August 4, 2014

After a publisher chopped away at one of David Barstow’s early investigative stories, he considered ditching journalism and heading off to law school. Since then, Barstow — now a reporter at The New York Times — has gone on to win three Pulitzer Prizes for journalism that has exposed poor working conditions and bribery in America’s companies and manipulation of the American media.

But Barstow’s professional journey hasn’t been easy. It’s one that left him with “scar tissue” and an evolving understanding of the best way to approach cagey sources, unyielding spokespersons and impatient editors.

He shared some of that knowledge Friday with senior faculty member Butch Ward for Poynter’s inaugural “Master Class,” a discussion on the trajectory of his career and some of the stories that shaped it. During the discussion, Barstow described some of the psychological, narrative and interviewing tools that go into his work. Here are five tips we pulled out from the class:

Establish a track record to earn more time to cover investigations

Barstow felt like he had two jobs when he began his career. He would “feed the beast” during workdays and chip away at ambitious enterprise stories on the nights and weekends. Then, when he knew those stories were almost ready to be published, he would ask his editor to place a “small bet” on him: a few days to bring the story to its conclusion.

After he established a history of turning in these ambitious stories, he was able to ask for larger investments of time from his editors at small and large newspapers.

“If in my first month at The New York Times, I had gone to them and said, ‘you know, I have this really great tip about potential corruption in Mexico by Wal-Mart, and I’m going to have to spend months in Mexico and it’s going to take forever,’ they would have politely said, ‘maybe we’ll ask the Mexico bureau chief to take a look at this.'”

RELATED: See what attendees of Poynter’s Master Class took away from the discussion

Never let ’em see you sweat

Barstow’s hands used to sweat before he conducted showdown interviews with the powerful corporate leaders in his stories. He would wipe them on his pants before he shook hands or blow on them to conceal his anxiety. When they could feel the sweat on his hands, they knew they had him, he said.

But Barstow adopted a strategy to help kill the pre-interview nerves. He prepares “relentlessly”, sometimes for a week at a time, and he enters the room alone, dressed down, with his documents in a milk crate.

When the approach works, he wears down the other side, he said. As the interview progresses, the lawyers or executives he’s questioning start to slump in their chairs as he demonstrates mastery of the story, and they’re less likely to “say obviously ridiculous, stupid things,” Barstow said.

David Barstow

New York Times investigative reporter David Barstow talks to Butch Ward, senior faculty at the Poynter Institute at Poynter’s inaugural Master Class. (Photo by Ren LaForme)

Frame big stories tightly

After the U.S. invaded Iraq, many reporters wanted to know: where were the weapons of mass destruction that propelled the county to war? Barstow was assigned to a group at The New York Times that tried to answer that question.

“That’s a simple question, but when you start getting into it, when you start wandering down those roads, you could spend all kinds of times looking at chemical weapons or biological weapons or nuclear weapons,” Barstow said.

To tackle the complex story, Barstow narrowed his field of focus. He wrote about aluminum tubing, which the Bush administration said Saddam Hussein was using to create material for nuclear weapons. This allowed him to ask targeted questions about something specific and connect his reporting to the larger issue of how the U.S. was using its intelligence to provide justification for the war.

“By scrunching the field of focus down, it allows you, first of all, to target your reporting much more precisely,” Barstow said. “But it also, then, allows you to bring in all the complexity within that tight little frame.”

Bring a piece of paper with you for sensitive interviews

Barstow says getting someone to talk can be extremely difficult. He tries to show up unannounced, between the hours of 6 and 8 p.m., with an object — such as a piece of paper — in hand to pique his subject’s curiosity. Common politeness often gets him in the door. Once inside, he takes every opportunity to prolong his visit, including accepting offers for coffee and, if he needs to, using the bathroom.

Convince editors to buy into the investigative “journey”

Journalism is not a business that embraces patience, Barstow said. Many conversations between editors and reporters are driven by the need for timely content, and this can sometimes lead to an impulse to publish a story prematurely.

But editors can also be allies in the reporting process, Barstow said. if reporters convince them to buy into the “journey” of an investigation, they’re more likely to advocate for the story to their bosses.

“You want some other people in the foxhole with you,” Barstow said.

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Benjamin Mullin was formerly the managing editor of He also previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow,…
Benjamin Mullin

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