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Presented by Alec Klein Professor, Medill School of Journalism Northwestern University Las Vegas, June 9, 2010

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Alec Klein presents "Investigative Business Journalism," hosted by the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism. For more information on free business journalism training, please visit


Page 1: Investigative Business Journalism

Presented byAlec KleinProfessor, Medill School of JournalismNorthwestern UniversityLas Vegas, June 9, 2010

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Alec Klein, who joined the faculty of Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism last fall, is an award-winning investigative business journalist and bestselling author

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Father: editor-in-chief, New York Times magazine

Busy guyDecided to write for high school

paperAssigned to cover run-of-the-mill


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Came home from reporting the storyWrote draft of story, showed to

father“This is terrible”Did you call the school?Phone book: Mrs. Berman at home

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Did you interview the police?HomeworkSubway on a school nightPolice station

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Father flipped through notesMiraculously, found a quote from a

school security guard“Worst thing ever saw”Another miracle: Had noted she had

worked at school for nearly 25 years

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Father edited my storyTranslation: He rewrote itLede: “In the worst breakout of

burglary in nearly a quarter century…

Page 1Hooked

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Refining and pitching the investigative business story idea

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To begin with, you need PHOAM


Image by flickr user marttj

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They usually come from beats

That’s because they’re organic. They arise naturally in the course of reporting

To wit: Secret bonuses at City Hall

The anonymous tipster on AOLImage by flickr user MonkeyMike

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This is not the same thing as a preconceived notion

Rather: Consider a set of questions that need answering

To wit: When cigarettes are under attack, why are cigars being glamorized? (Yachting magazine)

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Let’s say you think you’ve hit on a great idea How do you check it out to make sure it’s uncharted territory? Lexis-Nexis Factiva Amazon Google The overriding question: Has it been done


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But who has time to pursue investigative business stories, especially when you’re on a busy beat and your editor is breathing down your neck to file early and often?

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Get out of the office: kill or be killed Cub reporter: worked on vacations—only

time the editors couldn’t assign stories Worked on weekends Worked afterhours, after the proverbial

smoked cleared from the daily deadlines Bottom-line: find time

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Darwinian approach: only the fittest will get on Page One

In the old days: Only three stories on Page One

Lot of reporters, few A1 slotsMistake: Walk into your editor’s

office with an ill-conceived idea

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Such as: I’d like to do an investigation of poverty

Many a times: Bludgeoned in editor’s office

Finally figured out: Need to do some research before entering the torture chamber

But how much research?

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About 20 percent That’s enough to tell you if you’ve got a

story or whether you’re going to spin your wheels

The 20 percent: What’s the story? A new trend? A twist on an old idea? How will you report it and how long will it


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Mistake: Never show editors your raw notes

Made that mistake on AOL

Editor: Don’t get it, nothing here. Go back to work

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Then Enron happened

Editors: What was Alec working on?

This time: I wrote a memo

Set free for a year

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Having a year to do an investigative business story sounds better than it is

You better come up with a great piece

Can you withstand making no progress for several weeks at a time? Maybe inbred

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Back to the memoIt clarifies the issues.

It makes editors see. They can print it. They can ruminate over it. They can forward it by e-mail to their bosses. Then they can approve it

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Let’s say your editors still say no

Then what?

Set your own agenda

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The old model: the three-part series that took a year to report and runs in December in time for the Pulitzer entries

The new model: write episodically WSJ did this: Word was sent out at the

beginning of the year—let’s write about death

The episodic approach, it’s the way of the world: The economy, the industry. Investigative reporting is expensive

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Build on your beat coverage Think this way: once a

month, craft a great piece of investigative reporting on the same subject

Over a year, you’ll end up with 12 pieces that amount to a worthy in-depth investigation into a single topic

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The Las Vegas Sun, most notably including the reporting of Alexandra Berzon, won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for public service, for a series of stories about the high death rate of construction workers on the Las Vegas strip. See

Steve Fainaru of The Washington Post, 2008,for international reporting, for his episodic stories about private security contractors

Kevin Helliker and Thomas M. Burton of The Wall Street Journal, 2004 for their episodicstories about aneurysms

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Please feel free to contact me at [email protected]

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How to get people to open up

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I was accused of being like this

We’re supposed to not know

Have them condescend to you

“Treat me like a fifth grader”

Don’t have an ego about this

Need to be absolutely sure to write authoritatively

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New at WSJOrdered to write lead news story IBMEarningsSweatCall analyst: What’s P&L?Cancel subscription

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You may know the answer alreadyTo wit: How old are you?Answer: 51Thought 52Yeah, actually 52 If small lie, is there a bigger lie

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AOL series: Almost a year into itHad hundreds of confidential

documentsHad well-placed sourcesEditor called me into his officeMused: Wouldn’t it be nice …Vice president of finance

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Ask the same question five times

But in different waysAt different timesTo wit: Do you know a vice president-level finance guy who had raised questions about AOL’s finances?

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When to use the notebook

VersusWhen not to use

the notebook

When to tape record vs.

When not to tape record Billionaire: I want to

be able to deny I had this conversation

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During the interview, you need to think about several things at the same time: The lede The images to capture The details to portray Is this the first of many interviews or a one-

shot deal? Why, why, why? The cosmic point Follow up questions

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When people say you got it wrong, that you made a mistake, check it out thoroughly

Sometimes, it can help

Red Hat

The Reluctant Interviewee

What do you do when they won’t talk?

Options: Call E-mail Letter Certified letter: know

they got it, but act of war?

Intermediary: someone they know

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Take chances Bridgestone/


Don’t take no for an answer Surgeon General

Go there Gettysburg

Last Words of Advice Bob Woodward

Show up early

Me Show up late

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When starting a new investigative business story, where do you begin?

The onion: otherwise known as the circling effect

Begin on the outside, work your way in: Family Friends Friends of friends Customers Suppliers Competitors Unions Associations Former employees Current employees Secretaries Executives

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At their homes Afterhours On weekends Away from places

where they are monitored or overheard At bars Restaurants Bowling alleys

Places Where People Network: Conventions Industry gatherings Trade shows▪ Exchange business

cards▪ Socialize▪ Network

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Yes, they can be a bit odd

But they often know their stuff because they have no other life

Don’t Dismiss the PR People

Example: secret bonuses

But also: AT&T cable assets “You didn’t ask

the right question”

Image by flickr user Meg Marco

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Example:Anonymous tipster: “How did you find me?”

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No secretIt takes timeTrustWillingness to protect sourcesAre you willing to go to jail for


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Exchange of information

Once you have information they want, then you become valuable

You have something to barter

As long as it’s not confidential information

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Define the terms Explain why it’s important to go on the

record Move sources up the ladder

Off the record On background On the record

Sometimes, refuse to go off the record: why? It can tie your hands

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Reading back quotes?

Showing stories pre publication

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Do we let sources go? Do we let them change their minds?

My opinion: Let sources go

Example: AOL

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No surprises Always let them know what’s going on,

even if it works against you Better for them to be angry at you

before publication than after, when it’s too late

AOL 21-page single-spaced letter

Credit raters Removed lead anecdote even though

information obtained independently

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Repeatedly A Woodward technique You need to know when you can trust your

sources Eg.: Whether FTC would approve AOL-Time

Warner merger Origins: Editor: Woodward was a new reporter,

too FTC threatens pre publication: Last story you’ll

write Sources at the heart of the secret

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Please feel free to contact me at [email protected]

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What documents to look for and where to find them

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The secret to investigative business reporting is…

Start with:GoogleLexis-Nexis


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You don’t need to know where all the public documents are

You need to know what questions to ask to find them

To wit:

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Baltimore Sun investigation: Supermarket bankruptcy

Words of wise editor: “The good reporters know what’s missing”

Thinking: I never know what’s missing Did you check for hidden depositions? Not in court record: wads of cash in brown paper bags Before the jump on A1

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What are they?Where do you get them?Sec.govCompany Web site

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10k 10 Q: What’s the

first thing to look for?

Proxy: What’s the first thing to look for?

SEC public filings only go so far

What is considered “material” to investors?

Material: Any information related to a particular business that might be relevant to an investor's decision to buy, sell or hold a security

A company can slice its business into small sectors that don’t require disclosure

To wit: AOL

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Former employees Sworn testimony Copies of contracts Business strategy

Where to find lawsuits State and federal suits

▪ Many online If not online, check Lexis-

Nexis If not there, check Pacer for

federal suits http://pacer.psc.uscourt (not free)

Pulling documentsBig issue?Money

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Goldmine Pacer

For what? Creditors; assets; debts; lawyers; suppliers; vendors

Key kinds? Chapter 7: liquidation Chapter 11: reorganization

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Key: on almost every investigative business story, there is a government body that has some connection to it

Congressional Testimony Contradictions Remember the tobacco

executives who claimed they didn’t know anything about the addictive power of cigarettes?

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Company e-mailInternal newsletters

Get on the mailing list, if possibleRemember: Don’t steal, don’t lie,

don’t break into computer system Chiquita Banana case

Wall Street analyst reports

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Property records: County or other local office

Many online Good to check for:

Size, details of executive’s home

Other great resources: Planning department Zoning Construction Driver records▪ Depends on state; eg.

Maryland, need permission of driver for records

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Better Business Bureau Consumer complaints

Uniform Commercial Code State records, secretary of state usually; shows

who has borrowed money, what used as collateral, etc.

Incorporation records Usually secretary of state; records of founding

of the business; who owns it; its executives; etc.


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Can get detailed tax filings—990s—of their finances from the nonprofits themselves

Or try Guidestar at

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Airplane ownership search

Finding lawyers


boards, blogs

Web site ownership http:// Internet archive:

old Web sites

ProfNet: e-mail queries for experts


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international directory

AutoTrack and other pay Sites: Expensive Metered Even at The

Washington Post: key holder

But good resource for information for investigative or beat reporting▪ Personal information:

telephone numbers▪ Neighbors▪ Legal judgments

Page 66: Investigative Business Journalism Center for Responsive Politics Political Moneyline Center for Public Integrity The Institute on Money in State Politics

Lobbyists and Other Legislative Resources:

lobbying on behalf of foreign entities

Congressional Research Service:

GAO Reports: Thomas Web site: basic legislation, Congressional reports and records

Page 67: Investigative Business Journalism Born, married, died Previous addresses,

relatives, associates Lawsuits,

bankruptcies, divorce, criminal, traffic

Home phone Attended college Real estate Etc.

Courtesy of Duff Wilson of The New York Times

Truth About Criminal Records: There is a national

criminal record database but it is not available to the public

FBI database Public access to criminal

records controlled at the state level

Each state has different rules about who may access records and what records will be available

Some records handled at the county level

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FOIA: the good and the bad Secret bonuses “Oh, that bonus” Reprocessors

▪ List of reprocessors▪ No List▪ List▪ Names missing from list

Beware: They might leave stuff

out Of fishing expeditions Of unexpected costs

Sample FOIA letters:

FOIA letter generator:

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Not public

They may say “Confidential”

You need to interpret, analyze, translate

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Please feel free to contact me at [email protected]

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AOL investigation at The Washington Post

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How I discovered how AOL inflated its advertising revenue to pull off the biggest merger in U.S. history to create the largest media company in the world

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Summer of 2001Sitting at my deskNot much going onPhone rangAnonymous tipster

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Didn’t give his name or number Just told me: An AOL executive had

been suspendedPurchaseProLas Vegas dot-comRed flag: Gambling & dot-coms

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Checked with sources; confirmedHad to do with accountingNot sure whatWaltzed over to my editors,

surprised that I wanted to write a story

Buried deep in the business section of The Washington Post: E5

Not even my mother reads that far

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Nobody paid attentionBefore EnronAccounting scandals, not a big story

—yetStill, intriguedWhy was AOL official suspended?Who was PurchasePro?What was the accounting issue?

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Did what any reporter would doStarted calling aroundWould call one person who would tell

me to call someone elseThat someone else would tell me to

call so-and-soSo-and-so would tell me to call three

other people

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Eventually, I called one person“Hi, my name is Alec Klein, and I’m a

reporter at The Washington Post”Before I could say anything else:

“How did you find me?”Didn’t know I had found anyone until

he said those very wordsThen I realized: found my

anonymous tipster

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Other doors openedMet more peopleWasn’t glamorousDingy hotel lobbiesBad restaurants where they wouldn’t

be seen with a Washington Post reporter

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Spent a lot of time in one particular hotel lobby

Used public telephone So my calls couldn’t be traced back to

The Washington Post Sources were afraid of being seen or

heard talking to a Washington Post reporter

AOL was notorious for being more secretive than the Pentagon

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Always in that hotel lobbyShoes shinedReading the paperHad cell phone latched to belt, but

was always using the public telephone

Would ask for change in the gift shopStrange looksHotel thought: drug dealer

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Story began to come together like a jigsaw puzzle

Began to amass confidential documents Didn’t say “Smoking Gun” on them But pattern emerged AOL had been inflating its advertising

revenue to pull off the biggest merger in U.S. history to create the largest media company in the world

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AOL created the illusion of significant advertising revenue in part through questionable accounting practices

For example: AOL legal case, turned it into ad revenue

AOL sold ads on behalf of eBay but AOL booked the sales as its own

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Deals helped AOL clinch its historic merger with Time Warner

If AOL had revealed some of its financial weakness, Time Warner could have pulled out of the deal

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After nearly year, my editor called me into office

Wouldn’t it be nice…Should’ve run for the hillsVice president of finance?Ask question five times

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As far as we knew, never before had a newspaper pointed the finger at a major company’s finances

Usually a whistleblowerOr company comes clean If we were wrong by an inch, all over

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Before my stories ran, wrote a 21-page, single-spaced letter, presenting AOL with my findings to give the company an opportunity to respond

Included everything Such as: hair plants imported from South

America Bumped into Dick Parsons in the AOL

lobby Hadn’t even noticed him

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AOL ballistic High-powered law firm to kill stories Lead attorney known as the media killer Successful in fighting the media on other

big stories Involved in the famous case where 60

Minutes was prevented from airing a story about a tobacco whistleblower, which became the subject of the movie, The Insider

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Pretty nervousTold girlfriend, now mother of my

children, that this might be the last story I ever write

Len Downie: called into his officeDidn’t actually talk about anythingSmiled at each other Just wanted to know who was this

reporter causing this ruckus

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AOL and its lawyers came to The Washington Post

Why my stories should be killedHeading to the meeting: bumped

into the managing editor in the middle of the newsroom

Looked at me in utter shockHad shavedWas wearing a tieShirt buttoned all the way to the top

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Managing editor: “You look like a defendant”

He was rightCan’t discuss details of meetingBut can tell this:Len Downie talked about smoking

cigars with Fidel Castro. That set the tone

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Another thing: Meeting was held in the main newsroom conference room

On one wall, an old print plate: “Nixon Resigns”

On opposite wall, a framed classified ad, showing a picture of Gerald Ford

“I got my job through The Washington Post”

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Suffice it to say, The Washington Post didn’t back down

Newspaper went ahead and published my stories

Day of the first story, AOL’s chief operating officer was forced to resign

Call from an AOL official: Congrats. Jaws of death

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Within days, AOL confirmed the SEC had launched an investigation into AOL’s accounting as a result of my stories

Then the U.S. Justice Department launched an investigation because of my stories

Then AOL admitted it had improperly booked $49 million in ad revenue

Then: $190 million

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AOL was forced to revise two years of its financial results

Head of its business affairs division was locked out of his office and fired

Business affairs division that was the focus of my investigation was disbanded

Others went to jail

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Ultimately, the company was forced to pay more than half a billion dollars to settle civil and criminal allegations

They even removed AOL from company name

No longer: AOL Time Warner Just: Time Warner

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A term I invented to guide my reporting

Fair checkingAnother term I inventedPut yourself in their shoes Is it fair?Different than: Is it accurate?To wit: The paunch

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AOL investigationThreatening lettersSources run for the hillsTrack them downBegGrovelBut can’t threatenCan’t coerceOnly: Do what’s right

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Investigations on multiple platforms

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Develop your own system

Be your own best secretary It’s not glamorous

but someone has to do it

Keeping track of mounds of documents, notepads, calls—need to be organized

My system: Daily log Phone log Contact list Cork board▪ Visualize key players▪ Calendar▪ Themes

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The lede: Hours or days or weeks of anguish

Blood on the computer Should’ve done something else Work with hands Like a farmer

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LAS VEGAS -- Chastity Ferguson kept watch over four sleepy children late one Friday as she flipped a pack of corn dogs into a cart at her new favorite grocery store: Wal-Mart.

The Wal-Mart Supercenter, a pink stucco box twice as big as a Home Depot, combines a full-scale supermarket with the usual discount mega-store. For the 26-year-old Ferguson, the draw is simple.

"You can't beat the prices," said the hotel cashier, who makes $400 a week. "I come here because it's cheap."

Image by flickr user Lone Primate

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Classic anecdotal lede

Simple, straight forward

Nothing fancy about it

Quote that gets to the heart of the story: “You can’t beat the prices”

We can do this

The Los Angeles Times; that’s the lede from a series that won the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting

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Me in the old days: Frantically flipping through notebook searching for the lede

Not there Me now: Report the

lede beforehand so you don’t have to search for it later in your notes

To wit: Lede to Stealing Time--grumpy old man

WSJ approach to ledes: All about the purity of the

lede Must be exactly on point Not sort of the point

▪ Joke:▪ Colon▪ Question mark▪ Pithy-sentence lede

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KISS KeepItSimpleStupid

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Okay, enough about the torture of writing

Here’s an overlooked aspect of writing: Tone The sound of the story Rarely is it

premeditated It should be

THE BOY LOVES GAMES OF CHANCE. He loves slot machines and playing cards and instant-win lottery tickets. He learned at an early age to count coins, and to bet them. He learned in the hospital that money comes in get-well cards.

Lisa Pollak’s story Baltimore Sun Winner of the 1997

Pulitzer Prize for feature writing

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Read a book or other story that reflects what you’re doing

To wit: Writing about the civil war Read the classic, Killer Angels Wrote lede to reenactment of the

Gettysburg Battle Using old English Should’ve mentioned it to my editors

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Let’s Get Down to the Nitty Gritty: Organizing the investigative business

story How I do it:▪ Divide by interviewee▪ Annotate my own notes▪ Develop a detailed outline from the notes▪ Review and re-review the notes▪ Can take days—or weeks▪ But you have a roadmap

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The nut: everyone knows the nut, right?

How about the so-what graf: Otherwise known,

at least to me, as the cosmic point

The reason why we’re reading your story

Examples:▪ Greed▪ Hubris▪ Ambition

The To-Be-Sure Clause: Wall Street Journal thing The exception to the rule, or

the trend Up high To immunize yourself Because there’s always an


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Give the company or individual plenty of time to react and respond

Not enough to call the night beforeCall, e-mail, stop by—and repeatedlyTo wit: AOL

Six weeks, an eternity Risk: story leaks to competitors But must be done

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One of my last Washington Post investigations in 2008: Military contracting In desert in suit (not a good idea) Carrying notepad Digital camera Camcorder

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Everything I know about photography, I owe to Steve Liss, who taught me:

Now, we are all photographers When you’re shooting,

take a lot of pictures—at least 100 images

Camera is your notepad Record moments as

they unfold Don’t wait for the

perfect moment

The first way you view a scene is not always the best

Try different shooting angles Eye level From above on a chair From below on the floor Look for the inherent logic

of the shot;▪ eg,. a shot of giant

might be better from a higher angle

Don’t shoot everything from a wide angle

Look for other opportunities, such as close-ups, which can have more impact

Imagine, say, an expressive face

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We’re now all in the business of gathering audio Online audio stories Online audio with photos

—slideshows All you need:

A digital camera A digital recorder that

can connect to a computer to download audio files

Audio Slideshows: You need to show how the

story begins How the subject gets from

point A to B to C Show in the photos what the

audio is telling The photos must match the

audio So take lots of pictures Helps to ensure that images

match sound Usually: you don’t want a

single image to linger onscreen for more than 10 seconds

For a three-minute slideshow, plan for at least 18 photos

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There are two kinds of sound Natural sound, or “nats”▪ For a slideshow, you

usually need natural sound—eg., the sound of bacon frying in the background, the roar of the crowd

▪ Turn on the recorder, point it at the natural sound and capture a lot of it

▪ May help later during editing to bridge sections of your audio story

Interviews Beware of loud background

sound Move interview subject away

from that noise Hold the recorder close to the

subject, within a foot and a half

Avoid talking over the interviewee: “Uh huh” et al

If necessary: Nod head Beware of wind Stay away from yes or no

questions Ask open-ended questions:▪ Why?

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We are all videographers now Use a variety of focal lengths and angles

Establishing shot, wide, tells the viewer where the story is taking place

Medium shot: takes the viewer closer to the action

Tight: close up No zooms or pans Shoot and move: Zoom with your feet Limit motion of the camera; use set shots

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The rule of thirds: Divide the screen into thirds, with subject taking up one of the thirds—more visually arresting

Rule of 180 degrees Which way is the

subject’s nose pointing? Stay on that side Don’t switch sides Disorients viewer

Jump Cuts: Common mistake Two things don’t match

visually To wit: Person is in one

spot; in the next frame, he magically jumps to another spot

One way to avoid jump cuts: have person or action come into and out of frame before moving on

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Walk away from the storyPut yourself in the subject’s

shoesIs it fair?Go through the story line by lineDifferent than fact checking; it’s

all in the nuances

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The story may carry your name but it belongs to the paper, Web site, television station

It’s a communal project; must get buy in; editors must be on board

Must be willing to let go of the language; be amenable to change

One third of the investigative business story is the reporting

Another third is the writing The final third is the in-house hurdles

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Please feel free to contact me at [email protected]