Digging in stark times: News researchers lead on big stories

Move over, Woodward and Bernstein.

This era’s great journalistic diggers include Julie Tate, Kitty Bennett, Alice Crites, Margot Williams and Sheelagh McNeill.

Often underappreciated and not as visible as TV-familiar leading journalists, these news researchers and others have been the bane of Rob Porter and Judge Roy Moore in recent months, finding key documents and evidence that led to one’s resignation and throttled another’s U.S. Senate run.

Last week’s departure of Porter, a senior White House official, was tied to an interview with an ex-wife of his and images of her, apparently battered, that were obtained and published by a coordinated reporter-researcher team from The Intercept. That prompted us to seek out Lynn Dombek, a longtime research leader at The Associated Press and TIME and now research director of The Intercept’s parent company, First Look Media.

We asked Dombek about her team members, about how they got the still-reverberating Porter story, about the key role news researchers have played in news organizations and about efforts to keep deep research alive amid tightening budgets:

Lynn, The Intercept places a high value on research and archival skills — and it seems like one of the biggest research staffs around in journalism. How did that come about?

I wish we were one of the bigger staffs around! At this point we’re actually probably one of the smaller ones, since we’ve combined what typically are separate departments into one group: research, fact check, archives, engineering and security. Including me we have two full-time researchers, two fact checkers, an archivist, a security engineer, two newsroom developers and a part-time researcher for special projects. So, this is in fact the smallest research team I’ve been a part of in terms of investigative researchers, but it’s a dynamic one, and you are right that the organization places a high value on the team.

I was recruited to First Look Media in 2014, at a time when journalism overall was contracting, and given the chance to build a research team from the ground up. We’re a much smaller organization than we’d originally dreamed when we started, but The Intercept and (visual journalism unit) Field of Vision are two great enterprises on the non-profit side, where we sit, that keep us extremely busy. We also continue to support the Snowden Archive, along with our talented technology editor Ryan Tate, enabling secure access and targeted research for journalists and academicians.

I think what we’ve accomplished is something truly unique: a department that includes a cross-functional team who are skilled at working on stories or with data and documents; with filmmakers, videographers and designers. We’re not a particularly large department, but our strengths and reach are broad, given our multi-skilled team, so we have a significant impact.

For example, when Alice Speri and Alleen Brown received the documents that would ultimately form the basis of their blockbuster Dakota Access Pipeline series, they weren’t sure what they had. So Alleen started with the research team: our security architect, for threat modeling on the unknown dataset; our engineers, to deploy tools for ease of reporting (formatting, full text searching, entity extraction); our archivist, who systematically reviewed and recorded document metadata; our researcher, to find, background and contact key players and institutions needed to report the story; and our fact checkers to ensure we weren’t overstating what we had. With that framework in place, Alleen and Alice were able to deliberately and systematically report out the stories.

Most recently, could you describe the role researchers played in The Intercept’s key story on Rob Porter? I believe two of the four members of that article team were researchers, and a third was a fact-checker-turned-reporter.

The role they played? There would have been no story without them! An editor reached out to our investigative researcher, Sheelagh McNeill, saying he’d gotten a tip that a Facebook post existed with allegations of spousal abuse against a named White House official. That was it. Could she help?

Sheelagh and Margot Williams, our semi-retired research editor for investigations, then started the drill: identify, connect, verify. They went back and forth with each other on our internal Signal chat channel. They used an arsenal of tools, from open web searches to social media to public records, identifying key people, connecting them to other people, and verifying that what they found was accurate.

Sheelagh always tells me the secret to their success is simple: They carefully and deliberately READ what they find, and pull out the essential pieces to follow and move the story forward. They’re also both incredibly skilled researchers who have great instincts, an ability not to get pulled into dead-end rabbit holes, and patience to let the evidence lead them. As Giannina Segnini says, connecting the dots is an art; and those two are some of the finest practitioners around.

After unearthing the allegations of abuse (it was an online journal, not Facebook) identifying the key players (there were two wives, not one), and pulling relevant, supporting documents, they worked iteratively with reporters to move the story forward.

One of those reporters was Alleen Brown, our former research editor for fact checking. She moved into a reporting position over the summer, and so was ideally suited to absorb the information Sheelagh and Margot had generated. Like the rest of our team, Alleen helped build a framework to support our mantra of evidence-based journalism, and is a particularly fierce and exacting proponent of it. She and D.C. editor Ryan Grim then worked doggedly to report out the story.

To a general audience, what, briefly, do researchers, many with information science degrees, bring to journalism that reporters do not?

It’s hard to generalize, but researchers typically bring a pragmatic, systematic approach to solving problems, and are good at making connections or seeing patterns in their findings. Of course they’ve also spent years working with premium aggregated databases like Nexis or TLO (TransUnion Business Solutions), or slogging through the gold mine that are local public records sources, so that expertise is enormous. Many of us have master’s degrees in information science, as you’ve noted, so that means we know how to identify and evaluate information, and then to organize and manage it.

Sounds simple, but when you’re working on weeks-long investigations, and drawing from multiple sources, it’s key.

Do you know of researchers who have taken their skills and added them with reporting chops to become double-barrelled stars in the field? I’m thinking of someone like Miranda Patrucic, the Bosnian news researcher who is now an award-winning journalist.

Oh, there are a lot of amazing researchers out there, some who now include writing in their portfolio, and others who continue to be indispensably great at creating the building blocks for award-winning journalism. Our own Margot Williams has been a researcher on Pulitzer-prize winning teams, and who has also reported from Guantanamo for The Intercept and co-bylined articles with Trevor Aaronson on terrorism prosecutions after 9/11. Julie Tate of the Washington Post continues to amaze, as does Alice Crites; and anytime you see a contributor tag for Kitty Bennett on a New York Times story, you know it’s going to be great. I could go on, but perhaps that’s a great topic for your next column!

You would think the value of news researchers would be rising. But the Oregonian recently laid off its legendary researcher, Lynne Palombo? Are tightening budgets reducing the number of news researchers out there?

I think tightening budgets are reducing the ability to produce quality journalism everywhere, but most especially for local newspapers; it’s not just limited to researchers getting whacked, though certainly we are often a target. It’s so cyclical; organizations will have strong, core research teams that leverage economies of scale and work dynamically across the organization; and then someone decides it will be better to decentralize shared resources so they do that; and then someone higher up decides to downsize, and then that happens, and, oh, who would have guessed, the quality of the report then goes down …

Researchers can be especially vulnerable because they don’t often get bylines and so aren’t considered “content producers.” Reporters that they share the trenches with are totally aware of their contributions; but typically the higher up the masthead you go, the less understanding there is of a researcher’s value. So it’s up to department heads to continually lobby on their behalf, for the good of the newsroom.

What creative ways do you think strapped news outlets could still get the research they need?

That’s a great question. I don’t have the evidence to back this up, but I do think the 2016
election, despite or maybe because of the howls of “fake news,” has led to a renaissance in our profession, or in the least a reassessment of the value of investigative journalism.

My home state of Maine has really solid papers in the Portland Press Herald and Bangor Daily News, and they often work in partnership with the nonprofit Maine Center for Public Interest Reporting.

What would you tell an “I-School” student who wants to get into journalism as well? Do you think there are opportunities to practice a form of research/journalism in libraries today, as some communities have lost their news outlets?

I continue to encourage students to pursue degrees in information science with an eye toward journalism. Journalism is about asking questions, listening skeptically to the answers, and telling stories that make a difference in people’s lives. “Librarians” are masters at finding, interrogating and presenting information sources, and exacting meaning from them. As long as we continue to evolve, there’s no end in the things we can do.

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