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Wendi C. Thomas @wendi_c_thomas
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And the @IBWellsSociety investigative reporting workshop is off! Ron Nixon dropping knowledge on how to do investigations while also covering your beat. #NABJ2018 @NABJ
@nixonron: Use social media not just to promote your brand but also as a reporting tool.
@nixonron: Nurture your sources. Don’t just call when you’re on deadline. Call regularly. If a source’s mother dies, it’s OK to send a sympathy card. Be human.
Nixon: Don’t ignore local watchdogs (or even conspiracy theorists, but don’t get led down the wrong path).

File FOIAs to get: Permits, schedules of elected officials.

(I like to FOIA what’s been FOIA’ed.)

Turn to local colleges for experts.
Nixon: Look for audits, budgets, budget justifications.

He noticed that legal fees in Henry County, VA jumped by 200% in one year and that led to a major story exposing serious corruption.
Nixon: Other useful documents and data - Look for contracts, lawsuits, agency directories and old directories - people who have left can tell you where the bodies are buried.
Nixon: When you start on a beat, go to the govt/agency office and get a copy of every form they use. You want to see what kind of info they collect and that can help you tailor your FOIA requests.
More useful docs: Campaign finance, lobbying records, org charts, nonprofit 990 tax docs
@ProPublica Nonprofit Explorer is an excellent tool for looking up any nonprofit in the country.
More docs: Get the payroll database and the contractor databases.
Nixon: Another resource is FedBizOpps that shows what fed govt is looking for.
Nixon talked earlier about figuring out whether you’re writing about a bad apple or a rotten barrel - is this a single bad actor or a system that’s fundamentally broken?

Too much journalism is bad apples. That gotcha journalism that you see during sweeps.
And I think powerbrokers count on overworked journalists to flip out on the single sensational outrageous incident, because then we don’t look at the inherently broken systems. Those stories take a lot more time and may not be as sexy.
Nixon: Request all your documents electronically, because in MS you can turn off redactions and you might get what you’re not supposed to have.
Now up at @NABJ: @mjrochester, investigations editor at @freep, on FOIAs. (He was also one of my first editors at @indystar a zillion years ago.) #NABJ2018
Rochester: FOIAs are an important tool and if journalists aren’t using them, they’re doing readers and the public a disservice.

That said, don’t just be out here filing public records requests all willy nilly. (I’m paraphrasing.)
Rochester: Find out who the people are who collect the info, who the real keepers of knowledge are on your beat . Don’t rely on PR folks to tell you, they may not be helpful.

Don’t think you can make these relationships on deadline. Do the legwork up front.
Rochester: Know the open records law in your state.

Here’s one site:…
Here’s another source to find out your state’s open records law.…
(These are sites I’m recommending, not Rochester.)

Also, find out what the appeals process is. In Michigan, there’s a state agency that says it has no appeals process, so if it won’t give you the document, then...
Rochester: Scale your request appropriately.

The more streamlined your request is, the more quickly you’ll get it back. Ask for what you NEED for the story.
Rochester: Request calendars, lawsuits, communications with vendors, surveillance tapes, anything that captures the business of a public body.

(This is reminding me of how many public records requests of mine that a certain city government is sitting on. Gr.)
Q: How do you negotiate the cost of a public records request?

Rochester: The law requires that they find the lowest-paid, most-qualified employee who can do the work. They’ll push back if that employee makes $30/hour.
Rochester: A school district wanted $700 for some emails, so he pushed back and the district came back and was like yeah, it’ll be $43.
Nixon: He FOIAs the FOIA log, so he can see if someone has already asked for the info he’s asking for. The agency can’t (shouldn’t) charge him for data that’s already been collected.
Rochester: Keep a log of your requests - when you put in the request, what the response was, etc.

(This is the part I don’t do well so then I’m searching through emails to try to find what was requested in what FOIA. Don’t be me.)
Rochester: Agencies only have to give you information they’ve already collected. They don’t have to CREATE documents/records for you.
Here’s the result of months and months of FOIAs by @mjrochester and his team at @freep .…
If y’all don’t watch nothing else today, watch the video in this story and listen to how this cop talked about a 15-year-old who was dying in the street after police tased him.

This story was made possible by FOIAs, @mjrochester says.

Nice work, @freep. @IBWellsSociety @NABJ
@nixonron tells us to follow @JasonLeopold, a FOIA expert.
Now we’re back to @nixonron and Ashley (going to find out her last name) of the @nytimes who covers police.
This guy in the photo is responsible for Watergate. Frank Willis, the security guard, who discovered there’d been a break-in at the Watergate building. It’s the little people we forget, @nixonron - they know everything.
Nixon: Everyone wants to talk to the high-up folks, but start at the bottom. Sourcing starts at the bottom. Talk to the janitors, hairdressers, the cafeteria lady.
Nixon: They know everything and they’re invisible. People conduct their business in front of these workers.
Sourcing is constant. Talk to other parents at softball games. Keep plenty of business cards - make it easy for people to reach you.

Talk to people who used to be at whatever org/agency you’re investigating. They know how those orgs work and can connect you to other sources.
@nhannahjones: Use former employees to help you tailor your FOIAs. They can give you the language to use to ask for the right records.
Nixon: Sourcing rules - Be kind. If they have a baby, send a card. If you show them respect, they’ll show you respect.
Q: What about sources who may get too friendly?

@nhannahjones she spends a lot of time with sources, may be following them and their kids to school, etc. important to set boundaries and define the terms.
@nhannahjones Define the terms - they may not know what off the record/on background means. Make it very clear that you’re working.

Politicians may understand how we work, but regular folks may not.
Nixon on sourcing rules: Don’t lie, don’t promise things you couldn’t do, don’t misrepresent yourself or the story.
Nixon: People are risking a lot to tell us stuff. Important to have multiple sources on a single story, because sometimes sources disappear.
@nhannahjones Find a point of commonality and use that to build rapport. Share a little bit about yourself (w/in reason) so that people will relax.

Reporting shouldn’t be about an extraction, where we’re just taking from the sources and giving nothing of ourselves
Nixon: Sources serve different purposes. Some are only on background, some are on the record.
Listen. @GCoyFOX13 be in these investigative reporting seminars (I ran into him at IRE in Florida and an IRE workshop MS and now we’re in Detroit at @NABJ @IBWellsSociety) asking all the questions.
@nhannahjones The bar has to be high for her to use an unnamed source. She thinks we’re using too many, gives public reason not to trust us.

For example, does it make sense to use an unnamed source for the story about Melania not being able to watch CNN on Air Force One?
Nixon: Remember that your sources have an agenda (not necessarily a bad one). Background your sources.

Ask your sources: How do you know this? Did you hear this from somebody, or did you see it yourself?
Nixon: Most of his sources won’t talk unless you’re on Signal.

But, if you’re going to use it: Set your messages to delete after a certain period of time!!!
Nixon/Hannah-Jones: Police can make you use your fingerprint to open your phone, but they can’t force you to enter your passcode

(FWIW: I don’t trust people who knowingly hand over all their biometric data to the government or private companies. What’s up with that?)
Advice: Throw away your notes after a certain amount of time. But be consistent - don’t keep some notes and toss others. That could be a problem if you get sued and you’ve only tossed notes for sensitive/important stories.
This abundance of caution may sound paranoid, but just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean you’re not being watched.

Proof: 3 Memphis journalists (including me) are in these MPD joint intelligence briefings.…
Two job announcements here for investigative reporters with 5 years experience - Better Government and St. Louis Public Radio. That’s all I know. Y’all investigate and get some benefits.
And now, @nhannahjones is going to tell us about how to manage and pitch your investigative project.

Got a great idea? Itching to tell your editor?

Report first, talk later. Do some reporting on your own time to figure out what the story is.

Among the questions you need to be able to answer:

Why do we care?
Who is being harmed and who is doing the harm?
Is the data available and what would it take to get it?
@nhannahjones: What has been written about this before?

JOC don’t have a high margin of error, plus editors don’t want to free up beat reporters to do projects, so don’t sabotage yourself.
@nhannahjones: What are the docs you need? What’s available? File the FOIAs before you pitch your editor. Figure out what you can deliver and manage your editor’s expectation.

You’re asking your editor to take a chance and to let you do something you haven’t done before.
She wanted to look at school desegregation orders to be able to prove that segregation was intentional, that it was the product of choices.
The data, provided by an academic, needs a narrative. No good if you have all this data and the story is dry af and no one wants to read it.

(I’m paraphrasing but it’s Nikole so only slightly.)
Hannah Jones: A story with number and stats doesn’t lead to the kind of outrage that will lead to change.

“Data and documents are good but characters matter.”
If you haven’t read everything @nhannahjones has written and watched every talk she’s given, get your life.

Start with this video:… @IBWellsSociety @NABJ #NABJ18
Investigative reporting is a lot of work but also about luck.

The day she went to interview a key black judge/source, news had just broken that his granddaughter had been shut out of the white sorority she wanted to join. He was in the mood to talk and DID.
Once you’ve gotten your data, your characters/narrative, then go to your kitchen cabinet - colleagues, family, friends - and then pitch them. Let them pick your story apart.

Then get your elevator pitch.
Two brave souls made their elevator pitch in real time. And then Nikole shared her pitch for her school segregation story -it was like 3 sentences but I couldn’t get a good pic because I bogarded my way into the room and got a facilities dude to bring in a chair so... 🤷🏽‍♀️
The nice folks at @IBWellsSociety are going to share the slides from all of the presentations we heard today.
Now would be a good time to share that thanks to the support of @Surdna_Fndn, @MLK50Memphis will be producing a series of explanatory/investigative reports on poverty, power and public policy in Memphis, the nation’s poorest large metro. Look for the first piece by January.
This will be a follow-up to the year of incredible journalism my team did leading up to the 50th anniversary of the death of MLK, who came to Memphis to support underpaid public employees - specifically black sanitation workers.
We’ll be building on the data compiled by @ProPublica on bankruptcy and @MLK50Memphis on our living wage survey.…
Back to @nhannahjones: She uses Google docs/spreadsheets to manage all her contacts for stories. Spreadsheet will include who told her to call the source, what she needs to ask them, email addresses, phone numbers, etc.
She also keeps a spreadsheet of quotes she plans to use. Better than flipping through a stack of notebooks on deadline.

Also does a chronology that includes the docs (with an assigned number) so she knows where her facts are. Plus a running to do list.
Get caught up on Nikole’s work at @ProPublica here:…
Footnote your work as you’re doing it. When it’s time to fact check, her spreadsheets allow her to go directly to the right document and the page number.

She says she didn’t do this with her 10K word piece and it took as long to fact check it as it did to write it.
NHJ: Doesn’t believe your job should be your life. We waste a lot of time - doing investigative reporting is about managing your time better.

(*thinks briefly about deleting Twitter app from phone*)
NHJ: If you’re doing real reporting (i.e. not sitting at your desk), you can work in the source development and other stuff w/o having to clear everything by your editor.

I sense she subscribes to the “ask forgiveness, not permission” school of editor management.
If a story isn’t panning out in a month, you might want to give up/pull the plug. Editors aren’t going to give us (journalists of color) a second chance, NHJ says.

This is true and sad. But @IBWellsSociety is about to unleash a whole squad of IJOC ready to do this work!
Everyone wants to work at the national publications, but the real accountability reporting can be done on the local levels.

Brother shouts out an investigative reporting job at Louisville Public Radio.
Ron and Nikole encouraged folks to apply for these investigative reporting jobs even if you’re not totally sure you’re qualified. Don’t take yourself out of the running b/c you don’t have what you think are investigative clips.
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