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3 leaders share 3 tips on how to build up your investigative unit

It’s a paradox of modern journalism.

For newsrooms struggling to stay afloat, an easy way to cut costs is to spend less on investigative reporting. Yet it’s often these watchdog stories that bring in (and keep) the biggest audience.

Many newsrooms across the country are devoting more and more resources to investigations. But it’s not an easy process.

We reached out to leaders at three news outlets to ask what they’ve learned expanding their investigative reach, and what they recommend for other newsrooms hoping to do the same.

1. Good investigations lead to good dailies

Paul McEnroe / Executive producer for investigations, KSTP-TV

For KSTP-TV in Minnesota, investigative journalism is the No. 1 priority. But making general assignment stories No. 2 doesn’t mean their dailies have suffered.

Just the opposite.

Why? Because when reporters are given the freedom to spend more time on investigations, they also have the space to discover dailies they might never have come across.

“The beast has to be fed,” said Paul McEnroe, an executive producer at KSTP-TV. “But you’re going to feed the beast better.”

Sure, they’ll occasionally take a pass at a run-of-the-mill local breaking news story, or at least settle for shooting some B-Roll a reporter can narrate later. And prioritizing investigations above all else means they have to plan their calendar weeks in advance.

But the results, like this investigation into a broken promise by the federal government, can yield big changes. After that investigation ran, local politicians promised millions of dollars to help fight terrorist recruiting efforts in Minnesota.

Bonus advice: Don’t wall off your investigative team. McEnroe has found that keeping all of his reporters working together in an open newsroom not only encourages the flow of ideas, but it also helps everyone feel like they have an equal shot when pitching ideas.

2. Partner up

Sandra Svoboda / Special assignments manager, WDET

Just because your newsroom is small, doesn’t mean you can’t investigate big things.

When Detroit was facing bankruptcy in 2014, five local news organizations – including the NPR affiliate WDET – teamed up to form the Detroit Journalism Cooperative. This not only increased the radio station’s ability to dig into one of the biggest stories in the country, but it allowed reporters to take advantage of other media.

“It’s hard to talk numbers on the radio,” said Sandra Svoboda, special assignments manager with WDET. But once they were working with outlets like Bridge Magazine and Detroit Public Television, their audio reporting could be paired with longform articles and TV graphics.   

This was, and is, incredibly hard to do. “Harnessing the infinite possibilities of digital is a challenge every day,” Svoboda said.

But it allowed projects like this examination of Detroit’s pension funds to run in multiple outlets and reach multiple audiences.

3. Hire leaders who understand storytelling

Joanne Lipman / Chief content officer, Gannett

There’s only one Chris Davis, the Pulitzer-winning editor Joanne Lipman hired to oversee all investigations for the USA TODAY NETWORK.

But the traits that Lipman found in Davis can be found elsewhere.

“We were looking for someone who can conceptualize ideas,” Lipman said. “Someone who knows where there’s a story, and who knows where there isn’t a story.”

This doesn’t just mean knowing when something smells fishy.

Lipman wanted to hire someone who could look past the data and see the people affected. Someone who knew how to file a FOIA, but who also knew where to find the drama, the characters, and the suspense found in any great narrative.

You also need someone who can see when there is, and is not, a national angle to a local story. But when there is a national angle, you can end up with a documentary project like “Gone,” which combines investigative reporting with a heartbreaking narrative.  


Blake Nelson in a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism and a digital contributor for IRE. You can reach him at

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