How to find stories in a new market

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GUEST POST

Kyle Grainger is a reporter and weather forecaster at WVLT in Knoxville, TN. He’s done almost every job in the newsroom from the assignment desk, to producing to anchoring.

I believe reporters have to get to know a wide variety of people in the community they serve. You may not have an interest in something, but your viewers do, and if you show an interest they’ll appreciate it. Once they feel you are one of them, they’ll call you with their story ideas.

This means, go to the football game on a Friday night and mingle with the crowd, even if football isn’t your thing. Simply hang out in the diverse places where your community hangs out.

I don’t circle myself with other reporters, I see all the time media people hanging with media people.  Circle yourself with the people in the know. This is lunch, dinner, drinks with the mayor, congressman, etc yes this means building trust, but again once trust is built they’ll give you a few nuggets to report on, or dig into at least. Back to my previous point you’ll make those connections by going to those special events.

Read minutes from community meetings, we can’t make every meeting, but read public comments and see what issues people brought forward. There’s usually a story here.  Go to the courthouse! Make friends with the judges, lawyers and even the ladies who file all those court papers. They have lots of gossip, sometimes pretty good.

This is last point is where I think news directors and producers should take note, the story that we didn’t put the post effort into, maybe it’s not the lead lead, but give them a reason to watch!  I have covered small VO’s & VO/SOT’s that were worth 15 seconds at most on TV, maybe just the web, but because I was the only person who cared, they now care about me. Those same people at the ribbon cutting, hospitality luncheon, or Civitan Club scholarship awards are the people who go home to watch to see their story. Even better, they now like you and they now call you every time they have a story.

So my point, know your community, know the players, and in all reality LIVE in the community you serve. I know it’s tough to know everything in the small town one hour away, but those people are the people watching and have needs too. I’m proud to say I did it here in my market. After about a year working here, I break all the stories in a county we never used to win. This was how I did it, not by reading the paper.

Finding investigative stories

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GUEST POST:
Jody Barr has worked as an investigative reporter for nearly a decade and is currently working for the FOX affiliate in Cincinnati. In 2006, he started out at the CBS affiliate in Myrtle Beach, SC before moving to the NBC affiliate in Columbia in 2009. Jody has been working in Cincinnati since June 2014. His investigative reporting beat focuses on government spending and accountability, with a concentration in corruption, fraud, waste and abuse of tax dollars and the public trust.
Do you ever see an investigative report and wonder: where the hell did they find that? How do you find the news that someone doesn’t want told?

Consultants label this “investigative journalism” and want it branded in newscasts as something extraordinary. It is. Only because—generally—folks have gotten away from the basics of journalism: holding the powerful accountable. It’s 101.

So, how do you find those reports? The really good ones come along after you’ve established a reputation as someone capable of handling these types of reports. Viewers and the people with the information hold onto the goods until they see they can trust a journalist with the information—and won’t get burned by blowing the whistle.

You have to remember: a source is likely hinging his/her livelihood on your promise to keep them confidential. Do not ever break that or you’re dead in this business. If you aren’t willing to spend a little time in jail in order to protect one, then you might want to stick to general assignment.

It’s that important.

START SMALL

The key is—like with anything else in life—take baby steps. It’s unlikely you’ll end up with a multiple-part investigative series off the bat. Plus, you’d likely not know how to handle it without some experience in dealing with this type of journalism.

Look for angles that deal with tax dollars, how they’re spent and who’s spending them. Those investigations are always easy sells to management and often don’t take much time to produce.

Governmental budgets are investigative reporting mine fields. Just ask yourself when you’re looking over a budget: does this expenditure make sense? Is this something taxpayers would be okay with?

One of the best places to look these days are community Facebook pages. There are tons of locals who interact on there and who provide avenues to be investigated. If something’s amiss in a community, Facebook is usually the first to know. Join those groups and just watch what’s posted. Always read the comments—they’re goldmines for tips, leads and potential sources and interviews.

When you’re first starting out, don’t be afraid to pursue a story you’ve seen in the paper. You just have to do that report differently. Track down the angles the paper didn’t pursue. Look for ways to hold someone accountable. Odds are, the paper didn’t do that. That’s a wide open opportunity to make your version stand out and be memorable. You never know what else you could dig up simply by pursuing the same report.

Look over government meeting agendas. Look for executive session items and who that session is dealing with. It’s often an employee discipline matter. If so, file a FOIA for that person’s employee file.The answers are likely in there.

Executive sessions might deal with the government body’s legal consultation on plans to spend millions on a piece of property that holds an actual value of far less. Look for who owns that property, then look for who that person might have given campaign cash to. You never know where sniffing out a deal like that might lead you.

Whatever you do, do not ignore tips that are called and/or emailed into the newsroom. For every 10 crazy calls, there is likely one golden nugget somewhere in there. You’ll know pretty quickly whether it’s a wasted call, but you have to take the chance.

Whatever you do, hold a strong social media presence. Provide your cell number and email upfront in your bio. Be responsive to private messages containing tips. State clearly in your bio what your reporting preferences are. As you get going, people will send you tips and leads.

I’d also suggest checking your station’s Facebook and Twitter messages and comment postings. As with the community pages I mentioned earlier, there could be the next big break lying one click away.

Learn your state’s Freedom of Information Act. You’ll need it to find the official documentation to answer most of the leads you’ll investigate. Be nosey, then file FOIAs.

THE BIGGEST CHALLENGE

The most frustrating part of this is finding your way as you enter your brand new market. You’re new. You don’t know anyone. You’re essentially source-less. Don’t panic.

Investigations beget investigations. You have to be patient. It’s a long, tough road because not only are you battling the pressures of finding reportable, substantive news, you’re also battling management over time to do what you have to do. Do it on your own time if you have to.

INSTITUTIONAL KNOWLEDGE

I moved to a new market in an entirely different state. I came with nothing by way of sources or contacts. I had no institutional knowledge of Cincinnati or the two other states we cover. I was extremely nervous about taking the leap from the comfort of South Carolina—a place I knew well with contacts in just about all 46 counties.

From a decade of reporting in SC, I knew exactly what happened from the time a warrant is sworn out; who would be serving it and where it would be held after the person’s arrest. I learned exactly where all three copies of a state traffic ticket went. I learned where the State Law Enforcement Division parked the SWAT truck—and made a friend with someone who worked in an office within eyeshot of it so I knew when it left the garage.

I say all that to say, learn the institutional processes in your market. It’ll help you uncover things your competitors will have no idea how to find until you report it. That’s also investigative journalism. It’s taking a topical news item and going a level or two deeper—places no one’s thinking to look. You’ll know where to find search warrants after they’ve been executed. You’ll know where to get copies of affidavits in murder cases before anyone gets their hands on it.

By beating the other guys consistently, viewers and potential whistle blowers will view you as someone to be relied upon. That goes toward building your reputation.

When I get a tip these days, the first thing I ask myself is: “Who’s responsible?” Answering that question will lead you to whom to hold accountable. There’s always someone whose job it was to make sure whatever got screwed up, didn’t.

Go after that.

This is a post from November 2015. It seemed like really good info to remember in our current journalism climate.

NPPA Workshop Notes: Part 3

By: Mandy Mitchell

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I really enjoyed listening to Chris Vanderveen speak at the NPPA workshop. Chris is an investigative reporter at KUSA in Denver and has really made a name for himself in the investigative world even though he’s only been in that arena for a short period of time.

Chris is a real storyteller and doesn’t do the stereotypical stuff like holding up documents or screaming about how exclusive his interview is. He tries to stay away from investigative clichés like “PARENT’S WORST NIGHTMARE!!” and “SHOCKING DETAILS!!!”…

The really cool part about Chris’ reporting is that it has led to some major change. His story on helicopter crashes got the attention of Congress!

He based his entire presentation around the old Wendy’s commercial “Where’s the beef?!”

That’s a great place to start for any us who work in this business. We need to do more with the meat and less with the other crap.

So here are my raw notes. Once again, feel free to ask for more context in the comment section or on the Facebook page. I encourage you to follow Chris on Twitter: @Chrisvanderveen


3 C’s of Storytelling:

  • Character
  • Conflict
  • Consistency of Theme

-We need these three things for a great story.

Let’s stay away from these phrases: “He is 85 years young”…”Makeshift memorial”…”More questions than answers..” (YUCK!)

-There are cameras everywhere these days. If you are working on a story, ask for surveillance video. You would be surprised how many things are actually caught on tape. Can truly add to a story. (Chris used this in a hit and run story)…

-None of us got in to this business to cover stories on the surface level. We do too much surface level reporting in TV news and that is CRUSHING US.

-It’s important to have curiosity. Ask a question no one else is asking.

-We have all become “fact regurgitators”

-Interesting fact. KUSA has very little b-roll of the Aurora shooting. Why? They were going live the entire time. We need to think about that when something big happens. Yes…cover the “now” but also think about what’s next.

The Art of following up…

  • We cover too much crime on the front end. Follow up and find out how cases end.
  • Keep a list of stories that could have follow ups.
  • Monitor court cases
  • tell stories others have forgotten.

 

 

 

Basics of public records

It is Sunshine Week and we are celebrating with some really great information about public records from WRAL investigative journalist Tyler Dukes. I sat down with him for about a half hour to talk about what young journalists should know about public records and how you can learn to use them.

You can follow Tyler at @MTDukes on twitter.

You can follow along with Sunshine Week at @Sunshineweek

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Q: Why is Sunshine week important to journalists?

A: Sunshine week is our annual reminder about why we do this stuff. I think there is a greater awareness of the fact these records are accessible to the public than there was 10 years ago, 20 years ago. Sunshine week is our opportunity to educate the public and for us to reeducate ourselves, as journalists, government officials and citizens about what the laws are that govern transparency.

This doesn’t just apply to public records. This is also open meetings, which are extremely important. The decisions public officials are making on your county level, on your state level, on your city level…all of these things are done with this idea that open government is better government. That’s a value that journalists and citizens share and frankly a lot of people in government share too.

Q: For a lot of people who are getting into the business, this is a very intimidating subject. How do you even begin?

A: I think the attitude we try to approach public records with is that if it is created by the government, it belongs to us. It’s important to know public records law typically applies on a state by state basis, so unless you are asking for a federal record which is a FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) issue, you’re typically going to be dealing with laws that are different state by state.

In North Carolina, what’s nice, is this idea that “records are default public” is sort of written into our law. Some states have lesser degrees of that.

There are many exceptions to this. There’s patient privacy, there’s academic privacy, there are issues surrounding criminal investigations, but at least in North Carolina those exceptions have to be explicitly laid out and the people who respond to our requests have to point to them.

Really this should make sense internally because our tax dollars have paid for the creation of these records. They’re ours. We are entitled as citizens to access them, to copy them and to use them to expose the inner workings of government good and bad.

So I think really the most important thing if you want to be a reporter who makes use of public records pretty often is you want to come at this with an attitude of “these already belong to me,” and it’s contingent upon the public official to convince you otherwise. That tends to help you in the negotiation.

Q: What should a reporter do if they have their public records request wrongly decline?

A: It is important to remember sometimes, depending on who you are dealing with, if you are dealing records on a city or county level you may have public officials who don’t really know public records law. This is an opportunity for you as a journalist to say “well no actually that is not how this works. There is a state records law.”

You don’t have to be a jerk about it. My default stance a lot of times is “polite insistence.” I try to make sure I am very polite, very straight forward about what I want. Sometimes it does require you to point to a specific law. I think in North Carolina specifically, the public records law is not terribly long and it’s not a bad read as general statutes go. So it helps to know the state law for your specific state with regard to public records. That’s a good starting point because you can literally point to those statutes.

The other thing is to sort of act in good faith. I have argued with many a public records officer about these issues, but one of the things I hope they understand from the very beginning is that I am not trying to make their job harder. I am trying to do my job. I also recognize sometimes accessing and copying or pulling down public records, be it emails or whatever it may be, it does take work on the part of public officials. One of the things I do try to do is make sure the request I am making is as narrowly tailored as I can make it. That doesn’t mean we are always making small requests. Sometimes we are making very large requests, but I typically want to communicate with that public records officer and say hey look, if you have suggestions on how to make this easier, I am all ears. I will consider those. I am not going to back down from what I want but I do want them to know I am arguing in good faith.

Q: Is it important for your station to have legal backing in case something does go wrong? What about smaller stations without access to lawyers?

 A: Having lawyers on your side is a hell of a thing. I think here at WRAL we are in an ideal place because we have sued over public records. In fact we are in the middle of a lawsuit right now. That is getting rarer and rarer so what you are seeing is we are entering into the lawsuit with a coalition of news organizations, but you don’t need lawyers. Things have to get pretty bad because a lot of times people will clam up when you start to think about lawyers.

 A lot of times you have the ability to go in and argue on the legality of public records without including legal counsel and that is just done by pointing to the law.

 Q: Where is the best place for a  young journalist to go to learn the law in his or her state?

 A: One good place is the Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press. They have a couple of really great resources including generators that allow you to type in some basic details and will generate a public records request for you or a FOIA request for you. They also have a detailed breakdown state by state of how the records laws work.

Another great resource you might think about is looking at what is typically called “open government coalition” or something along those lines. In North Carolina that’s what it is. It tends to be collection of news organizations and municipalities and counties and other government groups who are all interested in open government.

Q: How do you get to the point when using public records becomes second nature and almost fun?

A: I think probably the first document you get where you really see a story, a big story that no one else has, that you found and you are able to report that out and tell a great story…I think that becomes a real driver. Because it stops becoming a battle for pieces of paper and becomes a battle for true intelligence about government and the way government operates.

I would say on Sunshine week, take the opportunity to submit a public records request to your school or to your city or county or your state. It’s a really great learning experience.

 

Useful links:

Sunshine Week

Student Law Press Center

Reporter’s Committee for Freedom of the Press