How award-winning investigative reporters earn readers’ attention, impress advertisers

Have people tell their own stories with interactive tools. Maneuver around cost-conscious editors. Consider cooperating with other media groups and journalism schools.

Investigative reporting award winners and finalists offered those tips Tuesday at Harvard’s Shorenstein Center.

The Las Vegas Sun’s Marshall Allen and Alex Richards won the $25,000 Goldsmith Award by finding multimedia ways to dramatize the excessive number of preventable hospital injuries and infection. They combed through 2.9 million records to find thousands of such cases.

The series’ sophisticated Web presence let patients use video to relate their experiences.

Allen said the Sun, an eight-page insert into the rival Las Vegas Review-Journal, takes advantage of its small size.

“There’s great freedom in not being the paper of record; we don’t cover car crashes. We can be more nimble; our goal is all enterprise stories.”

Allen stressed the need to “earn readers’ attention” by writing from patients’ point of view. The result: a topic which he first thought couldn’t be more boring got an overwhelming community response.

Shorenstein Center director Alex Jones called the Sun an “incubator for other news organizations.”

Allen is an example; he’s leaving the Sun to join ProPublica, the independent, non-profit newsroom focusing on public interest reporting.

ProPublica’s Jake Bernstein and Jesse Eisinger, with National Public Radio’s Adam Davidson and Chicago Public Radio’s Ira Glass and Alex Blumberg, used a comic strip -- among other tools -- to simplify the arcane details of hedge fund maneuvering. The result helped trigger moves for reform.

ProPublica offers news organizations added resources, including databases they can use for their own projects. Bernstein said that every partnership is different. For this series, he said NPR did a great initial job and came to ProPublica to “ferret out” the firms who took advantage of the 2008 recession.

When the San Jose Mercury News’s Karen de Sá uncovered the fact that lobbyists wrote 37 percent of legislator-sponsored bills, “our readers felt they had a chance to see a friend they’d taken for granted.”

De Sá said her fresh eye -- she’d just come off the child welfare beat -- helped her identify “outrageous practices” in the State House. She spent months of “mind-numbing data entry” to find dramatic examples of bills that caused serious harm to the public, such as not protecting against lead paint poison.

As one of her newsroom’s few projects reporters, she sees cooperation between academic institutions and newspapers a key to sustaining in-depth journalism.

Meanwhile, she said awards like the Goldsmith “strengthen our resolve” and remind publishers that “without this stuff we have nothing to show for why we continue to exist.”

The Los Angeles Times’s Jeff Gottlieb, who with Ruben Vives uncovered massive salaries for part-time city officials, said two major advertisers renewed their contracts because they wanted to be associated with the paper that did such reporting.

Before the series ran, he said, “I can’t describe how bad morale was, it was like walking into a morgue. We helped the paper get its mojo back,” adding that the Times will do more investigative projects, especially in the 88 cities in Los Angeles County.

NPR’s Laura Sullivan, who with Steven Drummond produced an exposé that may help institute multi-state reforms, was frank about her organization’s fiscal  problems. Despite 36 million listeners, she said NPR is "in the fight of our lives.” Budget cuts “will be devastating to our newsroom (but) we’re preparing for that. We’ve been lucky because so far NPR is putting its money where its mouth is.”

She shared tips for dealing with pesky PR people -- and with editors.

With her biggest problem getting prisoners to talk freely, she said she “waited out the flacks” who wanted to sit in on interviews by “boring them to tears” with inane questions until they went away and let her “wander around” jails.

Sullivan’s policy when launching a long-term project sure to raise editors’ financial concerns: “Reel them in slowly until they get hooked.”

That’s Dana Priest’s strategy too. With colleague William Arkin, the two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post reporter conducted a two-year probe revealing that 850,000 in the U.S. have top-secret clearances in a $ 9 billion security industry.

“You have to figure out how to manage your editors,” she advised. “Reporters should start and work around editors. Too many reporters ask editors questions instead of just doing it, and then figure out how to sell it.”

So for all her projects, she puts editors off for as along as she can until she can show them some initial results.

Because the Post wanted the series to be “digital at birth,” 12  Web staffers worked for on it for four months. The result: three million page views in three days.

How did they penetrate a top-secret world? Arkin noted that “everyone lives somewhere. There’s a building for every agency.”

So he combed advertisements for jobs for people with top-secret clearances.

“In a way it was simple to figure it out,” he said. "Almost everything we did was not classified. The place where the secret meets the regular world is the place to get peoples' addresses and names.”

It’s also no secret that a great quote adds spark to any story. When Gottlieb asked a pastor why he got $ 700,000 a year for a part-time council job he got this response: “It was a gift from God.”

“No,” Gottlieb remembers thinking. “The gift from God was that quote.”

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to remove a quote incorrectly attributed to Jake Bernstein.

  • Bill Kirtz

    write on media topics for trade and general circulation magazines; teach varity of print journalism courses.


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