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11 tips for successfully managing investigative projects

By Stephanie Ebbs

Investigative reporting is time-consuming and managing such laborious, long-term projects is a common concern for reporters and editors. The “Managing and Juggling Investigative Projects” panel addressed some of the ways journalists can incorporate investigative work while “feeding the beast” of daily news.

The panelists came from different types of news media but said time management is a concern across the board. Liz Roldan, news director for WFOR, Miami’s CBS affiliate, brought in the broadcast perspective. Sarah Karp from Catalyst Magazine in Chicago talked about  time management at a digital and print magazine focused on education coverage. Jennifer Forsyth, deputy chief of investigations for the Wall Street Journal, shared her experience as a newspaper reporter and editor.

The panelists emphasized efficient ways to work, and offered tools for integrating an investigative approach with daily news.

Six tips for reporters:

  • Take a bite. Not every investigative story has to be a massive undertaking. Investigative techniques can be used for daily stories, or investigative stories can be told one piece at a time. “If someone could write a book about it, don’t try to so a story on it,” said Sarah Karp.
  • Set aside time to work only on investigative tasks. Keep a list of tasks that you complete in spare time throughout the day. Forsyth said she sets aside two lunch hours a week to complete tasks she otherwise wouldn’t have time to do.
  • Keep an organized memo of your work including a timeline, notes, theories, and a log of records requests and sources contacted.
  • Know the question or questions you are trying to answer. Be able to talk about your story starting with “Because…”
  • Stay in touch with daily news for investigative potential or opportunities to contribute investigative expertise.
  • Know what documents and data are available. Keeping up with court documents, investigations, inspections, reports, audits, academic research and court documents means you know what’s out there, even if you don’t use most of it in a story. File records requests when you decide to pursue a topic and keep them organized with a tool like FOIA Machine.

Five tips for editors:

  • Ask yourself, “When is the best time for readers to see this?” This could include promoting the story on social media before and after publication or broadcast and considering when to set deadlines so the project will have the most impact.
  • Evaluate whether the story is worth the investment and demand a unique focus. Some questions to ask include:
    • Is there human drama?
    • Are we speaking truth to power?
    • Can we affect change?
    • Has our audience heard this before?
  • Set firm deadlines with reporters and keep the commitment. When a reporter delivers a draft, commit to editing it promptly. The goal is to complete the project, so emphasize a focused idea with a little flexibility instead of bouncing from idea to idea.
  • Involve key players like graphics, developers and photographers early in the process. Develop templates for breaking or developing news so you can focus on content.
  • Alternate developing news stories with more investigative angles. Protect reporters for 48 hours (or whatever deadline you set) so they can develop sources or get documents.

This isn’t a comprehensive list of tips, but there are lots of resources available. The IRE Conference Blog includes tips from previous conferences and the IRE website links to quick-turn and long-form investigative projects, including Behind the Story posts on how it all came together. You can also listen to the complete recording of this session (when it’s available).

 

Stephanie Ebbs is a second year graduate student focusing on investigative journalism and narrative writing at the Missouri School of Journalism, where she also earned her undergraduate degree in newspaper reporting. She considers herself somewhat of a renaissance woman in journalism, with interests in participatory journalism, political reporting, narrative storytelling and, of course, investigative reporting.

 

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