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Managing ongoing investigations at the local level

By John Sadler

Keeping a focus on your local coverage area can be difficult in the current information climate — idea generation, watchdogging and source cultivation all need to be juggled.

In Thursday’s panel “Putting your town under a microscope — and keeping it there,” John Diedrich of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Matt Kiefer of The Chicago Reporter and Kate Howard of the Kentucky Center for Investigative Reporting shared tips for comprehensively covering your community.

First, double-check your archives. There’s nothing worse than diving into a topic to find it was already done a year before you got the job.

“You’re probably super smart — I’m sure your ideas are amazing — but there are also other people who may have had it, so make sure you’re looking first to see who else has done your beat well,” Howard said.

Flood the zone

Howard said an invaluable method of ensuring widespread coverage is spreading your reporting efforts across your community. Ask for employee lists and salary data so you can add context if crisis hits a certain agency or organization. Ask for emails, even if you don’t necessarily need them.

Record retention documents are also invaluable to request because they may give information on why records requests could be denied (and, therefore, may give you information on how to argue your case). Requesting lists of audits, both internal and external, completed and planned, will give you a sense of problems within the agency.

Reading meeting minutes and agendas is one way to stay up to date on things you may have missed, Howard said. She also stressed reading your competitors not with an eye for what you’ve been scooped on, but with an eye on what you can add to the story that’s now been brought to the public’s attention.

Fight for records

Kiefer, the data editor for the Chicago Reporter, said to make a courtesy phone call before the records request to try to clear up the format of the request, and reverse-engineer public forms to figure out what the records might look like.

If that fails, Kiefer gets creative. “If they give you pushback about exporting the data, like electronically, what I’ll often do is ask them what kind of software they use and then look up the user manual for that software and send it to them.”

Don’t neglect the human element

Follow up on your project — treat your stories like updating data sets and keep them relevant. And don’t hide from criticism.

“I think (engaging with critics) makes an impression on people that you own your stories and you’re willing to step up for them,” Howard said.

Diedrich, who worked on the Journal-Sentinel’s “Burned” investigation into drum reconditioning facilities (which relied heavily on whistleblowers), said scheduling time for source cultivation works wonders.

“I really try to carve out time to go out with sources and do source lunches on a regular basis,” he said. “The best place, for not just cops but really any beat, is to hang around a courthouse because it is just like a feeding frenzy of sources and news tips.”

John Sadler is a journalism student at the University of Missouri.

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