Librarian-turned-journalist rises; she ‘helped us be this giant scoop factory’

Earlier in this decade, Brandy Zadrozny had been happy in Vermont, baking pies, cross-country skiing, working at the Burlington Public Library, handling the reference desk at Champlain College.

That is until she wasn’t. And journalism is grateful.

Over the past year, she’s been getting noticed for research and reporting on Russia’s Internet Research Agency,  uncovering the secret life of a pro-Trump, white nationalist school shooter and digging deep into Vice Media’s rampant culture of sexual harassment. She’s also made frequent appearances on CNN or MSNBC explaining those stories.

On Friday, the librarian-turned-senior researcher and writer announced she was leaving The Daily Beast after five years and moving to NBC News as a national reporter. Zadrozny’s move to NBC — along with The Daily Beast’s senior news editor, tech reporter (and frequent reporting partner) Ben Collins — will allow her to break stories for a broader audience, at a medium where the White House is compelled to respond.

In a fractious year for democracy, Zadrozny is one of several news librarians and researchers who have made the difference on big stories. Those include the domestic abuse allegations against (now-departed) senior White House aide Rob Porter and the pervy courting and sexual harassment of teens by Alabama lawyer and later GOP Senate candidate Roy Moore.

At the Daily Beast, Zadrozny showed reporters myriad tools, such as how to get domain name notifications, which was critical to its scoop on the lewd, creepy internet domains that Trump associate and convicted mobster Felix Sater took out on his enemies. About half of her time was mentoring reporters, she says; the other half working collaboratively on news stories or writing late at night on her features.

“Her byline is all over the place, but the impact she has in showing everybody how to use these tools and then letting them do it made the Daily Beast what it is,” Collins says. “The seeds she sows are pervasive in this newsroom, and helped us be this giant scoop factory.”

The nearly daily Daily Beast scoops in October on that Russian troll factory, the one that pumped up Trump and denigrated Clinton to Americans on social media before and after the 2016 elections, had been followed closely by other outlets. Zadrozny also got noticed for this juicy gem with reporter Kevin Poulson that they plucked out of the indictment documents on the 13 Russians indicted by special prosecutor Robert Mueller.

Zadrozny, a former English teacher before she got a master’s in library and information science at the Pratt Institute, says her mission starts with trying to find unique, useful, question-answering information.

“My mission on the Reference Desk is the same as it is now,” she says. “To inform the public that is hungry for answers to their questions. At the Reference Desk it was, ‘What is the capital of Montana?’ And now it’s: ‘Who is this person who is being retweeted by our president?’ or, ‘Who is the person who runs the Internet Research Agency?’”

Collins, whose mother is a librarian, says Zadrozny will be missed more sorely around The Daily Beast than he will. “It’s very clear once you talk to Brandy that she’s the crown jewel of any newsroom she’s in,” he says. “She can find information that no one can find, and then she can present it in a way that is human.”

Other news researchers are similarly impressed. The Intercept’s Margot Williams pointed to Zadrozny’s dive into bankruptcy records last June to show how a serious chronic illness forced Trump’s social guru, Dan Scavino, and his wife to declare bankruptcy.

“Brandy is awesome,” says Williams, a former Washington Post and New York Times news researcher (and also a Pratt grad). The move to NBC, Williams says, “is a good example of career path open for researchers/librarians willing/able to take their skills over to writing and reporting.”

Nancy Groves, a former news librarian for CNN who now is Head of Social Media for the United Nations, says trained researchers are more valuable now than ever to news organizations.

“Being able to critically assess the value of a piece of data and being able to weed out questionable data sources can save valuable time,” says Groves, who got her master’s in information science at the University of Maryland.

“Trained librarians, researchers and information professionals know how to be efficient when it comes to searching online. … Being able to anticipate what a reader wants to know, in a way that librarians and trained researchers are able to tease out what their clients want to know, will help media companies retain audiences in the era of information overload.”

Zadrozny is hoping a broader outlet will lead to broader impact. In September 2016, she broke the story about Eric Trump’s very strange charity, but it wasn’t until a piece by Forbes the following year that a groundswell built. That’s hard to figure, with this lede:

A wine industry association. A plastic surgeon gifting nose jobs to kids. An artist who painted a portrait of Donald Trump and a blue dog. Trump-owned golf resorts.

Those are some of the beneficiaries of the Eric Trump Foundation, an eponymous public charity headed by the Republican presidential nominee’s third-born. Though Eric Trump — the executive vice president of development and acquisitions for the Trump Organization, and one of his father’s top surrogates and closest political advisers— recently claimed his father had donated “hundreds of thousands” to his charity, the only available evidence seems to suggest payments, in fact, went the other way: the Eric Trump Foundation (ETF) paying hundreds of thousands over the last 10 years to host lavish fundraising events at Donald Trump’s golf courses.

For Zadrozny, any audience and impact is greater than what she had imagined as a young New York public teacher. Back then, she had wanted to put a library in her school, but district rules said only someone with a library degree could do it. So she went to Pratt, and caught the news bug when she found out about news librarians. In a stint at Fox News and an internship and job at ABC News, she found she loved newsrooms, but when ABC News outsourced its research arm, she realized she had to do something more.

“When I started looking for a job, I realized that you have to do both now” — perhaps researching and coding, or researching and data journalism.

Her idea: Pair researching and reporting. She would find and explain a tech phenomenon, for example, and tell the stories of the people behind that news.

“I’m looking to report on the tech stories that shape our lives,” she says.

So far, from Russian spies and hackers to domain name alerts, her strategy is working.

RELATED: Digging in stark times: News researchers lead on big stories

Do you have stories on how editorial researchers and news librarians cracked a big story or led to a game-changing editorial experiment? Let me know at beardwrites@gmail.com.

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