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Tips for small newsrooms and freelancers wanting to take on big investigations

By Reade Levinson

How do you begin investigative reporting when you’re short on cash? Start by searching Google for documents tagged “confidential.”

At the “Investigative Reporting on a Shoestring” panel, past and present freelancers — including Lee Fang from The Intercept, Kathryn Joyce, a freelance journalist and author of two books, Trevor Aaronson from the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, and Kelly Virella and Seth Wessler from the Investigative Fund — shared strategies for independent journalists on cultivating sources, building a beat, and finding low-cost legal advice.

Or, as moderator Esther Kaplan phrased it, how to turn your army of one into a large, ad hoc army of many.

Joyce spoke about how past work acts as a calling card, especially now that “more sophisticated sources are making decisions about who they trust to tell their stories based on what they read of you.” Understand that your sources are assessing you, and:

  • Have long conversations, and be willing to listen to stories that don’t immediately seem relevant. The longer people talk, the more they open up and the more naturally eloquent they get.

  • Start by casting a wide net. “Imagine that you’re learning about your subject for the first time, and figure out who you need to talk to.”

  • Every issue has it’s own online community, and you can listen in when those forums are public.

Fang talked about finding documents online, made (often unintentionally) public by private organizations. Start with document sharing websites like:

Wessler talked about finding cheap legal counsel to help with FOIA requests. Lawyers are often willing to help independent journalists because:

  • A FOIA suit is a great way to get a young lawyer into court, and the amount of work is fairly minimal.

  • Lawyers look for (pro bono) work that makes them feel like they’re doing good in the world, and investigative stories can do that.

Aaronson emphasized building up a beat as a way to make it easier to find and sell stories. Technology has “torn down the barriers for independent journalists,” as well as made it easier (and cheaper!) to protect sources. Use no-cost smartphone apps (Telegram? WhatsApp?) to talk to sources on encrypted channels.

Virella talked about bringing on interns as a way to build out a newsroom at low cost. “If you have a good training program and really great procedures for insuring the integrity of your work,” she said, “you can do so much with working with someone who has virtually no experience working in journalism.”

Virella listed two organizations she’s used for legal advice:

  • The Online Media Legal Network, part of Harvard University’s Berkman Center, has a network of legal clinics and pro bono media attorneys that offer help to nonprofits with a yearly budget below $250,000 or individuals making $45,000 or per year.

  • Different Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts programs are also “totally willing to work on media related stuff” offer drop-in clinics and legal advice for a $100 membership fee.

Key takeaway: “People really want to help” independent journalists.


Reade Levinson is a graduate student at Stanford University and a data intern at Thomson Reuters. As a radio reporter, she traveled to the Calais “Jungle” to report on an emerging program to teach refugees reporting skills so they can produce their own stories.

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