

I devote a whole hour to finding stories. And this can be either through developing sources or through getting tips. I actually analyzed an entire year of winners of the IRE awards to see how those stories originated.

For the writing class, we will analyze five years’ worth of ledes that placed in the Pulitzer’s investigative category. We break down all of them: Which ones were anecdotal? Which ones were straight ledes? Which ones were narrative? How quickly did they get to the findings?

I also use the story I edited that wonthe 2019 feature Pulitzer — Hannah Dreier’s “A Betrayal” — to show how to construct an investigative narrative. I actually talk about how the structure borrows from some elements of cinema, including a great tip that we got from a screenwriting book called “Save the Cat.”

And then I devote an entire hour to generating impact for stories. We’ll talk about how to think about partnerships, which is a very big part of my job at ProPublica. I have also interviewed winners of the Selden Ring Award, which is an award given specifically because of the impact generated by a story.


Generating impact relates to one of the other NewsU trainings you’re teaching, “Building Successful News Partnerships.” Can you describe more about what participants will learn during that one-hour webinar?

In the online group seminar, we’ll talk very briefly about partnerships as one of many tools for impact. In the webinar, I actually get very deep into the weeds about partnerships, with lessons from my personal experience and from multiple people who I’ve interviewed specifically for this webinar.

What best practices are there? What pitfalls can you fall into? I interviewed people who have achieved the highest success, including Pulitzers, through working together. I’ve talked to people at local newspapers, national newspapers, local TV, national nonprofits, including ProPublica … so no matter what outlet you work for, you can get something out of it.


Who will benefit the most from the “Building Successful News Partnerships” webinar?

Honestly, everybody. There is so much hunger out there for partnering and we’re seeing it happen every single day. As people are jumping into this, journalists at every level can benefit from learning about things that have worked and things that have not worked from other news organizations’ experience.


What are some examples of news partnerships gone wrong?

There could be differences between outlets in terms of metabolism, whether you like publishing a high volume of things over time or you like to hold onto stuff and publish all at once. There could be time constraints on one side. There could be different levels of buy-in. Reporters can get whiplash because they’re getting direction from two different organizations. There could be complications coordinating production and graphics close to publication.

I’m going to hammer home the importance of starting off on the right foot in terms of establishing communication. I’m also going to talk about successful partnerships that I’ve been a part of and some that I’ve witnessed.


What are some examples of those successful partnerships?

I edited a ProPublica collaboration with the Los Angeles Times earlier this year about how the border patrol’s high-speed pursuits of people crossing the border illegally have led to deadly crashes. It was something we pulled off in a few months. Everybody brought something to the table. I had two reporters on it; LA Times had two. LA Times shot the photos. We did some video work. The story has these very complicated moving graphics that are intertwined with the copy, and our graphics teams worked together seamlessly. We published in English and Spanish on the same day. There were so many moving parts to this thing! And it went smoothly. Both ProPublica and the LA Times look at that as a model way to do partnerships.

I’ve also interviewed the journalists who produced award-winning collaborations to get their insights. I’ll walk participants through:

  • An Unbelievable Story of Rape,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning collaboration between ProPublica and the Marshall Project.
  • Insane. Invisible. In Danger,” another Pulitzer Prize-winning partnership between the (Poynter-owned) Tampa Bay Times and the Sarasota Herald Tribune.
  • Zombie Campaigns,” an investigation by the Tampa Bay Times, 10News WTSP and TEGNA-owned TV stations, which won a duPont Award.


The key to investigative work, and collaborations, is getting it right. We saw the power of a bulletproof story this last week with the Miami Herald investigation into Jeffrey Epstein. What tactics will journalists learn in your third NewsU training, “A Reporter’s Guide to Getting it Right”?

Telling true stories is about more than just spell checks and age checks. It’s about understanding that telling a story the right way is being both accurate and fair; they go hand in hand.

I will teach the tactics that we bake into the front end of an investigative process, which will help any kind of journalist sleep better the night before publication. That includes making sure our sources are not surprised by what we write, and making sure we get the most well-informed and full-throated response to what we’re planning to publish, before it publishes.

I also am going to spend some time on narrative and features and the diligence you need to do when your stories are based on interviews. Again, I will go over some success stories of last-minute saves and some cautionary tales, including the Rolling Stone’s retracted “A Rape on Campus.”


Is this webinar just for reporters?

I think it should be for editors, too. I have actually benefited greatly from doing the research for this course. In fact, I will talk about how we should be gut-checking things together and how reporters should be looping in their editors and co-reporters into the fact-checking process. It takes a village to make sure a story is right.


Why do you think it’s important for journalists to participate in this webinar?

Journalists wield great power to bring necessary truth to the conversation. But we undercut ourselves when we don’t get it right. We undercut ourselves when we violate some of the rules that I’ll be talking about. That allows us to be called fake news, as a whole, when the vast majority of what we’re reporting is crucial to the public.


Learn from ProPublica senior editor Alexandra Zayas. Enroll now in A Reporter’s Guide to Getting It Right, Building Successful News Partnerships and Will Work for Impact: Fundamentals of Investigative Journalism.

Support high-integrity, independent journalism that serves democracy. Make a gift to Poynter today. The Poynter Institute is a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization, and your gift helps us make good journalism better.
Mel Grau is the senior product specialist at The Poynter Institute, focusing on Poynter's training experiences and newsletters. She previously edited The Cohort, Poynter’s biweekly…
Mel Grau

More News

Back to News